By James Quint, director of education, Historic Columbia
During its 230-year-history, many travelers ventured to Columbia in order to interact with politicians and businessmen in the budding state capital. Even more travelled here to work, to trade, or to sell their goods from the far corners of the state. Some come to learn at Columbia’s colleges and universities. Unquestionably, the most famous visitor of the 18th century was George Washington when he made his stop during his tour of the South in 1791.
On August 21, hundreds of thousands of guests will arrive in the Midlands, as it has been named the best place on the East Coast to watch the total solar eclipse with 2 minutes 36 seconds of totality. As our state prepares to welcome record crowds, city services, law enforcement, cultural organizations and a variety of other groups prepare for an influx not seen since Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1987.
While Myrtle Beach and Charleston may be viewed as the tourist meccas of South Carolina, and to be fair there are many others, including Columbia, our city has an array of engaging activities to ensure a positive experience for those visiting during this historic weekend. Residents and visitors will look to the sky at 2:41 p.m. on to see the Great American Eclipse, which may be one of the most visually impressive events of their lifetime.
Undoubtedly visitors from all over the world will want to learn more about Columbia’s history and culture, which is why Historic Columbia has planned a series of events and tours to engage them in our rich past.
Our community’s longtime connections with the military will be explored during a Historic Water Balloon Battle Happy Hour on Friday, August 18 from 5:30 – 7 p.m. This popular annual event will explore military tactics in ways that will also cool participants in famously hot Columbia with more than 1,700 water balloons. Thousands of water balloons will be discharged in four battles tracing tactics used in the Revolutionary War, World War I and later 20th century conflicts.
Walking tours of Main Street and the Vista will be offered simultaneously at 9 and 10 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday mornings and are perfect options for folks to explore the area’s architecture, development and history.
More than 600 people will gather at the historic Robert Mills House & Gardens on Monday afternoon to watch the Eclipse. While this event is sold out, the gardens and grounds are open daily to the public and free to access during normal business hours – so be sure to come and visit on another day.
Just as city leaders and residents welcomed George Washington in 1791, we hope you’ll join us in welcoming the thousands who will arrive in the Midlands and encourage them to learn more about our city and county. Visit historiccolumbia.org to learn more about the events scheduled during Total Eclipse Weekend.
We are getting so excited about the historic total eclipse coming to Columbia in just two weeks! Whether you’re a seasoned celestial aficionado, or a newbie to historic astronomical phenomenon, we’ve got all your eclipse viewing needs covered at the Gift Shop at Robert Mills!
They have been the subject of legends, seen as dark omens for kings, and in the lyrics of popular songs. Unless you have been living on the dark side of the moon, you know about the total eclipse coming on Monday, August 21. While looking through Historic Columbia’s museum collection for a particular book, I recently discovered a volume that caught my eye because of its small 4-by-5 inch size.
The book’s cover read: Peter Parley’s Tales About the Sun, Moon, and Stars. With numerous engravings. Philadelphia, Desilver, Thomas & Co. 1836. Curious, I carefully opened it. I was immediately taken by the detailed and artistic engravings scattered through its pages. Going back to the introduction I learned that this was one in a series of children’s books. Since the average fourth grader knows more about astronomy than I do, I kept reading.
Among other astronomical facts and observations that Parley, the pen-name of author and publisher Samuel Griswold Goodrich, described was a total eclipse he had viewed some 20 years before. He observed it all through a piece of smoked glass. He was especially interested in the changes in nature and behavior of the animals around him:
“The air grew chill as if it were evening; the whole face of nature was dark as the evening twilight; the birds ceased their songs and retired to rest. I well remember to have seen an old hen, apparently much disturbed, retire to her accustomed shelter, where she gathered her brood of twelve chickens under her wing, as if for the night.”
The plain language and conversational tone of the book was different than a modern reader might expect from one published in the first half of the 19th century. While written for children, it does not talk down to them.
Some books in our collection are inscribed either on the blank front or back pages. Frederick Foster signed this book with his name multiple times in 1844. He did so in a hand that looks like a young person learning cursive and making the letters his own. Unfortunately, there are no other clues to help know more about Frederick, so for now his story is lost to time.
Goodrich (Parley) did a great job explaining the mechanics of how an eclipse occurs, but he also wrote fondly about their fleeting magic. On August 21, for those brief minutes I will do my best to forget about the how’s and why’s of the eclipse and focus simply on its natural wonder. If only I had some chickens to watch, too.
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.
Following the ceremony at a nearby church, Anna and Andrew celebrated their special day against the romantic backdrop of Seibels House & Garden. The reception featured voluminous, elegant floral arrangements, which transformed Columbia’s oldest home into a lush oasis. Stunning mantle vignettes and other flourishes by Cricket Newman lent an elegant air to the interior of the Seibels House. The bride’s gardenia bouquet was echoed through the foliage of the gardens themselves.
After dinner, the party made themselves right at home on the dance floor. The gardens were filled with laughter and champagne late into the evening. When the night was over, the bride and groom made their daring escape in the back of a classic car—a perfect marriage of vintage and contemporary.
