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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A Critical Time for our Nation’s Museums

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Fielding Freed, HC director of house museums

“I love museums!” The comment was enthusiastic and genuine. It came from one of South Carolina’s Congressmen last month during Museum Advocacy Day organized by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). A record attendance of more than 350 people from all 50 states who spent the day canvassing Capitol Hill underscored the concern over proposed cuts in federal funding for museums. Many of us do, as a matter of fact, love museums:

  • Museums are popular. There are approximately 850 million visits each year to American museums, more than number of people who visit theme parks AND attend major league sporting events. Just one local example, in 2016 the South Carolina State Museum had over 160,000 visitors and a school visitation of 68,000.
  • Museums impact our economy. Nationally, museums sustain more than 400,000 jobs and directly contribute $21 billion to the economy each year. Here in South Carolina, where tourism is our number one industry, museums play a vital role in both entertaining our visitors (where do summertime tourists go on a rainy day?) but also educating them about the role our state has played in American history.
  • Museums serve the public. Just one example includes the twenty-five museums in our state that participate in the NEA’s Blue Star Museums initiative giving free summer admission to all active-duty and reserve personnel and their families (serving over 923,000 people nationwide).

The South Carolina delegation visiting Capitol Hill included students from USC’s Honors College and museum folks from Richland, Horry, Charleston, and Oconee counties. We spent the day meeting with our representatives to request that they maintain funding for the Office of Museum Services (OMS). The OMS, which is part of the larger Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), awards grants that help to educate students, digitize collections, and engage communities.

Here are some interesting numbers that help to explain why we felt strongly enough to travel to D.C. to represent our state’s museums in person:

  • From 2014 to 2016, 3 South Carolina museums received IMLS grants totaling $139,000.
  • During those same years, 3 NEH and NEA grants totaling $553,000 went to five museums.
  • The Humanities Council of South Carolina received $2.1 million and the South Carolina Arts Commission $2.3 million. Those funds, in turn, flowed outward and supported a wide variety of museum programs and projects.

The proposed federal budget recently submitted by the White House will directly and negatively affect the historic and cultural organizations of South Carolina. Of particular concern is the proposal to eliminate entirely the NEA and NEH.  Now is the time, if you love museums, to act. We have helped start the conversation, but now it’s up to those who value what South Carolina’s museums contribute to our quality of life to voice their support before it’s too late.

With Senator Graham

Caption: Fielding Freed with other SC delegates visiting Senator Lindsey Graham on Capitol Hill last month.

Originally published in The Columbia Star

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Absolute Slaves: Race, Law and Society in Antebellum South Carolina

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By Rochelle Outlaw, J.D., Ph.D. Candidate, USC

Today, South Carolina remains one of the most diverse states in the union. According to the 2015 census, nearly 37 percent of South Carolina’s residents identified as a racial minority. Approximately, 28 percent of the state’s population is African American. The state’s racial diversity is grounded in the history of the founding of the colony.

 
Closely linked to the island of Barbados, South Carolina was the only colony where blacks outnumbered whites at the turn of the eighteenth century. The arrival of African slaves and free people of color from Barbados and a limited number of white women in the colony all contributed to a society that was accepting of racial diversity and interracial relationships. Unlike other southern states including North Carolina and Virginia, South Carolina never adopted a one-drop rule and did not have an anti-miscegenation clause in its constitution until 1865.

 
Indeed, South Carolina society had changed by the beginning of the nineteenth century. Racial slavery was embedded in its society and whites viewed slavery as their key to prosperity. What did not change about the state, however, was that as such, South Carolina offers a unique opportunity to study race, law and society during the antebellum period.

 
To learn about the common-law definition of race and how it related to social and political thought on race in antebellum South Carolina, attend Historic Columbia’s Lunch and Learn series from noon – 1 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 21. This session will be led by guest presenter, Rochelle Outlaw, J.D., Ph.D. Candidate at the University of South Carolina and will be held at the Mann-Simons Site located at 1403 Richland Street. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit historiccolumbia.org/BlackHistory, email reservations@historiccolumbia.org or call 803-252-1770 x 23.

