In Defense of Mid-Century Modern

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At the corner of Pickens and Gervais streets in downtown Columbia, there stands a Queen Anne mansion. The home is uniquely Victorian with a high turret and cedar-shingled roofline. There are few people in Columbia who, today, would say the house is anything short of beautiful.

If you traveled back in time to 1917 to that same street corner, this building would be one of many Victorian homes. However, as tastes and technologies changed, these homes fell out of fashion. In fact, they were often labeled “tacky” and fell prey to the wrecking ball of “progress”.

If a community tore down every building that fell out of fashion, the built landscape would more closely resemble an Etch-a-Sketch than a city. There is a tendency to preserve only the “best” examples of an architectural style or period. Exceptional structures deserve praise and recognition, yes, but so do commonplace buildings. Preserving the corner store or bus station gives us a better idea of the full context of a community – of all the pieces that make up the whole. The preservation of the grand and the vernacular provides us with this wide span of context.

In June, the City of Columbia’s Planning Commission voted to approve a development plan for eight blocks of Main Street south of the State House. Overall the plan addresses much needed changes to the area; however, in doing so it not only ignores but portrays the demolition of several Mid-Century buildings, which may be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Mid-Century was Columbia’s moment. Stepping out of the shadow of the Civil War and into a rapidly-changing world, the city’s attentions turned to modernization—to catching up with the rest of the country. Major Southern hubs such as Atlanta and Raleigh were constructing Modern government offices, higher education facilities, homes and hotels. With the construction of Cornell Arms in 1949 by Lyles, Bissett, Carlisle & Wolff, Columbia stepped into the stoplight of this building boon. Standing at the corner of Senate and Pendleton streets, Cornell Arms was touted as the tallest building between Richmond and Orlando. People took notice of this—they prized the apartments as being the finest, most technically and spatially innovative in the city.

Just down the street from Cornell is the James F. Byrnes International Center. Built in 1957, Byrnes originally housed federal government offices for the region. It was with this building that the government chose to represent itself. Gone were the looming columns and dark doorways. Instead, Byrnes’s lobby is made of glass. It’s literally a transparent government building. There was nothing else like it in Columbia. Nowhere else could you peer through glass and see government officials going about their daily lives—you could see your tax dollars in motion.

The buildings on South Main encapsulate what it meant to be alive during a tumultuous, rapidly-changing point in history. If we lose our Mid-Century landscape, we ignore the importance of this transition and in the process set ourselves on the track to make the same mistakes as those who demolished the Queen Anne homes that once defined Gervais Street. It takes an appreciation of the past, even the recent past, to establish an informed context for the future.

To learn more about Mid-Century Modern architecture in Columbia and to get involved in preservation efforts, visit historiccolumbia.org.

By Lois Carlisle, Historic Columbia

This article was originally published in The Columbia Star.

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Turning Heads: Columbia’s First Mid-Century Masterpiece

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By Lois Carlisle, Historic Columbia
At the northwest corner of Assembly and Laurel streets stands one of the earliest examples of Modern architecture in Columbia. The Veterans Administration Regional Office Building (VARO), with its sleek, horizontal lines and use of innovative building techniques, was the first of its kind in the capital city. At the time of its construction in 1949, the VARO would have featured prominently on the city’s shifting skyline. Imagine looking up from the bottom of Arsenal Hill and seeing such a building—one whose design linked it with that of other major cities in the United States –Atlanta, Raleigh, Richmond, and most importantly with Washington DC. Satellite or regional offices for Federal agencies were new at the time. To generate a sense of authority, the VARO’s architects aligned its design with that of the newest additions to the nation’s capital.

One of the most distinct features of the building is the granite relief sculpture at its entrance. Edmond Amateis, a Beaux-Arts trained sculptor for numerous War Memorials and works for the Department of Commerce Building in DC, completed the piece in 1952. The work depicts an agricultural allegory in South Carolina with Dr. Thomas G. Clemson, the prominent farmer, instructing scientific agriculture. The work depicts symbols and images that represent equal rights and opportunity African Americans amidst South Carolina crops and agriculture.

Previously the Veterans Administration offices were located outside of the city at Fort Jackson. By building the VARO in the heart of downtown’s commercial district, it became easier for veterans to access healthcare, military benefits, and housing services. The location of the building itself allowed for increased visibility not only with clientele, but also with the general public. This building was proof that the federal government not only had a presence in South Carolina, but a vital one.
The VARO’s architects were LaFaye, LaFaye, & Fair and Stork & Lyles—the latter being the precursor firm for Lyles, Bisset, Carlisle, & Wolff (LBC&W). The Columbia-based LBC&W was one of the most prominent architecture firms in the Southeast, with a prolific body of work that shaped South Carolina skylines for decades. (If you’ve seen Cornell Arms, the Palmetto Club, Russell House, Claire Towers, Thomas Cooper Library, or the VARO’s neighbor, Columbia’s Main Post Office, then you are familiar with the firm’s body of work. If your house sits in Forest Acres, then you might live in an LBC&W original.)

The VARO Building holds significance for its function as a pivot point for federal architecture in Columbia. Prior to the VARO’s construction, the city’s government buildings were executed in the Renaissance Revival Style. LBC&W veered from the traditionalist mode of construction and opted for a sleek, linear form which reflected the contemporary, dynamic values of the federal government’s new post-WWII agencies. In other words: the VARO was sexy.
Currently, this ground-breaking, style-shifting, emblem of a generation stands empty. In 2015, upon learning that the General Services Administration (GSA) was calling for the building’s demolition, Historic Columbia requested that the State Historic Preservation Office consider VARO as eligible for National Register status. Once determined eligible, GSA decided to offer the building for sale. This iconic mid-century modern building, located at the cusp of the key commercial district, now has the opportunity for new life.
May is National Historic Preservation Month. Visit HistoricColumbia.org to learn more about its role in advocating and preserving historic sites like the VARO.

This article originally appeared in the Columbia Star on May 26, 2017.

Veterans Administration Building_1 Veterans Administration Building

 

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