Historic Columbia and Richland County have a long-standing partnership in preserving some of the Midlands most significant historic assets, including the Woodrow Wilson Family Home. Today, this site serves as the home to A Museum of Reconstruction and explores the racial, social and political landscape of Columbia and Richland County after the Civil War from 1865 through 1877.
As an African American and a member of Historic Columbia’s Board of Trustees, the message of this museum is deeply personal for me. The meaning is doubled when you consider that the Woodrow Wilson Family Home: A Museum of Reconstruction is the only museum in the country dedicated to telling the story of Reconstruction, a time when our nation began to guarantee basic rights and equality to individuals who were formerly enslaved.
The museum, owned by Richland County and operated by Historic Columbia, closed in 2005 to undergo major structural and curatorial revisions. After an eight-year rehabilitation, this landmark building reopened in February 2014 as a 21st-century museum showcasing the Reconstruction era Columbia and Richland County during the 1870s. The museum explores the time in which formerly enslaved African Americans negotiated with opportunities and obstacles faced as new citizens of the United States. These exhibits address history with remarkable transparency. It is my hope that African Americans will join me in embracing the home for its historical significance and that everyone who visits the home will understand the foundation of what citizenship means to us today.
Since its reopening in 2014, the site has seen more than 17,000 visitors. Of that, 52% of visitors travelled from outside of South Carolina to the site, creating a positive boost to the local economy. And, 34% of visitors reside right here in Richland and Lexington counties.
As a resident of the midlands, I am proud to have this world-class museum located right here in our capital city. While we knew we were creating a special product, the accolades and awards from across the state affirm that the ground-breaking exhibits are unique not just to the state and region, but to the country. Since debuting in 2014, the site has won a variety of awards, including the South Carolina African American Heritage Commission’s 2016 Preserving Our Places in History Project Award, the American Association for State and Local History Award for Merit in 2015, as well as the highly coveted Heritage Tourism Award in 2015.
Recently, the site was added to the Green Book of South Carolina, a travel guide to the state’s African American cultural sites, as an exemplar representation of the history of Reconstruction and is featured on the site’s “Reconstruction in South Carolina Tour.” I invite you to join me in exploring South Carolina’s heritage and history at the Woodrow Wilson Family Home: A Museum of Reconstruction. For more information and to plan your visit, please CLICK HERE.
Every dish has a story to tell. Even the ones that don’t quite make it on the menu. Harold “Groucho” Miller’s parents immigrated from Russia at the turn of the 20th century. While Miller and his family are known across South Carolina for their popular deli outfit, Groucho’s Deli, there’s one menu item that didn’t quite make the cut. While working as the emcee at a Philadelphia vaudeville theater in the 1920s, Miller befriended a Russian Jewish comedian. Here, Miller learned to make one of his favorite treats—Russian Blintzes.
Blintzes are a time-consuming and labor-intensive dish, but worth the effort. They were available for sale at Miller’s Deli on opening day in 1940. Because of the cooking process, the blintzes had to be cooked at the Millers’ home in Shandon and brought in every day. The sweet treats soon disappeared from the deli’s menu. They remained, however, a Shabbat staple in the Miller house.
Harold “Groucho” Miller, Ethel Miller, John Gottlieb, Minnie Gottlieb, and a member of Miller’s Staff.
Groucho in 1948
Fortunately, Harold Miller’s grandson Bruce, shared his family’s favorite recipe with Kugels and Collards—the new digital repository from the Columbia Jewish Heritage Initiative. Historic Columbia, in partnership with the College of Charleston’s Jewish Heritage Collection, the Jewish Community Center of Columbia and Columbia Jewish Federation, the Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina and Richland Library, has established the Columbia Jewish Heritage Initiative—a multi-discipline project, which will document as well as provide access and awareness to local Jewish history.
Kugels and Collards is a blog devoted to the exploration of Southern Jewish cuisine. The project seeks to preserve and share the history of Southern cooking in Columbia’s Jewish community. Each memory shared can be accessed freely on the Kugels and Collards blog. For Miller’s full Blintzes recipe, and to submit your own recipe and story, please visit kugelsandcollards.org or send an email to kugelsandcollards (at) historiccolumbia.org. Also, be sure to check out the Jewish Heritage walking tour available for free HERE.
Karen Ayala and Chris Boyer May 6th, 2017 Seibels House and Gardens
We are excited to feature Karen and Chris’s stunning Seibels House and Gardens wedding for our first blog post in our new Historically Ever After series!
Every detail in Karen and Chris’s day was thought through to create a simple and clean but dramatically elegant aesthetic to their day. They used the lush backdrop of Seibels House and Gardens as a perfect canvas for a gorgeous palette of cream, greenery and neutral yet modern colors. Karen designed her unique bouquet of white orchids spilling from an elephant ear leaf and Chris’s corresponding boutonniere, which stood out against the deep blue suits and dresses of the wedding party. Karen’s ethereal veil was the perfect complement to her structured bouquet and the smooth, flowing lines of her dress. The emotion of the day was clear, from the sweet looks exchanged between father, daughter, and brother as she walked down the aisle, to the couple’s clear joy after their ceremony!
Congratulations Karen and Chris – we wish you a lifetime of love and happiness!
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.