meet and three

Sacred space

As an urban campus, the University of South Carolina intersects with the city at every turn. Student housing rubs shoulders with family residences, small businesses nestle up to university towers and busy streets graze the campus core. Factor in two centuries of architecture, a complicated public history and a need to keep pace with a growing student body, and university architect Derek Gruner has his work cut out. In July, USC Times invited Gruner and two colleagues to McCutchen House for a frank lunchtime conversation about historic preservation, campus growth and our campus’s place in the larger community.

USC is an urban campus. Technically, it stops and starts every time we cross the street, and yet it doesn’t feel so clearly defined sometimes. Let’s start by getting each of you to define campus as you perceive it.

DEREK: Columbia was laid out in the 1780s with 100-foot wide right-of-ways, with the exception of Assembly and Senate, which were 150. Those are more or less intact, and that’s fairly wide relative to other cities. So technically when you step into the right of way, yes, you’re in the City of Columbia realm, but I typically don’t see it that way. When you have campus property and spaces that are important to students on both sides of the road, from a design perspective we think of the roads as part of campus.

ROBERT: I had a student in a graduate seminar last semester who was interested in documenting the African-American experience on campus, so we had a discussion about this. Well, it was pretty easy, given her focus. It’s everything that the modern campus is. So it’s the former Ward 1, the African-American neighborhood where the Coliseum and the Koger Center are. It’s the remnants of Booker T. Washington High School. It’s the Florence Benson equalization school. She took what I think is the most capacious and inclusive definition of campus.

LYDIA: Physical boundaries at an urban campus are fluid, and race is a huge part of that — African-Americans have perceived the boundaries of our campus very differently because of their experiences at its edge. But I think we’re at a very interesting moment. Our students walk all the way from private housing on Pulaski, past Thirsty Fellow and Darla Moore, to the historic core of campus, and a lot of them think they’re on campus the entire time.

DEREK: The relevant measure should be, “Do I feel safe crossing the road?” “Is this road beautifully landscaped?” “Are cars traveling at an appropriate speed?” That’s what should matter to students these days.

Implicit in all this is the idea of community. Campus is a place, but it’s also people. It’s the students and faculty, it’s the neighbors. Bob, you mention Ward 1, which was absorbed by USC. What do we do now to be good neighbors?

ROBERT: The first step is to acknowledge the past, in my view. Yes, we are a community, variously defined, but there are also past communities, and not just African-American residents of Ward 1. East campus was an upper middle class residential area. Several years ago some folks from that neighborhood — it wasn’t called University Hill yet — came to us and said, “We’d like to put our buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.” We were successful, but in doing the research I came to appreciate just how much the university had acquired to create the east campus.

After WWII the university needed to expand, like most American universities at that time, and they looked seriously at moving the university out to Garner’s Ferry Road, where the medical school is today. They decided not to abandon downtown and the historic Horseshoe, but in making that decision, other decisions followed. It’s easy to be critical of geographic expansion, whether at University Hill or Ward 1, but there’s context for understanding it. My impression, by the way, is that President Sorensen did a lot while living on University Hill — while not living in the president’s house on campus — to repair those relations.

Derek, what’s your take on our history with University Hill?

DEREK: There was a phenomenon of rapid growth that most state universities went through. When you look at our enrollment going back to 1805, the spike in enrollment is unbelievable in the 1960s and ’70s, with the Baby Boomers and the G.I. Bill.

Thirty-five percent of square footage on campus was built in the ’60s and ’70s, even though we have a 200-year history. And if you look at what was happening downtown, there just wasn’t much sympathy towards historic buildings, and I think the university was doing the same thing. We needed land, we needed space.

We deal with the neighborhoods now in a much more respectful way. I’m sure some of the neighbors might still take some issue with that statement, but in general I think we do. In the ’90s, when we engaged Sasaki for our master plan, they said, “Celebrate and maintain adjoining residential neighborhoods.” That’s why future growth was directed west toward the river and toward the south on land we already own. The neighborhoods to the east and southeast are now considered sacred edges of campus.

Being charged with being a good steward for 200-plus years of construction. That’s the daunting responsibility that keeps me up at night.

Derek Gruner, university architect

We’re sitting in a building that was at one point on the chopping block, right?

DEREK: McCutchen, as I recall, was in particularly dire condition by the 1970s. It’s almost a nightmare scenario — at least for me, as an architect — to think what would have happened if this building had been demolished, not just in terms of what we would have lost, but also what might have replaced it. We didn’t make the mistake that some campuses did, where they constructed large modern buildings in the campus core because they had a space demand. You can go to a lot of campuses and see really strange juxtapositions, not just in scale but in the eras of architectural style.

