University of South Carolina

Preservation matters

By Craig Brandhorst, CRAIGB1@mailbox.sc.edu, 803-777-3681

If you’ve lived in Columbia any length of time you know that Bull Street is more than just a busy downtown artery that backs up at rush hour. "Bull Street" is also shorthand for the 178-acre tract of land formerly home to the South Carolina Department of Mental Health’s state hospital — as well as for the ongoing debate about that sprawling and highly valued tract’s ultimate fate in the face of pending development.

This fall, that debate came to the campus of the University of South Carolina, thanks to a seminar taught by assistant professor of art history Lydia Brandt, who used the campus as a 3-D classroom to teach her students about architecture as well as about the thorny issues surrounding preservation efforts in general.

“I ask them to think about why individual buildings are important,” says Brandt. “What do individual buildings tell us about the history of the site, about the history of mental illness in general? That inevitably feeds into the question, ‘Should individual buildings be saved?’”

Long coveted by developers, who have proposed building everything from residential units and retail development to a minor league baseball stadium on the site, the abandoned Bull Street campus has in recent years become one of the most discussed topics among preservationists and historians and so was a perfect subject for study, according to Brandt.

“You could conceivably teach this class using any building or any site, but since I got to USC it has seemed to me that one of the biggest development issues in Columbia, and probably in the state, is Bull Street,” says Brandt, who has been contemplating such a course since joining the university's College of Arts and Sciences a year and a half ago. “Also, so many of my students had asked me about the campus and had done their own poking around, and as soon as I told my students last spring that I was thinking of teaching a class on Bull Street I got an immediate response. It was kind of a no-brainer from there.”

The students in Brandt’s class each tackled a different building within the campus. More prominent structures such as the South Carolina State Asylum building, designed in 1828 by noted American architect Robert Mills, and the 300,000-square-foot Babcock building, with its iconic red cupola, have already been the subject of published research and so were off-limits. Others were fair game.

“I created a list of buildings that included what I thought were some of the more interesting ones, like the chapel, which is slated to be preserved, but also buildings that I think are pretty much doomed, like the little bakery behind Babcock, the laundry behind Babcock, the ice factory,” says Brandt, who notes that while not every building can or even should be saved, their histories are worth documenting.

In fact, infrastructural narratives concerning, for example, the hospital's use of occupational therapy, the campus's electrification or the segregation of patient populations tell a larger, more complicated story than would have been told had the class focused exclusively on the Babcock and the Mills buildings.

As Brandt says, the less recognizable buildings provide a window into the systems that made the campus function as an independent community. Getting students involved with those buildings on a personal level, meanwhile, helped them to understand the complexity of the questions surrounding preservation more generally.

“You can teach students to think about the importance of preservation and how to make decisions about what buildings mean, but until a student has a visceral real-life experience with a building that they love, and that might or might not be preserved, they don’t get it.”

Senior Elizabeth Fagan did "get it." After Brandt led her students on a tour of the hospital campus at the start of the semester and explained the functions of the different structures, Fagan, a history major, chose to research a building known as the Parker Annex, which served as a dormitory for African-American patients from its construction in 1910 to the patients’ relocation to a different facility in 1937.

For Fagan, standing in the building’s shadow took her intellectual curiosity to another level. What began as research on the building's architecture grew into a larger investigation into the history of African-American patients at the hospital dating back to the middle of the 19th century.

“You can’t just flip through a textbook, reading about a building, and expect to get the same thing,” says Fagan. “It’s so much more interactive and rewarding when you can walk around the building and peer in the windows. We were trekking through waist-high grass and thorns to get to places, so it was exciting.”

Of course, very little research has been published on many of the Bull Street campus’s buildings, which meant Brandt’s students ultimately spent as much time digging through documents at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History as they did at the site, though that hardly diminished the excitement surrounding the project.

“Once you get personally involved and start doing your own research — once you get motivated and enthusiastic about a project — it becomes like a little part of you,” says Fagan, who is now applying to graduate programs in historic preservation. “I was telling everybody about what I was doing with this building and its history. It becomes a part of your life.”

A class taught by art history professor Lydia Brandt explored the history of individual buildings on the campus of the South Carolina State Department of Mental Health's abandoned Bull Street hospital campus.

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Posted: 12/14/12 @ 12:00 AM | Updated: 12/14/12 @ 3:34 PM | Permalink