The Bull Street campus of the South Carolina State Hospital is a unique and important collection of interrelated structures that provide compelling insight into the lives of men, women and children dealing with mental illness – either as patients, caretakers or family members – from the early 19th century to the end of the 20th century.
Bull Street Campus
The giant patient building, Babcock, functioned as the front door for an entire village where hundreds of people lived and worked in the late 1800s. The village’s back door (structures that supported the day-to-day operation of the asylum) included the laundry, the ice factory, the bakery, fire station, and others along Mills Drive to the rear of Babcock. As ideas about treatment and medicine changed in the twentieth century, the focus of the campus shifted to Williams, the Chapel, Ensor, and the library and auditorium to the north of Babcock. Doctors and administrators were looking to distance themselves from the public’s perception of the asylum as a place of medieval, inhumane practices. They accomplished this by drawing on familiar architectural styles to express the asylum’s connection to the community. Many of these buildings were the work of various incarnations of the architectural firm of Lafaye and Lafaye, whose designs defined the South Carolina aesthetic throughout the twentieth century.
Embedded into the very brick and mortar of these buildings are two centuries of human experience and progress, revealing innumerable stories about the ways in which people relate to one another, stories of tragedy and triumph, grief and hope, that offer future generations a guide for continued progress. It is the integrity of this village and the way that its buildings relate to one another, both architecturally and spatially, that gives it significance to national, state, and local history according to the standards of the National Register of Historic Places.
Years of neglect by the state of South Carolina left much of this historic campus in significant disintegration and disrepair by the time it was listed for sale in 2012. Despite determined and well-documented advocacy by local citizens, in 2013 the City of Columbia signed a development agreement with Hughes Development without providing the requested landmark designation for the campus or for buildings that individually qualify for designation. In addition, the developer decided not to move forward with the recommended National Register District, which would make 45 acres of the campus eligible for federal, state and local incentives.
The 350,000+ square foot Babcock Building is the most significant and daunting property on the campus. Its size and level of deteriorations makes it a challenging preservation project, but as perhaps THE character-defining feature of the campus, it is one that must be part of the rehabilitation plan.
True to their promise, in the five years since signing the development agreement, Hughes Development has not removed any buildings from the landscape without a plan to reuse the site. To date the Bakery, Parker Annex and Ensor buildings have been adaptively used in ways that highlight the history of the campus and the individual buildings. In addition to the Babcock Building and its dining halls, there remain a number of historic buildings on the campus that can be reused and integrated into the new construction across the site. These buildings include: the Laundry, Chapel of Hope, Williams Building, Horger Library and Benet Auditorium. In addition, the campus is replete with historic trees and surrounded in parts by a wall that was erected in the mid-19th century.
Awesome, expansive and intriguing are but a few of the adjectives that spring to mind upon touring the South Carolina Department of Mental Health’s Bull Street facility. Bustling with activity for generations, the sprawling 178-acre tract of land today is best characterized largely by silence punctuated by sounds beyond its...