LYDIA: I do think that when McKissick was built, that probably stuck out more to folks then than it does now. It’s much grander and more sophisticated.

DEREK: The scale is larger, but the building is beautifully detailed.

And that was the 1940s?

DEREK: 1940. The last building constructed on the Horseshoe before that was a wing of Harper-Elliott built in 1848, so it had been almost 100 years.

ROBERT: I’ve often thought of it as preservation through poverty, sort of a variation on the Charleston story. The first building constructed after the Civil War was Davis, in 1909. Before that we didn’t have the money. But the ’70s were a tough period, as Derek suggests. I believe that was also the time that the university acquired Booker T. Washington High School and used some of the bricks to pave the Horseshoe walkways. That’s another story of seeing race in space. I would hope that sort of thing would never be repeated. It says a lot about the period, but then hopefully it’s a reminder of how far we have come.

LYDIA: It’s interesting. Choosing not to demo, not to build, sort of fetishized the historic campus. This was common at the time, preserving the historic core. It made it more closed, more sacred. Here, it allowed the university to go south, go east, go west and do these mini campuses to back up against it. That’s relatively common where you see this preservation by poverty phenomenon. You could not build and could not build, and then suddenly you had to build so much, so fast — preserving the historic core was a way to say, “Hey, we’ve been here the whole time. We might have been under the radar, but we’ve been here.” Preserving one space almost gives you permission to say another space, say Ward 1, doesn't need to be preserved.

This gets back to Bob’s comment about racial history.

ROBERT: Well, we’ve done an excellent job marketing the historic charm of the Horseshoe to potential students. We have not done a very good job talking about the narrative of race and space on campus.

But we do seem to make more informed decisions. And there are a lot of criteria. It’s not just “tear down or restore.” There are degrees of restoration, right? Derek, I know a lot of tough decisions went into the renovation of Hamilton College, for example.

DEREK: You try to balance a functional demand with a variety of other considerations. When we renovate a building it usually hasn’t been renovated in 20 to 30 years. Teaching methodology changes, function changes. Then there’s preservation — what can be salvaged — and there’s budget.

Hamilton was built for the Navy ROTC during WWII, and part of it was a gymnasium, one of the few surviving examples of a WWII-era gymnasium in the state. There was some consideration by the Department of Archives and History as to whether it was appropriate to change that space, but they were seeing it only from the preservation perspective. We were looking at it from the function perspective as well. We desperately needed classroom space, and the rest of Gibbes Green is all academic classroom space. So we added a floor within the building. We didn’t need a gym space with a 30-foot ceiling.

But I think we did a very good job preserving the integrity of the exterior skin. We refurbished the windows, we didn’t replace them, we didn’t add windows that would disrupt the fenestration. We took out the gymnasium floor, refurbished it and put it back in throughout the building — and there’s an interpretive panel in the lobby. In the end, the project won a preservation award from Historic Columbia.

LYDIA: We put so much pressure on campuses, almost more than any other landscapes, except maybe government landscapes. At the same time, these buildings serve a function. Nobody’s going to be happy all the time, and not everyone is going to be happy in the end. One goal is to always try to obtain more knowledge, so that we can at least make informed decisions, knowing that we can’t keep this place in a glass bubble if it’s to remain relevant.

ROBERT: We’ve sort of been assuming that preservation is a given, but we’re really at a special moment, I think. I’ve been here 24 years, and Derek is the first campus architect that I’ve gotten to know. The fact that he and Lydia are here asking these types of questions is unprecedented. When the university decided to put money into restoring the campus wall, Derek reached out to both Lydia and me and said, “Would your students like to see some of the hands-on restoration work?” That kind of thing never happened before.

Stepping outside the Horseshoe, we see modern buildings that could soon qualify for historic designations, based simply on their age.

LYDIA: Absolutely. We have to develop a whole new set of criteria to evaluate these buildings.  The city is faced with this, too. I was at the Design/Development and Review Commission meeting just last night and saw a midcentury modern building go up for discussion. There were comments about integrity, “You can’t take down this wall,” “You can add to it, but you can’t take things away from the original design.” These are considerations we take for granted on the Horseshoe, but they’re just as important for a building from 1960 as they are for a building from 1860.

DEREK: Midcentury Modern architecture doesn’t have that romantic appeal to the untrained eye that some older buildings have. So much of it is uninspired copies of what was coming out of Europe at the time. Consequently, those buildings have an image problem. There’s something worse about a bad midcentury modern building than a bad 19th-century Federal-style building.

