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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2017 Preservation Award Winners

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Historic Columbia is proud to announce the recipients of their 2017 Preservation Awards. Each year, Historic Columbia presents these awards to celebrate the accomplishments of local property owners; professionals in the fields of architecture, construction and design; and leaders who champion preservation as an opportunity to support the Midlands’ economy and culture. These awards, presented on Wednesday, May 3 at the organization’s annual Preservation Awards Luncheon, encourage and promote the importance of local preservation.

“Congratulations to our 2017 Preservation Award recipients for leading the way in preserving Columbia’s built history for future generations,” said Robin Waites, Historic Columbia’s executive director. “While we can use our research and experience to craft the case for preservation – these leaders in preservation are the ones who provide the financial, creative and sweat equity to make the advocacy worth it.”

Historic Columbia honored the following recipients in the areas of Preservation Leadership, Preservation/Restoration, Adaptive Use and New Construction in a Historic Context.

Preservation Leadership Award: Martha Fowler

Martha Fowler
Described by her peers as the “embodiment of the grassroots preservation movement,” Martha Fowler’s infectious energy and devotion to detail make her an invaluable asset to Columbia’s preservation community. Her commitment to preserving Columbia’s built history has resulted in the renewal of an ever-growing list of iconic properties, including Ebenezer Lutheran Church, the Habenicht-Seegers building and a trio of former family-owned properties on Main Street.

The recent designation of Melrose Heights/Oak Lawn as a National Register of Historic Places district and as a City of Columbia architectural conservation district is due in large part to Martha’s stalwart advocacy. She is a constant at neighborhood association meetings, happily volunteers for committees and is the ideal advocate for community and political outreach. She is always willing to contact decision makers, reach out to community supporters and advocate for common good.

Adaptive Use Award: Palmetto Compress

compress exterior
Owner: PMC Property Group
Architect: Garvin Design Group
Contractor: Triangle Construction

With the oldest section of this four-story warehouse dating to 1917, the Palmetto Compress stands as an exemplar of early 20th-century warehouse design. At its peak, the 350,000 square foot facility could store more than 50,000 bales of cotton, making it one of the largest cotton warehouses in the Southeast. The Palmetto Compress Warehouse is one of the last surviving vestiges of the industrial landscape situated in the midst of the Ward One neighborhood.

The rehabilitation project executed by Scott Garvin and his team, focused on preserving the original warehouse form and material, while introducing apartment and retail outlets within the existing framework. The rehabilitation retains the exterior walls and interior structure of the warehouse as well as its sloped, wooden floors. The creation of large openings, or light wells, from the first floor to the roof allows daylight into the central core of the building. The Palmetto Compress Warehouse now hosts high-end apartments as well as retail space. Its residents are a vibrant mix of college students and young professionals. The transformation of the space creates an anchor between downtown Columbia and the riverfront.

Adaptive Use Award: The Bakery at Bull Street

The Bakery at Bull Street_Exterior
Owner: Hughes Development Corporation
Designer: 1×1 Design, Inc.
Contractor: Buchanan Construction Services, Inc.

Constructed in 1900 to accommodate the needs of the growing population of the South Carolina State Hospital, the Bakery cemented itself as an integral part of the campus at Bull Street. The 19th century saw the implementation of new methods of psychiatric treatment such as occupational therapy, which suggested that daily routine would allow for accelerated healing. It was in the Bakery building that patients made, baked and packaged bread as a part of their directed care.

Asheley Scott and her team at 1×1 Design, Inc. made an effort to reuse as much of the original building fabric as possible, including existing walls and openings. When the structure required a new roof, for example, they left the existing, in-tact ceiling joists and rafters exposed. 1×1 Design, Inc. designed the building’s reconstructed cupolas using historical photographs of the bakery’s exterior. The rear addition, not original to the building, serves as a covered porch overlooking the campus. The building now serves as an office, conference, education and co-work space.

New Construction in an Historic Context Award: Kennedy Greenhouse Studio at USC

Kennedy Greenhouse Studio_ Exterior
Owner: The University of South Carolina
Architect: The Boudreaux Group
Contractor: Palmetto Construction Group

Located near the western edge of the University of South Carolina’s (USC) Historic Horseshoe, the Kennedy Greenhouse Studio provides new collaborative learning opportunities for the greater Carolina community, particularly the School of Journalism and Mass Communications. It also creates an active pedestrian link and gathering place in a formerly walled rose garden.

The new construction celebrates the architectural heritage of greenhouses while enhancing the existing gardens to become an attractive gathering space for both students and public passersby. Respecting USC’s design guidelines, while creating a technologically advanced space to showcase the work of mass communications students, the materials and treatments employed remain sensitive to the studio’s historic surroundings. As part of the site and landscape design, the non-historic brick walls were lowered to incorporate views from the gardens. This change enhances pedestrian connectivity to the heart of campus and promotes walkability while encouraging collaborative learning through outdoor spaces.

Preservation/Restoration Award: Chappelle Auditorium

Chappelle Auditorium_Interior
Owner: Allen University
Architect: GMK Architects

The nation’s first African American professionally licensed architect, John Lankford, designed the Chappelle Auditorium at Allen University in 1925. In its nearly 100-year history, the Chappelle Auditorium has served as a significant meeting place for African American political and religious leaders, as well as artists and musicians. In 1954, for example, the auditorium hosted a series of meetings in preparation for the Brown vs. Board of Education trial. With a seating capacity of more than 700, the space became one of the few in Columbia that could accommodate large gatherings. It was an especially significant landmark in the lives and experiences of black South Carolinians because they could not freely assemble in segregated public facilities in the first half of the 20th century.

Beginning in 2009, Allen University began a process of restoration and rehabilitation of the auditorium. Efforts included removal of paint on the wainscoting and wood paneling, repairs to the brick and mortar work, as well as the recreation of doors by local craftsmen. For the restoration of the tin ceiling, half of the tiles could be salvaged, and the other half were replicated and hand-glazed to match. The result is a beautifully restored landmark of both local and national significance.

Preservation/Restoration Award: 1931 Henderson Street

1931 Henderson St_Exterior
Owner: John & Victoria Dozier (on behalf of William Sumter)
Contractors: Larry Yobs and Ernest Goodwin

1931 Henderson Street, built in 1890, has been in the same family for six generations. The 1900 block of Henderson Street was one of the first blocks in Columbia where prominent African American families lived. William Joseph Sumter was born on May 15, 1881 in Hopkins, S.C. With only a fourth-grade education, Sumter became the first African American to own and operate a barber shop in the state of South Carolina. Following the success of his business, Sumter purchased the house at 1931 Henderson Street from an African American carpenter, John Watson Bailey, on December 9, 1909.

John Dozier, a descendent of Sumter, and his wife, Victoria, undertook the renovations with both love and respect for the historic integrity of the home. Original exterior paneling, columns, windows, doors and fireplaces remain intact. The Doziers exposed the brick in the bedrooms and kitchen and refurbished the tin ceiling in the family room. In total, the project took five months to complete.

 

Please CLICK HERE for photos of the award ceremony on May 3, 2017.

 

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