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BullStreet's Babcock Building stood both iconic and infamous in Columbia skyline

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COLUMBIA — Before the flames rose over South Carolina's Capital City early Saturday morning, the Babcock Building with its garnet cupola stood in polarity — a notable part of Columbia's skyline but for some a traumatic reminder of historic abuse and neglect.

"It's such a prominent part of the city," said Historic Columbia preservationist John Sherrer. "It's something people see as soon as they get here when coming in off the interstate. It's definitely going to take a little getting used to."

The 19th century building's recent history has been as an architectural landmark that fell into disrepair after being abandoned before becoming the focus for the massive BullStreet District redevelopment project to turn nearly 200 acres of mostly unused property into a new destination for residents, shoppers, workers and baseball fans.

But the bulk of its history was the state's main mental hospital.  

For generations, many South Carolina parents would tell unruly children, "You're driving me to Bull Street."

"I don't know how many times I heard that," Greer author and journalist William Buchheit said, whose own grandmother said it often.

"Nobody ever referred to it as the State Hospital; it was always Bull Street," he said. "It got such a stigma. And it still has such a stigma."

It was the site of several films and was popular among photographers.

That celebrity also is part of what made it so painful, say advocates for those with disabilities who don't necessarily consider it a bad thing that the visual marker is gone.

Feelings about the mental health facility are summed up in "The South Carolina State Hospital: Stories from Bull Street," a book by Buchheit who collected the stories of former employees.

“What you’re going to find are people who will swear that (the hospital) was utter horror and that it was immoral,” Woody Harris, a former counselor at the hospital, said in an excerpt. “Then, you will have others who will tell you that it was wonderful and that it was absolutely what they needed to stabilize them.

"You will find people that say they hated it and others who say they wished to hell they still had it, and they are both correct.”

A trend in mental health

The Babcock Building, the largest and most prominent on the sprawling campus, was built in four separate parts stretching from 1857 and 1885.

Construction was interrupted by the Civil War and the waning and waxing of state funding, according to an application to make it a historical landmark. 

The property was even used as a prison camp for Union soldiers during the Civil War, called Camp Asylum, holding them out in the middle of the yard, Buchheit said.

The state hospital campus was the nation's second oldest, behind one constructed in Williamsburg, Va. The Babcock Building was among the first of its style, designed by psychiatrist Thomas Kirkbride, that would go on to manifest itself across the country.

Each portion of the facility reflected the prevailing trends in mental health in the 19th century, with division of sexes and races that was not equitable, Sherrer said. Patients' conditions determined where they were placed in the building or on the campus.

"Back then everything was built according to how light came into the building," Buchheit said. "You needed direct sunlight, which they thought was good for patient morale."

Air circulation also was of great importance as tuberculosis was a major concern.

"There were these huge dayrooms with windows on all four sides and they were to give patients the feeling of being part of the outside world even though they weren't," Buchheit said.

The inside of the brick renaissance revival structure stood as its own dichotomy of sorts, housing a beautiful chapel, along with doctor and staff quarters, but also operating rooms where lobotomies were once performed, Sherrer said.

Prior to psychotropic medications, ice baths, hydrotherapy and restraints were the norm. There were deaths and escapes and the overuse of electroshock therapy before it was known that it causes major memory loss.

The patient base was varied, Buchheit said. A ward on the top floor of the Babcock once housed those deemed criminally insane, until they were moved in the mid-1950s to four jail-like maximum security buildings at the back of campus. The campus was even home to serial killer Pee Wee Gaskins.

But it also treated people with drug and alcohol addictions, dropped off by distraught families with nowhere else to take them.

The hospital was well over capacity at its peak in the '60s, packing 6,600 patients in close quarters.

And it was always underfunded up until its shuttering amid a larger national movement away from institutionalization and toward community-based care of those with disabilities.

Transforming BullStreet

After 1980, the Babcock no longer housed patients, deemed a fire hazard due to its all-wood interior, Buchheit said.

It became vacant in 1996. Windows were broken. The inside was vandalized. 

City leaders brought in a developer to transform the mental health site. The Babcock cupola became the development's logo. 

The BullStreet District, as the campus was renamed, attracted townhomes, a church, a senior living center and even shops. A minor-league baseball stadium draws large crowds.

The Babcock Building, the development's centerpiece, was on the cusp of becoming more than 200 apartments and a centerpiece of the BullStreet development that took years to get off the ground.

Developers from Virginia were expected to get final federal approvals next week to start construction on the building.

"This was at the 1-yard-line," Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said. "We were finally there."

Robert Hughes, the Greenville developer brought in to makeover the campus, lamented the iconic building's loss while pledging progress would continue.

"For many decades, the community has worked together to preserve one of South Carolina’s most iconic buildings,' he said. "It is a labor of love for so many people who cherish its historical significance."

An opportunity for change

The Babcock no doubt symbolized different things to different people, Buchheit said.

And a good number harbor a deep hate of it for the bad treatment relatives received there.

To Sarah Nichols, a spokeswoman for the disability aid organization AbleSC, the Babcock was part of an institution that, for so many years, abused and neglected an entire segment of the population. 

While she supports the area's redevelopment, she sees symbolism in the Babcock Building going to ashes, equating it with what she hopes will be the burning down of stereotypes surrounding people with disabilities and an opportunity for something better to come.

“So I’m not sad to see it go," she said.

The thing that strikes Buchheit most is, even though it is now right in the middle of a major city, the mental health campus has always been completely closed off to everything around it.

"It was so unknown what went on behind those fences and that security gate," he said. "It always carried an air of mystery. And when we talk about the unknown, the first thing that comes to mind is fear."

What developers saw was an opportunity to change that history.

With the iconic cupola now down and a good portion of the building burned, that future has fallen into question.

Jessica Holdman is a business reporter for The Post & Courier covering Columbia. Prior to moving to South Carolina, she reported on business in North Dakota for The Bismarck Tribune and has previously written for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash.

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