#TBT: Mid-Century Mod

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By: Lois Carlisle, Consulting Historian

Thursday, January 11th 2018

Russell House

Mix yourself a martini and get settled on your sunken sectional. This week, we’re looking at the Mid-Century Modern buildings at the University of South Carolina. (See more eras of UofSC architecture here and here.)

Not sure what MCM is? Easy—just think Mad Men or The Brady Bunch.


To a lot of folks, Mid-Century architecture isn’t historic. They see it as tacky. And I totally get that—maybe MCM just isn’t your style. Rococo sitting parlors aren’t my style, but I’m not saying we should set fire to them all.

But, believe it or not, more and more MCM structures are turning 50. It’s difficult for us to see something that’s just now 50 years old as being historic. It’s especially difficult for my 50-something-year-old neighbor, who does not want to be called historic, thank you very much.

Hold on to your fedoras and little pillbox hats — this week, we’re looking at USC’s Mid-Century moment.

Scientific sex appeal 

USC map drawing
1942 map of UofSC | Image courtesy South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia

Before 1955, the Carolina campus looked pretty much like it always had (with the exception of McKissick’s WPA buildings we talked about the other week). Red brick, stucco, traditional lines, and columns. So. many. columns.

But the Space Age was fast approaching! We’re two short years away from Sputnik’s launch and the beginning of the Space Race, the Cold War is ramping up, and people aren’t so sure that college is just for the sons of politicians anymore.

In 1955, millions of government dollars are being poured into scientific research. Where does that research get done? Universities. And Carolina wants a slice of that cash.

Donald Russell, university president at the time, sees the potential funding not just as a way to enhance the minds of S.C.’s students, but to expand its flagship university. What’s the plan? To build brand new spaces for students to congregate, discover, research, and live.

The Ballad of Russell House
russell house 1955

Russell House | Image courtesy Richland Library, Russel Maxey Photograph Collection

Before Russell House, there was no communal space for students at Carolina. (The football stadium notwithstanding.) That’s not very modern! People are seeking a space to meld minds, to hatch schemes, to pass the hacky sack of knowledge, if you will.

In 1950, the decision was made to construct a students union that which would unify the Carolina community. And as with many construction projects — the process took forever.

1️⃣ What was the place even going to look like? Neoclassical? Colonial? An amalgamation of the two?

2️⃣ Where was it going to go? Carolina’s was one of the smallest college campuses in the entire Southeast. How are they going to fit an entire student center near the Horseshoe? Someone suggested tearing down McCutchen House and starting from scratch there. Fights ensued; chaos reigned, then —

aerial view
1925 aerial of UofSC | Image courtesy Richland Library, Russell Maxey Photograph Collection

Enter LBC&W, an architecture firm from Columbia that — spoiler alert — built almost every building on campus from 1955-1965. (Heck, y’all, they built a ton of stuff in Cola.) They suggested leaving McCutchen standing and moving instead to Melton Field, across Greene St. from Preston College.

That was all well and good. And then LBC&W suggested building something Modern. Y’all can imagine how well that went.

The firm basically argued this: The Horseshoe is beautiful, but it’s history. We need something that looks to the future.

What was in the original Students Union of the Future? Everything. Russell House used to boast a barber shop, bowling alley, lounge space, a dry cleaner + a bar.

newspaper image
Image via Garnet and Black Magazine, courtesy South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina


Like déjà vu, but with buildings

If you stand outside of Thomas Cooper Library and watch a tour go by, chances are you’ll hear one or two visitors say, “Hey—that looks like a knock-off Kennedy Center!”

Thomas Cooper inside
Thomas Cooper Library | Image courtesy the Louis M. & Elsie B. Wolff Archive

They’re not crazy—TCoop and the Kennedy Center were designed by the same architect, Edward Durrell Stone. (Less of an architect and more of a STARchitect—the guy designed Radio City Music Hall, the Museum of Modern Art, Mepkin Abbey in Moncks’s Corner, Busch Stadium, and the WEB DuBois Library.) When Stone found a design that worked, he used the heck out of it.

What am I talking about? Well, take a look at the American Embassy in New Delhi, built in 1954. ⬇️

Image courtesy WikiMedia Commons

…and then Cola’s own TCoop, built in 1959… ⬇️

T Cooper 1959
Image courtesy the Louis M. & Elsie B. Wolff Archive

…and, finally, the Kennedy Center, built in 1962. ⬇️

Kennedy Center
Image courtesy WikiMedia Commons

Can you say déjà vu?

So the next time someone says TCoop looks like the Kennedy Center, tell ‘em they’ve got it the wrong way round. (It looks like New Delhi.)

TCoop isn’t just an undergrad’s favorite place to take a nap. It’s a part of a much larger architectural story — one that encouraged communication, transparency, and growth across the planet.

The big, beautiful picture

Carolina’s MCMs — Russell House, TCoop, McBryde, Sumwalt, Gambrell, the Humanities Complex, and others — intended to shed the ghost of Reconstruction. Their forward-thinking designs and use of new, scientifically advanced materials demonstrated a deep desire by the university to become a world class institution. And sometimes making progress makes you sleepy — check out TCoop in 1962.

napping in Thomas Cooper
Image courtesy Walker Local and Family History Center at Richland Library

It’s all about accessible knowledge, y’all. So the next time you hear someone throw shade at the Byrnes Building, why not try to enlighten them? We’ll all hit fifty sooner or later….

That’s it for us this week. If you’re still curious about MCM buildings in other parts of Cola, let us know here or by replying to this email. We just might do a reprise.

Also: We’re growing our collection! If you have any mid-century memories you’d like to share, please get in touch. Especially if you have images! You never know where they might show up. Who knows what future #TBTs may hold.

Psst — want to win a Preservation Award? Here’s how you do it.

–Lois from Historic Columba + Beth from Cola Today