Skip to Content

Remembering the Days — Collapsing shower stalls and crumbling mortar: The restoration of the Horseshoe

Remembering the Days - episode 82

In the early 1970s, USC's historic Horseshoe buildings had fallen into disrepair while new buildings sprouted across the campus. The university began a long renovation and restoration project that systematically rejuvenated each 19th-century building, and the vigilant maintenance process continues to this day. 


It happened early in the spring semester of 1972.  A student was taking a shower in a dormitory on the University of South Carolina’s historic Horseshoe …

“Hey, Let's give a cheer, Carolina is here,
The Fighting Gamecocks lead the way.”

“Who gives a care if the going gets tough,
And when it is rough, that's when the 'Cocks get going ­— ahhhhhh!!!”

Over time, the floor had become rotted beneath the shower stall in the 19th-century building, and when the floor beams collapsed, the shower floor and the student plunged several feet into the crawlspace of the building. Fortunately, he wasn’t injured, but the incident definitely put the spotlight on the need for major repairs across the Horseshoe.

I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and today we’re looking back at the massive project to renovate, repair and restore the aging buildings on the Horseshoe. The project began in the early 1970s and wasn’t completed until the mid-1980s. But as we’ll learn a little later in this episode, maintaining the campus’ 19th-century buildings is a process that never actually ends.

In 1972 when the shower stall collapsed, Horseshoe buildings were dilapidated. Paint was peeling, window frames had rotted, stucco on the outside walls had large blotches of mildew. Mortar was falling from the brick walls of the South Caroliniana Library, and McCutchen House was in such bad shape, there was serious discussion of tearing it down and replacing it with a modern building.

All but one of the Horseshoe buildings were constructed in the 1800s. While they had all been periodically repaired and renovated over time, the university had also been rather busy constructing new buildings in the 1960s and '70s to accommodate all of the Baby Boomers enrolling in college. Frankly, the attention was on those new buildings and not so much on the old ones. Then as now, it was far easier for a public university to procure funding for new construction than for deferred maintenance.

In any case, USC’s Horseshoe buildings had definitely seen their better days when the collapsed shower stall incident took place.

As fate would have it, the Senate Finance Committee at the state Legislature had unbudgeted funds it was willing to spend on one-time items and capital improvements. Rep. Sol Blatt, who had graduated from USC in 1917 and had a lifelong love for the university, called USC President Tom Jones and told him to get over to the State House immediately before all of the money was spoken for.

President Jones and Hal Brunton, who was in charge of USC’s campus expansion in the 1960s and '70s, hightailed it over to the State House. When they arrived, President Jones made an impassioned plea for funding to launch an honors program, but Hal Brunton really got the senators’ attention when he told them about the collapsed shower stall and the general state of disrepair on the Horseshoe.

He appealed to their sense of pride in preserving the original portion of the state’s oldest public university — and the Senate Finance Committee responded by earmarking $2.8 million for the project.

In a memoir he wrote years later, Brunton said he came up with that $2.8 million figure off the top of his head when senators asked him how much the university needed to renovate the Horseshoe buildings. “I should have asked for more money,” he said.

I suppose anyone who has ever undertaken a major home renovation project can identify with those words.

It took a while for the university to get moving on the Horseshoe restoration. There was a sense of "this an important project that involves the very heart of campus and we need to get it right."

So professors, students and representatives of community groups tied to historic preservation were appointed to various committees, and historical consultants were hired to help guide the process. It was collectively decided that (a) the university would tackle one building at a time and do each one as well as possible with available funding, and (b) the exterior of each building would be restored in a historical manner, but the interiors would be renovated to make them modern and practical.

As word got out about the project, various alumni wrote in with unsolicited suggestions. “I vividly recall what the Horseshoe looked like in 1921,” one elderly alumnus helpfully offered, “and I can tell you exactly what to do to restore it.”

One of the first big decisions to be made concerned exterior paint color. The Horseshoe buildings had been painted battleship gray, perhaps not surprisingly during the 1945-to-1952 presidency of Norman Smith, a retired Navy admiral. After that they had been painted a sort of grayish-green color. A company was hired to analyze the many layers of paint on the exterior stucco walls to figure out what the original color had been. Turns out that some of the buildings had first been painted brick red and others had originally been painted a sand color.

Walter Edgar, a longtime USC history professor who’s now retired, was chairman of the Horseshoe Advisory Committee at the time.

Walter Edgar: “There was an idea, well, let's make it like rainbow row and paint each building a different color. And we said no. Some people were enamored of the sort of battleship gray that they were. The color we have is as close as we could figure from documentation on the buildings and paint analysis and that kind of thing.”

After much discussion, the sand color was selected for the Horseshoe buildings. When James Holderman became USC’s president in 1977, he liked the color so much it was applied to nearly all of the buildings across campus.

In preparation for the Horseshoe building renovations, a team of 30 archaeology students led by an archaeology professor undertook an exploratory dig on the Horseshoe. They located the remains of 19th-century water wells in front of Harper, Elliott, Rutledge and DeSaussure. They also uncovered the original foundation footings for DeSaussure, which were 100 feet closer to the middle of the Horseshoe than where the building now stands.

It's been speculated that the university’s Board of Trustees in those early years of the 1800s looked at the original foundation for DeSaussure and decided that it was too close to Rutledge, the building it faces across the Horseshoe. And so, apparently before construction on DeSaussure began, the distance between DeSaussure and Rutledge was increased from 220 feet to 320 feet.

