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.
In 1961 the Ansley Hall Mansion, the Robert Mills-designed residence at 1616 Blanding Street, was under threat of demolition. The call to preserve this landmark building turned into a rallying cry that led to the formation of Historic Columbia Foundation. When we give tours of the property, known today as the Robert Mills House & Gardens, visitors are astounded that this regal, 1820s building was targeted for demolition. At the time, the potential for new development on this four-acre lot blinded some to the significance of the existing building, which is now a major draw for tourists and a defining feature of local architectural and cultural history. Unfortunately, many of our character-defining places have not been granted the same reprieve.
Before the adoption of the National Preservation Act in 1966 and subsequent establishment of the local Landmarks Commission (today’s Design Development Review Commission) the demolition of significant buildings went unregulated. Although review guidelines have been in place for more than 50 years, we still experience the loss, particularly of those structures that may not be perceived as mainstream historic sites. Over the last decade some of the unique buildings lost in this community include the Richland County Jail (SW corner of Hampton and Lincoln streets, George Elmore’s 5&10 Store (2317 Gervais Street), the Susannah Apartments (NE corner of Hampton and Bull streets), the Abbott Cigar Building (1300 Main Street) and several early 1900s residences along Devine Street. While perhaps not as iconic as the Robert Mills House, each of these sites represented a time period, building style and/or historic event and provided context to our fast-changing built environment.
Just last week we watched an 100-year-old building on a central commercial corridor fall to the wrecking ball. The structure at 1401 Assembly (NW corner of Washington and Assembly streets) stood at the entry point to the once-teeming Black Business District that centered around Washington Street. By 1916, in addition to housing the blacked-owned Regal Drug Store on the first floor, upstairs were offices for two African American physicians and a lawyer, Nathaniel J. Frederick, who was an educator, lawyer, newspaper editor and civil rights activist. Frederick argued more cases before the Supreme Court of South Carolina than any black lawyer of his day. The building stood as a touchstone for the story of Frederick and many others, but also as one of fewer than 10 buildings remaining that were part of this early 20th century district.
When we walk through thriving historic districts like the Congaree Vista or Cottontown it is clear that the preservation of our built assets can serve as an economic engine as well as providing context for who we are as a community. At Historic Columbia, we work actively to gain protections for endangered buildings and districts; however, key partners in this effort must include property owners, developers, real estate professionals, elected officials and the general public who reap the benefits and suffer the blows of the choices made in our built environment. Join our mission to save Columbia’s built history and get involved with Historic Columbia today. Become a member, join our volunteer force, make a donation, attend our events and follow along on social media. Visit historiccolumbia.org to learn how you can get involved.
In 2009, Historic Columbia began an initiative called Connecting Communities through History, which aimed to do exactly what it says—to bring people together by sharing the stories from their own back yards. In the South, you’ll often find folks on their front porches. Some may say hello, some may throw up a hand in greeting, others stop you to talk. This is true of each of Columbia’s neighborhoods. Here are a few friendly faces you might meet on your next Sunday stroll—
John and Victoria Dozier live in the 1900 block of Henderson Street in the Robert Mills Historic District. The Mills district boasts some of the oldest and most elegantly-designed homes in the city. The Doziers’ house is no exception. Their home, built in 1890, has been in the same family for six generations. The 1900 block was one of the first blocks in Columbia where prominent African American families lived. The Doziers recently received commendation at HC’s Annual Preservation Awards for restorations recently completed on their house. “It was definitely the experience of a lifetime,” said John. “Our hope is that our children will pass it to their children.”
Erika Ryan lives in Cottontown, which lies between Elmwood, North Main, and Bull Street. Last summer, she moved into a house on Marion St. She’s glad to have relocated to the neighborhood when she did. “Since I moved in last June, the businesses on Franklin have really taken off,” she told me. The War Mouth, a barbeque restaurant and bar, and Indah Coffee have generated an increase in foot traffic since their opening. “And we’re supposed to be getting a brewery down the street, too,” Ryan said. “I really love living within walking distance of places that are becoming local main-stays.”
Jessa Ross lives off Oak Street in Lower Waverly. She likes the village feel of the neighborhood—newer housing complexes make her feel alienated and distant from the people she lives next to. “I love the houses in Lower Waverly and that all of our neighbors talk to one another,” she said. “We watch out for one another. The other day, our across-the-street neighbor told a guy to get out of our yard, but it ended up being a man our landlord hired to do yardwork. It’s eyes on the street, you know. It’s what makes this a great community.”
If you’d like to get out and greet these porch-goers yourself, Historic Columbia has you covered. We offer self-guided walking tours, group tours once each month, digital web-based neighborhood tours, and a host of other ways to get out an interact in the Columbia community. For more information, please visit our website at historiccolumbia.org/take-a-tour.
HC’s director of cultural resources, John Sherrer gives a tour through the Historic Waverly neighborhood.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.