John A. Carlos II (copy)

Babcock Building's red cupola in the former state mental health campus in Columbia is an iconic landmark in South Carolina. File/John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

COLUMBIA — After years of wrestling with the historic building's special challenges, developers soon will begin work on converting the Babcock building, the centerpiece of the BullStreet District's mental health campus next to downtown Columbia, into more than 200 apartments.

Work on the rambling structure once called the South Carolina Lunatic Asylum will be done in phases, the historic renovation firm leading the project, Clachan Properties of Richmond, Va., said Monday.

The first two phases of the building known for its iconic red cupola are projected to be open for occupancy in the second half of 2021, with other stages to follow until all 146,000 square feet of renovated interior space is completed with 208 apartments. The forecast for completion is late 2022, leaders of the company told the city's Bull Street Commission.

When complete, the building will have a series of 1-, 2- and 3-bedroom apartments ranging from 600 to 1,200 feet, according to Hugh Shytle, president of Clachan, which specializes in historic redevelopments across the Southeast. A tentative rent figure is $1,100 for a 600-square-foot apartment, but that could change, Shytle said.

The work to be done on such a historic structure has to be carefully done and only by craftspeople with specialized skills, said Katie Coleman of Clachan. That's a major reason the work will be completed in phases.

“The intricate details of rehabbing this building are what make it challenging,” said Coleman, who works on development and acquisitions for the company.

"It’s also those things are exactly what is going to make it amazing for a long time to come.”

A project with 1,400 windows takes time to get right, said architect Walter Parks. They hope to re-use about two-thirds of the historic windows, many of which are huge and should allow the apartments to seem bright despite the building's masonry walls, which are 20 inches thick or more, Parks said.

Among the recreational amenities that the complex will have are a dog park, a garden with room to grill and a swimming pool tucked in between wings of the structure, a huge change from its historic role caring for the mentally ill. 

The Babcock building was begun before the Civil War and built in phases, with the final center section that features a cupola visible from a distance having been added last.

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It served as the core of the Department of Mental Health campus for decades but has sat abandoned for years with shattered windows and broken doors. A fire damaged part of the roof in 2018, but that did not set back the project substantially, Shytle said. 

The major challenge for the development of the building has been making apartments work in a structure that was designed as a hospital, with extra-wide hallways for gurneys and large patient wards, Shytle said. Much of that cannot be changed because of the building's historic nature. Making a project in such a challenging building work financially has forced numerous revisions to the plan, he said. 

Clachan will spend a total of more than $40 million on Babcock by the time the project is complete, Shytle said.

Those thick walls will provide one advantage for tenants, both as construction continues in parts of the building and after renovation in finished. Noise should not be an issue.

“You’ll never hear your neighbor,” Davis said.

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