Preservationists divided on saving old State Mental Hospital

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Preservation organizations are divided on what parts of and how much of the old State Mental Hospital on Bull Street they want to fight to save. It doesn’t look, however, that much will be done to preserve the memories of the patients at was once called the state’s lunatic asylum. One historian thinks the site would be better off forgotten.


By Alex Buscemi
Nov. 11, 2013
When Columbia City Council voted 4-2 this summer to demolish much of the old State Mental Hospital on Bull Street and replace it with a $31 million development, preservation organizations across the state flocked to the issue.

But those groups are as split as the council on how to handle some of the decaying buildings on the site, parts of which go back 186 years.

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USC freshman Luke Raymond snaps a photo of the Babcock Building, constructed in 1827, is an iconic structure of the State Mental Hospital on Bull Street. Its iconic red dome is seen by thousands of motorists every day as they drive down Elmwood.

Some organizations are doing everything they can to save as much of the architecture as possible. Others are holding back, opting to serve as resources to the developer, Bob Hughes of Greenville, if he asks for help.

Then there’s a historian who thinks the best way to commemorate the asylum would be to forget about it completely.

“Lots of people were put there and forgotten. Not a pretty thing,” said Bob Barrett of Florence, vice president of the Confederation of South Carolina Local Historical Societies.

Beds were jammed together, he said, making privacy nonexistent. Many patients had an unclear diagnosis – a reminder of the failings of late 19th century and early 20th century psychiatry.

“Bulldoze it to the ground and move on,” Barrett said. “Make room for something better.”

But Amy Moore, a Columbia city planner, says the historic buildings are still something to save.

“There are pieces of history that are admirable and not so admirable, but they’re all important,” Moore said. “Where we come from, good and bad, it’s part of the community.”

The Historic Columbia Foundation, with offices just a few blocks from the asylum and its iconic red-domed Babcock building, is among the most active organizations trying to save as much of the complex as possible.

Executive Director Robin Waites has been vocal about her disagreement with City Council’s passing what she feels is a proposal that doesn’t clearly define where the money for the project will come from or what will happen to the historic buildings. Columbia’s city attorney, for instance, has warned that the city could be liable for more than $50 million in infrastructure improvements on the site within three years.

“We are going to continue to try and work with Hughes to renovate as many buildings as possible,” Waites said. “It’s a matter of reusing as opposed to demolishing.”

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The 186-year-old church is one of the five buildings guaranteed protection on the old State Mental Hospital Campus.

While Hughes, who did not return several phone calls and emails seeking comment, has pledged to maintain the historic integrity of the property and said he is open to preserving more of the buildings, he has not consulted with local historic professionals.

“We’re kind of at the whim of the developer,” Waites said. “We haven’t been given the time and haven’t been included in the conversation, which is the main problem. There’s not a lot of leverage we have right now.”

The state Department of Archives and History has largely stayed out of the debate.

“We always try to encourage people to preserve historic buildings, but we’re not going to try to make anybody

do anything,” said Elizabeth Johnson, the department’s director of historical services.

The Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation has a similar stance: It will help with preservation by remaining available for consultation with Hughes.

“We don’t own it – we can’t do anything but advocate how important it is,” said Mike Bedenbaugh, the trust’s executive director. “It doesn’t matter as long as it’s restored per the standards given to him and used to its full capacity.

It’s up to the local community to decide.”

The city provides information on buildings’ historic significance and how to designate them as landmarks and protect them, “but the property owner has to come to us,” Moore said.

“My hope is that the history is respected,” she said. “There’s a lot of local interest in that happening, the Department of Mental Health is interested in that happening. So there are a lot of real opportunities out there that it will.”

Amid all the talk about preserving the architecture, little has been said about commemorating the thousands of patients who stayed there from when it opened in 1828 until it closed in 1970.

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The 183 acres include these homes, which were lived in by patients. They will be knocked down to make room for amenities such as a parking garage and a possible baseball stadium.

“I don’t think everything needs to be etched in stone and memorialized,” said Norree Boyd-Wicks, interim executive director of the Cultural Council of Richland and Lexington Counties. “The buildings are there, and the history can be delved into. In present day, architecture is more important than what happened.”

The city has preservation standards for architectural features like windows and doors, but nothing requires plaques or informational signs inside or outside, Moore said.

“There’s always going to be information on them, it just might not exist on-site,” she said.

But that view “varies a lot with the different communities and the personal interests of its members,” said Ronald D. Anzalone, director of preservation initiatives for the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. “Like politics, it’s very local.”

Additional Information

Bull Street Development Agreement PowerPoint (PDF)

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