LYDIA: Part of the problem with midcentury institutional buildings, especially on a campus, is the buildings are really over-scaled, because they were serving this incredible rush of new students. They were not contextual. That was part of the idea. Or, they would be contextual in subtle ways that only somebody with a certain type of training would see. On top of that, the whole idea of modern planning often includes these wide promenades, which feel very empty after you’re on a landscape like the Horseshoe.

DEREK: Which is built on more of a human scale.

LYDIA: The buildings are kind of tough to love sometimes, and then they were all built under a budget really fast. So they’re not always the highest quality, whether they’re a copy or a thoughtfully designed modern building. They’re not always meant to last.

But then we do have some remarkable structures from that era —

DEREK: We have some interesting examples in Columbia and on campus, yes. Thomas Cooper, certainly.

Designed by Edward Durrell Stone. Would that be a criterion for saving a building? The fact that it was designed by the guy who built the Kennedy Center and Radio City Music Hall?

DEREK: I’ll give you an example of an Edward Durell Stone building that apparently wasn’t considered worth saving. Edward Durrell Stone also did the Honeycombs.

So what are the criteria?

DEREK: One consideration is certainly, “Was it by a notable architect?” Another would be, “Do the materials represent that era well?” We’re dealing with a project on south campus — might as well bring it up — called Campus Village. The university is looking to redevelop that area in a way that is more consistent with our current design guidelines. That means razing some buildings, and those buildings are not entirely without merit as representatives of the "Brutalist" design era.

LYDIA: You want to make informed decisions before you start picking which ones to demolish, which ones to save.

DEREK: Lydia’s class this spring did just an exquisite study of the midcentury buildings of south campus — Cliff Apartments and Bates House and so on. I’ll never forget standing next to Bates when one of her bright-eyed students, who had naturally fallen in love with Bates through the class, singled me out as someone who could potentially change the course of the building’s destiny. It was delightful, frankly, that she cared so much.

About that class — your students researched the architecture on the south side of campus. They surveyed a few buildings that are slated for demolition, right?

LYDIA: Yes. Teaching preservation is not just teaching this style, this style, this style. It’s learning how to advocate and make important decisions, which can be very subjective or sometimes very political. For me, the best model is to put students in a situation where they have to pick a side. They realize really quickly that that’s very hard. That makes for a richer educational experience. South campus was so interesting because there are real decisions being made right now.

DEREK: I do want to give Lydia’s students their due. They pointed out a few subtle details that I frankly hadn’t noticed, and that can influence the development to come. For example, the somewhat idiosyncratic way the windows are organized on Bates House and how that reveals the functions behind the building’s skin. I’d like to make sure that a little bit of that is reflected in the design of what replaces it.

ROBERT: Students never really appreciate the degree to which teaching is a two-way street, that we get something out of it, too.

DEREK: Sometimes to renovate a building such as Bates would be just too expensive. We have examples both ways. I advocated to try to save the old law center because I thought it could be adapted to a modern classroom space more economically than building a new structure. Numerous studies objectively confirmed that opinion, so that’s the course we’re taking.

ROBERT: Does USC have a preservation plan?

DEREK: When Lydia first came here, she mentioned the idea of a formal preservation plan, but it hasn’t been a priority yet. I feel like now it is, and the catalyst is this midcentury conversation. All of our 19th-century buildings are on the list to be protected, but it’s time for us to define some criteria for the midcentury buildings, not just to justify removal but so that we can also more ardently support or advocate for the ones we think should be saved. We also want to take a balanced look at preservation instead of being strictly romantic or economical.

LYDIA: And it’s not just a matter of demolishing buildings but also watering buildings down to the point where they lose their sparkle. Hamilton, for example, was not watered down to the point where it lost its integrity, even though a lot of changes were made. We need to have   that kind of discussion about all these midcentury buildings.

Do you guys have favorite buildings on campus? And maybe let’s think outside the Horseshoe, which we all seem to agree is now sacred space.

DEREK: I’ll have to think about that, but let me say one thing about the Horseshoe. The truth is, no one building on the Horseshoe truly stands out. That’s the beauty of the Horseshoe. If we’re being honest, most of the buildings are not architectural icons — they’re just not. If you’re looking for great examples of Federal or Greek Revival architecture, these individual buildings are fairly austere. Their power is that they frame this perfectly proportioned green space.