Good thing, too — the Horseshoe as we know it today would be a cramped space if that narrower distance between the buildings on the north and south sides had been maintained.

There were other discoveries made as well as the building renovations progressed. An architectural consultant found evidence that McCutchen House was a direct copy of the Blacklock House in Charleston. Contractors also found evidence of 19th-century slave quarters in the attic of McCutchen along with a deed for an enslaved man named "Jack." You can find past episodes about both of those topics at

When workers scraped away the mildewed stucco of Legare, they discovered five decorative oval shapes equally spaced across the front wall. Those decorative ovals were not found on any other Horseshoe building, and further investigation revealed that the front wall of Legare, which was built in 1848, was actually the original front wall of a science and library building that had been built in 1817 and later demolished. Apparently, the contractor who built Legare had decided to incorporate the front wall of the old building into the newer one. You can still see those ovals, which are located just above the first floor windows.

It's interesting to note that the first building renovated for the Horseshoe restoration wasn’t actually on the Horseshoe. Longstreet, which was built in 1855 on the corner of Greene and Sumter streets, had been previously used as a lecture hall, classroom laboratories and as the university gymnasium. The building had once boasted a beautiful exterior, but it was now falling apart inside. Interior walls were unstable, water pipes dripped and floors were rotted. The university was using it as a storage building by the early 1970s, and it wasn’t even much good for that purpose.

Listen to episode 39 entitled "The Lecture Hall That Never Was" to learn more about the work that transformed Longstreet from a ramshackle storage shed into a premier performance venue for the university’s theater department.

Some of the buildings required massive demolition and rebuilding. An entire wall of the east wing of DeSaussure was replaced and its floor timbers, which were on the verge of collapse, were shored up. Much of McCutchen House’s interior was demolished and rebuilt. The single outside staircase on the front was replaced with two staircases to match the building’s original design, and the refurbished structure became one of the prettiest on the Horseshoe. And to think that it was nearly demolished to make room for a modern building that surely would have looked out of place in the campus’ historic district.

The residence halls in Harper-Elliott and Legare-Pinckney were converted to four-person apartments with kitchens, and steel fire escape stairs were added to the rear of each dorm.

The old South Caroliniana Library had its crumbling mortar repaired and air conditioning added to cool off the second-floor reading room which would get unbearably hot in the summer, even with those very high ceilings.

While all of that work was going on, the U-shaped asphalt-covered driveway on the Horseshoe was repaved with bricks, and automobile traffic on the 'Shoe was curtailed. There were grand plans for planting massive gardens on the Horseshoe, but a scarcity of funds scuttled those flowery dreams. However, with a major assist from the Columbia Garden Club, rose gardens were added to the space around Lieber College.

Because the project took about a dozen years to complete, the university was able to procure various grants and funds to cover the costs, which totaled far more than the original $2.8 million provided by the Legislature.

Well, those are just a few of the highlights of the project that begin 50 years ago to save the historic Horseshoe from further decay. The university has engaged in regular improvements ever since, including the very recent restoration of the South Caroliniana Library, the oldest freestanding college library in America.

I talked to Jason Lambert, USC’s associate vice president for facility services, who directs a large maintenance crew that keeps all of the campus buildings in repair. He says the Horseshoe buildings, some of them more than 200 years old, present interesting challenges.

Jason Lambert: “I can tell you that the men and women of facilities are part technician, part artist and part MacGyver. Sometimes systems, particularly in these older buildings, are fairly obsolete. So we have to sometimes even manufacture parts. So we have welders and fabricators.

“In fact, I can't tell you how proud I am of the men and women out there who every day do their best to keep pieces of machinery that are 50, 60, 70, 80 years old running. And sometimes that might be with baling wire and duct tape, because that's the only parts that are available on something that's otherwise obsolete.”

Jason mentioned that his maintenance crews are part technician, part artist and part MacGyver. They also become amateur archaeologists during some of the repairs.

Jason Lambert: “When we do these renovations, we take them down to the bones and they've got good bones generally. But one thing that my team has shared is even when we do minor maintenance and certainly when we do major construction, you never know when you open up a wall, there's a leak or something, you open up the wall you never know what you're going to find on the inside. And sometimes it's like looking into a portal into the past. There could be old bottles or newspapers or something. Back in that day, they may have used newspaper for insulation in some of the walls. So that's one of the things that the men and women who maintain these buildings — they have that unique ‘aha’ moment every once in a while where they find something. And part of our job is to preserve the history.”

Preserving history. That’s what took place 50 years ago when the university launched the Horseshoe renovation and restoration project. And it’s what continues to take place now.

Jason Lambert: “If we were to do a loop around the Horseshoe by the time we started at one building and finished at the other, we'd have to start all the way again at the beginning, because it’s a constant cycle. It's super critical to us making sure that we can preserve these for, you know, not only the next generation, but for many, many generations to come. So I think that there's every bit of a chance that these buildings could last for hundreds of more years, just so long as we're careful stewards of the resource.”

That’s all for this episode. On the next Remembering the Days, we’re going to travel to the left of the radio dial and right in your ear with a lookback at the origins of WUSC, the campus radio station. If you think interest in radio is dead, I’m going to introduce you to some of the scores of DJs who continue to rock on at WUSC.

Thanks for listening today, and forever to thee.