Sandlapper Society


by Aïda Rogers  l  photos by  Becky Hyatt Rickenbaker

In Columbia, the old state hospital and its tranquil grounds await new life. The Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation is ready to help.

If the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation could wave a wand, the Chapel of Hope would once again welcome the faithful. And the old gymnasium, post office, bakery, laundry and lunchrooms would rise from neglect and be transformed into functioning structures that serve people today. But the mythical "Bull Street" property in Columbia, 181 acres owned by the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, languishes. Decisions— legal, financial, governmental— must be made about its future.

While potential developers examine the property, Mike Bedenbaugh, director of the Palmetto Trust, wants citizens to know how important it is to the past and future of Columbia and South Carolina. "A progressive future is one tied to the history of the people who have to live it," he upholds. "We're looking at the future now, and we know if this place is destroyed, it will be an emotional scar on this city for the next two or three generations. Everyone will talk about how horrible it was to lose this.

The Palmetto Trust is concerned with the property's "40-acre core," anchored by the Babcock Building.

Built between 1857 and 1885, the massive Italian Renaissance Revival structure once housed patients from the 1850s to the early 1990s. Because of its distinctive red cupola, it's been mistaken for the Statehouse, Bedenbaugh says. But the cupola isn't its only remarkable feature. Cast-iron columns, mortise-and-peg heart of pine window sashes and a portico with black-and-white marble flooring testify to its careful design. Though the building is chained off, you can see grass growing through the portico's marble flooring.

Behind and around the Babcock Building, a whole village existed for patients, doctors and staff, including a fire station, a tuberculosis infirmary, a greenhouse and a mattress factory. Several early 20th-century cottages remain where employees lived. These, too, are empty.

"The state of South Carolina has 450,000 square feet of historic buildings here that are abandoned," Bedenbaugh says. The Babcock Building, at 215,000 square feet, would be ideal if rehabbed for the elderly, he thinks. The campus is within walking distance of hospitals, and its park-like setting, with majestic magnolias and towering deodar cedars, promotes relaxation. "It's a discredit to history— how people have maligned this into being an evil place," he maintains. "This was a healing place and a place where there was a revolutionary methodology that helped create good health for people who desperately needed it." Retired groundskeepers love the property, he says; there's even a booklet, Hortitherapy and History, which points out its more exotic plantings, including a Tung Oil Tree, a Chaste Tree and Cork Oak.

South Carolina began building its mental hospital in the 1820s and expanded its campus during Reconstruction. While many recognize the Babcock Building and the equally imposing Robert Mills Building, now housing DHEC offices, Bedenbaugh believes the smaller, more obscure ones are just as vital. The bakery is his favorite. "It communicates that there's more here than just the 'building with the dome,'" he says, and trumpets his never-ending call for reuse. "This could be a modern bake shop! It could be a book store! It could be whatever the market will bear, but it needs to be utilized and respected."

Andrés Duany, the nationally-known urban planner, came to Columbia in 2004 and held community meetings to create a consensus for the property. When presented in 2005, the Duany Plater-Zyberk plan met with general approval for its mixed-use design of retail, residential and natural space. But it's an optimistic plan for the current economy, Bedenbaugh says, and he hopes developers who understand how to use incentives and tax credits will restore the buildings for practical use. He also hopes Americans can let go of their need for instant gratification. "It doesn't have to be done all at once," he insists. "Fix up a wing, mothball the rest and let it grow. Everyone has to have everything perfect now. We have to quit being addicted to that mindset or we're going to find ourselves losing the assets that we have."

Learn more about the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation at or e-mail

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Aïda Rogers served as Editor for Sandlapper for more than 20 years and is a freelance writer in Columbia. Becky Hyatt Rickenbaker is a freelance photographer in Lexington.

This article is sponsored by Midlands Mortgage Corporation.

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