 

This article was originally published in the Columbia Star.

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The Impact of Columbia on Woodrow Wilson

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[The following was written by our Executive Director, Robin Waites, and published in The State on December 14, 2015 as an Opinion Extra. Richland and Lexington County residents are invited to take a guided tour of the Woodrow Wilson Family Home for only $1 on Sunday, Dec. 20.]

Recent student protests at Princeton regarding President Woodrow Wilson may seem far removed from Columbia, but Wilson’s views on race are part of our everyday conversations at the Woodrow Wilson Family Home.   Since reopening the historic site in February 2014, Richland County and Historic Columbia have operated the museum as a place that explores the Reconstruction era, considers its impact on Wilson, and promotes open dialogue on all aspects of Wilson’s Presidency.

Woodrow Wilson Family Home

 

The Wilson’s moved to their home at the corner of Hampton and Henderson streets in 1871 when the future President was 14 years old.  This was in the middle of the Reconstruction era, a tumultuous period between the conclusion of the Civil War and the beginning of legally sanctioned segregation across the South.  Race, inextricably interwoven into politics and power, was central to the experience of Blacks and Whites in Columbia in 1871.  Racial matters structured lives in ways codified by law and negotiated through generations-old social customs. It was within this context that a white, privileged southern teenager began to form his impressions of the world and grow intellectually.

Woodrow Wilson is considered a successful, two-term President, who led America to victory in the First World War.  He is perhaps best known for laying the groundwork for the League of Nations, a precursor to the United Nations.  He is often held out as one of America’s most effective Presidents.   But, missing from the usual narrative on Wilson’s legacy is a discussion of his domestic policies, particularly those involving racial segregation.

Wilson campaigned in 1912 on a platform of racial inclusion, but went in the opposite direction once in office.  His actions to re-segregate federal offices that had been at least partially integrated took racial reconciliation backwards.  His association with public figures who championed legal segregation of the races sent a message to white and black alike that he eschewed policies that would bring about more equal treatment of blacks and whites.

The mindset behind these policies had its foundation within the very era in which Wilson grew into an adult in Columbia. Exhibits and guides at the Woodrow Wilson Family Home tackle these challenging issues and discuss the structural segregation in the post-Civil War era, as well as political terrorism carried out against blacks by the Red Shirts, and the apparent endorsement of Birth of a Nation in 1915 by then President Wilson.  Discussion of these issues has long been avoided but needs to be addressed in today’s world if we are going to be honest in our assessment of history and how it has shaped the world we live in today.

As the country is engaged in dynamic and difficult conversations about race and specifically the legacy of Woodrow Wilson, Historic Columbia offers a unique environment to consider how this national leader’s experiences and opinions shaped his later actions.   More broadly, in opening the door to discussion about our complex past, we all may thoughtfully shape our shared future.

Robin Waites is the Executive Director of Historic Columbia, which manages the Woodrow Wilson Family Home.  Waites oversaw the multi-year rehabilitation and re-interpretation of the site, which is the only museum of Reconstruction in the country.

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Chicora College Yearbook Memories

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For sisters Elizabeth (McElveen) Yountz, Robin (McElveen) Ragans, and Dale (McElveen) Jaeger, a recent visit to the Hampton-Preston Mansion was an exciting opportunity to see Chicora College, the Alma Mater of their grandmother Sarah Cornelia Cockfield. “It was a real thrill to see her in the annuals and see the ‘dorm’ room that she experienced,” said Elizabeth (Cornee) Yountz.  Cockfield, who grew up in Johnsonville near Lake City, graduated from Chicora in 1918. Historic Columbia was pleased to offer the sisters access to our collection of Chicora College yearbooks which contain many photographs of their grandmother that they had not seen before.