McKissick is a powerful presence, of course, and the South Caroliniana Library is a tremendously important building — the reading room is, bar none, our finest interior space. It’s an exquisite example of Greek Revival architecture. But I stick with what I originally said. There’s a certain democracy in the way that these buildings form a whole that’s much greater than the sum of their parts.

Outside the Horseshoe, I have a great fondness for the War Memorial. When you study all the influences — the Greek, Roman, Egyptian, the Art Deco — it’s an amazing building, and that upstairs interior is probably the second finest interior on campus. It’s so well preserved. Davis College is also important because it heralded a rebirth of architecture on campus. We had gone almost 50 years without building anything, if you can imagine that, and then along comes Davis at the height of the Beaux-Arts period when architects are pulling details from ancient Greece and Rome. As a result, the buildings in Gibbes Green are more ornate. Thomas Cooper Library is our finest example of midcentury modern architecture, without question.

LYDIA: Thomas Cooper is awesome, and the details have survived. The gold medallions in the curtains are so Edward Durrell Stone — you see that in the Kennedy Center and other buildings he designed. They just need a little shine. And the axis is extremely formal — it’s a temple on a platform, it’s built into a hill which allows it to be big but to appear like a one- or two-story building from the street. That’s what a lot of university libraries were doing in the 1960s. When you think about the hulking mass of McKissick, which had been the library, Thomas Cooper has a really different feel.

But I really love Bates. My students helped me understand it. Unless you live on south campus, you don’t spend much time down there. But when you think about its height — that height was a way to visually connect that whole area back to the main campus.

ROBERT: I love structures that are hiding in plain sight. Clearly the slave quarters in the president’s garden has gotten attention in the past few years, but the campus wall is the largest slave-built structure on campus and yet it’s invisible to most people. Students use it as a bulletin board across from Russell House. So I don’t have a single favorite building but there are so many stories that are interesting to me as a historian. I believe you can tell the history of a nation, of a state, of a university campus through the built environment.

If someone were to conduct another roundtable in 50 years, what would you hope they would admire about what’s being built today?

ROBERT: We’re being tested right now as to what we will do with the slave quarters, and with telling the story of the Horseshoe as a landscape of slavery. Much will be made for better or for worse based on the decisions we’re making. Having said that, people always ask what I think should be done. My response is always, “It’s not up to me, it’s up to the community,” whether that’s defined as the faculty, students and staff, or the Columbia community as a whole.

DEREK: We have to ask, “What will our values be in 50 years?” For instance, the need for a personal car. Cars have an enormous impact on the built landscape, the way we think of buildings and the streets. We’re starting to more fully embrace walking and biking, taking shuttles, and I have to think that in 50 years that will be one of our hightest values.

One detriment at Bates is that there’s about 5 or 6 acres of surface parking. It’s an asphalt wasteland. What’s going to take the place of all that asphalt? Green space, courtyards, things that we have come to value in our master plan. We want you to be able to take a walk that you look forward to and that is pleasant. I hope the Campus Village project achieves that. Lydia — and I say this a little bit tongue  in cheek — will we look back in 50 years at the one surviving example of a parking garage?

LYDIA: [laughing] I do think that there is some reason to nominate some parking garages to the National Register. And parking lots were photographed for publicity in the 1950s and ’60s. That was a sign that you had made it as a modern college.

But to answer the earlier question, I hope we look back and see that we built good relationships between the university and the city. Development on campus is moving very quickly, but what I see is thoughtful and well considered. There’s a strategy. The conversations are good. I worry more about the development in the city to support the growth of the university, especially with transportation. Crosswalks, sidewalks — how students get to campus is a really big concern. But I’m very optimistic that we’re starting to have more conversations about that.

Last question. All three of you have challenging jobs. What gives you the  most satisfaction?

LYDIA: Students spend so much time on campus, and I think they take so much of it for granted, just as they might have taken the neighborhood or town they came from for granted. I find great satisfaction in getting    them to pivot and look at it differently, to think beyond the nostalgia they will feel when they graduate. If they can think critically about this place, then they can think more critically about the neighborhood or town where they will live later.

ROBERT: Being able to undertake important real-world projects that have contributed to the university, to Columbia, to the state. I’m very proud of the public history program. I really think it’s one of the crown jewels of the university.

DEREK: Being charged with being a good steward for 200-plus years of construction. That’s the daunting responsibility that keeps me up at night. It becomes the measure of your life. I spent the first half of my career in the private sector, and the reason I was intrigued by the university is that I wanted to be able to think about things from a campus perspective, where everything is related to everything else in some way — not just the architectural forms but the history, the legacy, all the intangibles that come with this magnificent place.

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