COLUMBIA — South Carolina's tourism agency is asking legislators for nearly $8.4 million to restore the historic homes and gardens next to the Governor's Mansion and turn a taxpayer expense into a money-maker.
Plans call for repairing three buildings on mansion grounds — the Lace House, the Caldwell-Boylston House and a carriage home behind it — over the next 2½ years and marketing all three as premier spots for weddings and other special events.
They'll be newly dubbed the Venues at Arsenal Hill as a way of de-politicizing them, signifying they're separate from whoever occupies the mansion.
Currently, the entire complex is maintained by the state Department of Administration, which has spent nearly $800,000 over the last five years on general repairs to the two houses listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
But that side of the mansion grounds — separated from the governor's residence by iron fencing and a brick-paved courtyard known as the Mansion Mall — will be fully turned over to the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism this fall.
Public tours by PRT staff should start in January, and work on all three buildings will start a month later, according to the agency's timeline.
That calendar is based on PRT getting $8.35 million in the state budget legislators will wrap up in June. The Senate included the request in its $10.5 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1. Whether it makes it to the final plan is up to the House.
"This is the people's house, and the people never see the Caldwell-Boylston House or the Carriage House because it's not open. It's a shame," PRT Director Duane Parrish said. "They need to be fixed up, maintained and put back to period."
The 166-year-old Lace House and surrounding gardens have hosted weddings and receptions for a fee for two decades. But years of underfunding and patchwork fixes have left the historic venue, bought by the state in 1968 as a guest house for governors' overnighting visitors, looking much prettier at a distance.
Leaking gutters have caused paint to peel, wood to rot and plaster to bubble. Ironwork staircases in the front and back are missing sections. The room where brides change clothes has a temporary air conditioning unit. Square-tiled bathrooms look like they belong in 1970s-era commercial buildings.
"Nobody's intentionally done anything wrong there," Parrish said.
"But you have to do things and fix it right for the next generation, not next year," he continued. "These houses should have the proper infrastructure, proper architecture and proper aesthetics."
Gov. Henry McMaster supports the project, so it's guaranteed he wouldn't veto the spending when the budget reaches his desk.
"SCPRT has a proven track record of optimizing the value of historical properties owned by the state for the long-term benefit of South Carolina's taxpayers," said his spokesman Brian Symmes.
The governor is confident PRT will ensure "the complex reaches its full potential as a revenue-generator for the state."
Nearly half of the entire project's cost, $4 million, goes toward restoring the Lace House, named for the lace-like ironwork on its steps and porches. Perhaps it's fitting that it continues to be the main wedding venue at Arsenal Hill, as the house was built as a wedding present from John Caldwell, a banker and South Carolina Railroad president, to his youngest daughter, keeping her close.
The basement of his house next door, known as the Caldwell-Boylston House for its first and last private owners, is where Governor's Mansion tours start. Built in 1830, the home was bought by the state in 1978 but primarily serves as office space and storage, including donated antiques and paintings of prior first ladies.
Its $3 million renovation will include a catering-quality kitchen and, like the Lace House, an upgraded elevator wide enough to fit wheelchairs. Offices will be moved.
Of the three, the Carriage House is in the roughest shape, though the price tag for repairs is much smaller, at $350,000. Used as storage by governors for decades, it features horse stalls and a wood tongue-and-groove ceiling — though it currently has holes in it.
"It truly was a carriage house," Parrish said. "When I walked in there, I said, 'This has unique wedding venue all over it.' "
Landscaping and restoring the overgrown gardens to the original plan is estimated to cost $1 million.
Once the project is completed and all areas are rentable, the Venues at Arsenal Hill should turn a profit.
Even with events returning to the Lace House after the pandemic hiatus, rental fees that range from $1,100 for a half-day to $4,500 for all day (depending on the day of the week and season) won't cover expenses for that side of mansion grounds.
Prices will rise after the restoration, though new fees have not yet been determined.
"I'm very confident, based on what we've done in other places, it will pay for itself," Parrish said, noting other wedding venues operated by PRT include the Legare Waring House at Charles Towne Landing. "It will become self-sustaining financially and structurally down the road, regardless of what happens in the Governor's Mansion."
The Governor's Mansion, home to South Carolina governors since 1868, is getting its own makeover. A $670,300 project is underway to paint the chipping, peeling exterior and restore or replace leaking, rotting windows, according to the Department of Administration.
Public tours of the mansion resume in June.
Also on the National Register of Historic Places, the mansion itself once housed officers for the Arsenal Academy, the Columbia branch of South Carolina's military school, where starting in 1845 first-year cadets trained before transferring to The Citadel. The officers' quarters and the private homes incorporated onto Mansion grounds a century later were among the only buildings in the neighborhood to survive the burning of Columbia in 1865.