To truly understand Columbia, one must understand the whole of South Carolina. The events of the entire state are writ large across the capital city’s architecture and landscape, and there is no better place to start than with Mr. A.S. Salley.
Alexander Samuel Salley was born in Orangeburg, South Carolina, in 1871, and although he trained as a lawyer, he never practiced law but instead became the state’s foremost post-war historian. Having served on the staff of Congressman William Elliott, Salley was in a prime position to organize the South Carolina Historical Society of Charleston and later the state’s official Historical Commission. He also was the founding editor of S.C. Historical & Genealogical Magazine and a leading scholar of the works of novelist and historian William Gilmore Simms. In 1910, he built a stately home on Laurens Street in Columbia, its breezeway housing a better collection of regional history books than you would find in many libraries. Mr. Salley’s devotion to Columbia went beyond the utility of living near the seat of government for the state: while many associate Charleston with the concept of history in South Carolina, Salley realized that Columbia also had its vital stories to tell and the city had evolved in a spectacular way since its founding as the new capital of the state in 1786.
Mr. Salley’s house still serves as a private home, built in the beautiful University Hills neighborhood of gentle hills, old shade trees, and other homes built mainly between the 1860’s and 1950’s. This neighborhood is just northwest of Five Points, the confluence of five streets and a longstanding center of trade and retail business—now also a center for student nightlife from the nearby University of South Carolina. Five Points is compact: it is nearly impossible to build new, given the space constraints and layout, so buildings are thankfully repurposed and older architecture remains intact.
A great example is an old theatre now serving as the Cotton Gin bar, which retains the original façade and uses the sign that once announced blockbusters to advertise its drink specials. A street over is Blue Tile Skateshop, a skateboard store offering not only skateboards but the limited-edition shoes and shirts that have made skate-inspired fashion core to streetwear in general. The inventory and layout of Blue Tile, right down to its complex window displays and revolving artwork by local artists would not look out of place in Brooklyn or San Francisco or Atlanta, but instead are a strong reminder that, despite its historical flair, Columbia also is a college town with a large youth population. The expected vintage clothing shops and record stores that have long been mainstays of American college towns also can be found in Five Points with Papa Jazz Record Shoppe providing a better than average store for serious music collectors.
While Columbia may not have yet gained the repute its sister city Charleston holds for fine Southern cooking, Five Points certainly doesn’t disappoint in regard to food: Yesterday’s Tavern is a longstanding local favorite with traditional Southern and pub food, while Pho Viet offers quality, authentic Vietnamese cuisine in a cheerful environment. Perhaps most interesting of all however is Mr. Friendly’s, a restaurant that began life as a humble sandwich shop and now, located in the historic Claussen’s Bakery building, is a leader in New Southern cuisine. Dishes such as blackend shrimp-n-grits, pecan crab cakes, and their famous catfish po’boys illustrate the emphasis on seafood here, but their fried chicken also has won acclaim in a city that is quite picky about its fried chicken. Also in the Claussen’s building is the Inn at Claussen’s, a bed-and-breakfast that offers modern rooms in this historic setting.
Walking around University Hills, it’s striking how stately many homes are—and indeed, there are just as impressive houses elsewhere in the city. Unlike Savannah and Charleston which both enjoyed an economic boom period during colonial days, Columbia’s wealth came in later. Charleston was in fact the wealthiest city in the entire scope of the original thirteen colonies for a number of years—a crucial seaport boasting the leading merchant class of its time. However, the growth of the nation and then the Civil War changed the dynamics of such wealth, and Columbia benefited not only from its status as the capital of South Carolina but also from its inland location and rail and road connections. With the Santee Canal completed in 1800, there was naval passage from Charleston upriver to Columbia, although the railroad had made this waterway outdated by around 1850. Still this was one of the first successful large-scale canal projects in the young United States, just as Columbia itself was one of the first planned cities built more or less from scratch per a consummate design in America. South Carolina College, which is now the University of South Carolina, was founded here in 1801, making it one of the oldest public universities in the South. When all these factors are considered, Columbia is more of a leader in cutting-edge developments for America in the nineteenth century than many people probably realize.
Another thing to note regarding the architecture in Columbia’s University Hills area is the size and scope of the yards: while vast yards are quite rare in Savannah and only slightly more common in Charleston, expansive front yards can be found in downtown Columbia. In part this was due to the way lots were set back from the street: in the case of Senate Street, a whopping 160-foot right-of-way ensured ample space and prevented homes from coming right up to the curb.
But a different economy was at work as well, once development really took off in Columbia, and as it happened later—to a great degree from the 1870’s to the 1940’s and beyond—you can find a lot of Colonial Revival style homes and also the smaller, more pragmatic bungalows and American foursquare styles that were popular in the early twentieth century. While bungalows are more common to the Hollywood-Rose Hill neighborhood of Columbia which was more working-class (and also very worth visiting for its diverse architecture), some bungalows stand side-by-side with the Georgians and Victorians of grander status in University Hills and other “posh” addresses.
Queen Anne, American Craftsman, and Tudor styles also are found in University Hills, giving the neighborhood a very diverse character of Southern turn-of-the-century residential architecture in a comprehensive manner. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004 and holding the distinction of being an Architectural Conservation District since 1964, University Hills also boasts some of the oldest purpose-built apartment buildings in Columbia—designed mainly to meet the needs of the growing student body at the University of South Carolina and built of sturdy, attractive brick.
Another aspect of University Hills that makes the neighborhood unique is that it was planned for, along with the South Carolina College, in the original master plan for Columbia. The original survey for the city in 1787 spelled out what is now the location of University Hills, and the intention was to be mainly residential, serving the needs of the new seat of government and new college alike. Interestingly, Senate and Assembly Streets were designed on the plan as the main business streets of Columbia; however, Gervais Street developed into the leading commercial boulevard instead.
Nonetheless, many lots in the neighborhood remained vacant despite the growth in the general area, a situation that played into the neighborhood’s favor when the city burned in 1865 as the few scattered homes there were spared the tragedy that fell upon the rest of Columbia. This brought about University Hills becoming a crucial center of new growth after the Civil War as it had remained largely intact and development, especially from around 1890 onwards, took off at a rapid pace. The placement of the Trinity Episcopal Church in the neighborhood in 1812, and later the Wesley Methodist Church in 1869, had also helped foster a sense of community here, and after the Civil War to around the post-World War Two years (when suburban flight began), University Hills became one of Columbia’s most-desired addresses. The majority of the most impressive homes are still in fine shape, a perfect example being the Boyne-Pressley Spigner House which is now part of the University of South Carolina campus.
University Hills is within easy walking distance of not only Five Points but also the historic neighborhoods of Cottontown, Hollywood-Rose Hill, and Lower Waverly. The website for Historic Columbia (http://www.historiccolumbia.org/) has superb self-guided walking tours of these three neighborhoods (although they do not as of this writing have one for University Hills yet) and their foundation also offers guided neighborhood and house tours.