Columbia’s Preservation Visionaries: Mabel Payne and Jennie Dreher

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Friday, May 24th 2019

Jennie Dreher

There’s no better way to finish Preservation Month than learning about two of Columbia’s key preservation advocates—Mabel Payne and Jennie Dreher—who were responsible for saving the Robert Mills House over 50 years ago.

Mabel Payne
Mabel Payne, ca. 1961. Image courtesy of City of Columbia Planning Office

Mabel Bradley Payne was born in Abbeville, SC, and lived in New York and Williamsburg before coming to Columbia in the late 1950s. She had a lifelong passion for history and loved to decorate old homes and refinish antiques. During her time in Virginia, she worked as a hostess, performing costumed interpretations of historic characters.

After her move to Columbia, Payne soon became a Community Relations Specialist with the city during a period of heavy demolition of historic sites in favor of urban renewal. Payne saw this destruction and became a pioneer of historic preservation, starting with the renewal of the Ainsley Hall House (today known as the Robert Mills House.) Her constant research generated a wealth of information in the form of handwritten notes and hundreds of photographs, many of which are the only surviving images of demolished buildings in downtown Columbia.

Jennie Dreher was born in Columbia and lived here all her life. As an outgoing young woman and active student at the University of South Carolina, Dreher eventually used her popularity and charms to gather everyone she could to help save the Ainsley Hall House. Dreher got to travel the country and eventually the world meeting people who had connections to South Carolina History or any kind of preservation effort. Her daughter remembers her fondly: “She was a smart, funny society girl who got bitten by the preservation bug. Since she couldn’t own a business or be a bank president and she certainly wasn’t going to be a stay at home mom, it is fortunate for all of us she found this passion.”

Header image: Jennie Dreher (at far right) and friends. Image courtesy of The State Photograph Collection, Richland Library
This article was originally published in The Columbia Star.