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The  Presbyterian College for Women merged with Greenville’s Chicora College to form Chicora College for Women in 1915.  The school remained on Blanding Street at the Hampton-Preston property until 1930.

 

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HC & Blue Star Museums Offer Active Military Personnel Free Tours this Summer!

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From Memorial Day through Labor Day 2015, Historic Columbia will offer active duty military personnel and their families free tours of its historic house museums as part of the Blue Star Museums program.

A collaboration with the National Endowment for the Arts, Blue Star Families, the Department of Defense and more than 2,000 museums across America, Blue Star Museums offer free admission to the nation’s active duty military personnel including National Guard and Reserve and their families from May 25 to Sept. 7. This program provides families an opportunity to enjoy the nation’s cultural heritage and learn more about their new communities after a military move.

“Historic Columbia is proud to be a Blue Star Museum,” said Robin Waites, executive director of HC. “Through this collaboration, service members and their families can experience Columbia and Richland County’s rich history, and we are thrilled to give back to those who give so much for our country.”

Historic Columbia provides tours of the Robert Mills House, Hampton-Preston Mansion, Mann-Simons Site and Woodrow Wilson Family Home, South Carolina’s only presidential site, every day of the week except Mondays. Tours depart at the top of the hour from 10 am to 3 pm Tuesday through Saturday and 1 pm to 4 pm on Sunday; visit historiccolumbia.org for the complete schedule of tours. Purchase admission at the Gift Shop at Robert Mills at 1616 Blanding St. All tours begin at the Gift Shop.

The Blue Star Museums free admission program is available to any bearer of a Geneva Convention common access card (CAC), a DD Form 1173 ID card (dependent ID), or a DD Form 1173-1 ID card, which includes active duty U.S. military—Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, as well as members of the National Guard and Reserve, U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, NOAA Commissioned Corps—and up to five family members.

More than 2,000 (and counting) museums in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and American Samoa are participating in Blue Star Museums, including history and science museums, children’s museums, fine arts museums and nature centers. For more information, visit www.arts.gov/national/blue-star-museums.

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Celebrate Five Points’ Centennial with a Happy Hour History Tour

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HHHT 5 Points

Enjoy a Capital City cocktail with a twist as Historic Columbia’s Happy Hour History Tour series returns to Five Points every Friday from April 17 to May 8.

As Five Points celebrates its centennial this year, meet at the Five Points Fountain at the corner of Greene and Harden Streets for a guided tour to explore the history and architecture of this shopping and commercial district. Tours cost $20 for Historic Columbia members and $25 for the general public. Admission includes cocktails and appetizers along the way, and participants must be 21 or older to enjoy adult beverages. Reservations aren’t required but are encouraged as these tours tend to sell out, and walk-up registrations will only be accepted if space permits.

What began as a trolley hub for Columbia’s first planned suburban neighborhood has evolved into one of the city’s entertainment hot spots. This guided tour highlights the history and architecture of this historic district and how they played a role in transforming this area into the “famously hot” spot it is today.

For more information or to reserve a spot on a tour, please call 803.252.1770 x 23, email reservations@historiccolumbia.org or visit historiccolumbia.org.

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Early Columbia Lecture Series Returns April 14

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ECL 2

Explore the Reconstruction era and Columbia’s entrance into the 20th century during Part II of Historic Columbia’s Early Columbia Lecture Series, April 14 through May 19.

The three-part Early Columbia Lecture Series gives a close look at the history of South Carolina’s second capital city and allows participants to understand how the city became what it is today. Part II, “The Capital City Rebuilds,” explores Columbia’s history as it rebuilds and recovers from the Civil War from 1865 to 1914. Dr. Warner Montgomery, author of Columbia Revisited, leads the series. Lectures are held from 6 to 7:30 p.m. in the Robert Mills Carriage House, 1616 Blanding St., and will cover the following topics:

  • April 14: The Civil War Refuge and Disaster
  • April 21: Reconstruction and Healing
  • Optional Bus Tour: Sunday April 26
  • April 28: Transportation: Rivers, Roads, Railroads
  • May 5: Economic Development: Textiles & Agriculture
  • May 12: Public Education
  • May 19: Higher Education: Colleges & Universities

The lecture series is $30 for HC teacher members, $50 for HC members, $60 for non-members, $35 for students or $10 per lecture. Registration is not required but space may be limited and allowed according to availability. Registration forms are available at historiccolumbia.org. Reservations will be accepted on a first-come, first-serve basis online at historiccolumbia.org, by emailing reservations@historiccolumbia.org, or by phone at 803.252.1770 ext. 23.

Columbia Revisited will be used as the textbook for this series. If you would like to pre-purchase a copy, please let us know. The cost will be $26.95 for members of Historic Columbia and $29.95 for all other participants.

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Columbia Commemorates the 150th Anniversary of the Burning of Columbia

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The burning of Columbia, SC was a major event in American history and a defining moment in the history of the state and city. Columbia, the site of the original Secession Convention and capital of the first seceding state, was seen by the Union army as a target to encourage the surrender of the remaining Confederate forces.

Columbia surrendered to the Union Army under the command of General William Tecumseh Sherman on February 17, 1865, and while the soldiers’ arrival signaled the imminent emancipation of enslaved African Americans in the city, the city suffered widespread destruction. The legacy of this physical loss is a pillar of the city’s common folklore and memories of the war, and it remains hotly-debated today.

Historic Columbia is proud to be a part of Columbia Commemorates, a multi-disciplinary coalition comprised of Midlands and statewide organizations formed to plan and implement a city-wide commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the burning of Columbia. Through lectures; tours; film; visual, literary and performing arts; exhibits; public discussion; and large public gatherings, Columbia Commemorates will explore the events of February 17, 1865, as well as the immediate and long-term ramifications of the burning of South Carolina’s capital city.

You can see the full list of events, programs and exhibits at BurningofColumbia.com. Historic Columbia will present two Civil War Bus Tours and several lectures, as well as an exhibit of images of the post-burning destruction called Impressions of Chimneyville, on display at the Gallery at City Hall from Jan. 9 through March 31.

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HC’s Early Columbia Lecture Series Returns Jan. 7

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Back by popular demand, Historic Columbia’s Early Columbia Lecture Series kicks off Part II on the evening of Jan. 7 and runs through Feb. 18 at the Seibels House & Garden.

Part II, “The Capital City Rebuilds,” explores Columbia’s history as it rebuilds and recovers from the Civil War from 1865 to 1914. Dr. Warner Montgomery, author of Columbia Revisited, leads the series. Lectures are held from 6 to 7:30 pm at the Seibels House & Garden and will cover the following topics:

  • Jan. 7: The Civil War Refuge and Disaster
  • Jan. 14: Reconstruction and Healing
  • Jan. 21: Transportation: Rivers, Roads, Railroads
  • Optional Bust Tour: Sunday Jan. 26
  • Feb. 4: Economic Development: Textiles & Agriculture
  • Feb. 11: Public Education
  • Feb. 18: Higher Education: Colleges & Universities

The lecture series is $50 for HC members, $60 for non-members, $35 for students or $10 per class or tour. Registration is not required but space may be limited and allowed according to availability. Registration forms are available at historiccolumbia.org. Reservations will be accepted on a first-come, first-serve basis online, by mail, by emailing reservations@historiccolumbia.org or by phone at 803.252.1770 ext. 23.

Columbia Revisited will be used as the textbook for this series. If you would like to pre-purchase a copy, please let us know. The cost will be $26.95 for members of Historic Columbia and $29.95 for all other participants.

The three-part Early Columbia Lecture Series gives a close look at the history of South Carolina’s second capital city and allows participants to understand how the city became what it is today. In April 2014, Part III will take the city into the 20th century.

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