Image above: 1919 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Ward 1, the African American neighborhood the university acquired and demolished through Urban Renewal. LBC&W’s Carolina Coliseum was built on the block just south of Greene Street, facing east onto Assembly Street. Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps of South Carolina Collection, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.
By Lydia Mattice Brandt
An antebellum city with few antebellum buildings, Columbia has long lagged behind its charming coastal cousin in the recognition of its historic fabric. Charleston, with its narrow cobblestone streets and quintessential single-houses, is undeniably old, seemingly making it South Carolina’s logical leader for historic preservation and tourism. But Columbia’s time has finally come: its tremendous twentieth-century building stock is now just old enough to be considered “historic” by the dominant metrics of the National Register of Historic Places. Generations born too recently to know these buildings as “new” now regard them with interest and appreciation, seeing the plate glass, steel beams, and clean lines through the lenses of West Elm and Mad Men.
From the mid-1950s through the mid-1970s, bureaucracy rebuilt Columbia in the Modernist guise. The postwar growth of the state’s government and flagship university guaranteed that Columbia would be a hotbed for construction at mid-century. The University of South Carolina’s enrollment tripled in this period, necessitating entire mini-campuses of structures that reached out in all directions from the tight, inward-looking arrangement of the nineteenth-century campus or “Horseshoe.” Close relationships between government officials and the university’s administration greased the wheels for the acquisition of acres of downtown for expansion. USC displaced entire neighborhoods, including the predominantly African American Ward I, with Urban Renewal and built impressive new facilities and acres of surface parking that would lay undeveloped for decades. With offices scattered across Columbia in leased spaces, the mushrooming state government also demanded land and buildings. A new master plan doubled the size of the government’s footprint around the state house, replacing a jumbled mix of buildings with rational axes and “Heroic” structures of cast stone.
These new buildings and landscapes staunchly rejected the medley of historical revival styles that made Columbia look like many other southern cities built after the Civil War. They embraced the scale of its wide, planned grid, creating platforms and plazas for towering, starkly Modern structures that confidently projected optimism, organization, and control. It was a new dawn for a city long mired in the politics and pitfalls of the nineteenth-century South. While a number of firms contributed to this new architectural image, one dominated every aspect of this urban re-imagination: Lyles, Bissett, Carlisle and Wolff (LBC&W). The firm operated from 1948 until the mid-1970s and employed hundreds at a time across its offices in Columbia, North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, and Washington, DC.
LBC&W became the one-stop-shop for Modernism in South Carolina, offering a full range of services from planning and engineering to architectural design and contracting. LBC&W’s four savvy partners – William G. Lyles, Thomas J. Bissett, William A. Carlisle, and Louis M. Wolff – cornered the market on university and government contracts in the region. Its varied design team (seemingly every architect who worked in South Carolina in this period went through the office at some point) and the steady hand of chief designer Louis M. Wolff ensured their competency in a range of contemporary styles: sleek International Style, fortress-like Brutalism, and even graceful New Formalism (also known as the “Ballet Style”). As trends in ahistorical architecture shifted, so did LBC&W.
The firm introduced Columbia – and South Carolina – to Modernism. Wolff explained important dictums such as “form follows function” in a plain-spoken article in a 1953 volume of South Carolina Magazine, surely aiming at a client base that needed a little educating. He efficiently summarized his response to the new zeitgeist: “The mechanical age has resulted in a cramped condition within our cities. Careful planning with great imagination and foresight is now necessary to fit our modern living into practical and humanly congenial architectural form.” The firm convinced the University of South Carolina to build its first International Style building, an engineering lab, on a prominent corner downtown in 1952. LBC&W’s late 1960s master plan reorganized the statehouse grounds, finally giving form to a symbolic center for the state’s public identity. Other governmental and commercial commissions quickly followed, reshaping the visual and physical experience of Columbia.
LBC&W’s contribution to Columbia cannot be overstated; the density of buildings and landscapes designed by the firm is truly impressive. Within approximately five blocks of the State House in all directions are USC’s Carolina Coliseum (1969), Sumwalt Engineering Building (begun 1952), Thomas Cooper Library (begun 1959), James F. Byrnes Building (1967), Humanities Complex (1968), and Russell House University Union (1955); the residential Claire Towers (1950) and Cornell Arms (1949); the skyscraping Bankers Trust Tower (1974) and Rutledge Building (1965); a Miesian post office (1968); and the statehouse complex, including four buildings by the firm (1967-1970s). Together, they are a clear statement of Columbia’s rebirth as a glistening modern center for commerce, legislation, and academic research.
From a preservation perspective, these buildings are challenging. They were often built with tight construction budgets and non-existent maintenance allowances, dooming their materials to age less gracefully than those by mid-century masters like Mies van der Rohe. They lack the nostalgic appeal and domestic familiarity of the “Atomic Ranch.” Their ubiquity and universality also works against them. As buildings designed closely together in time and space, they look like each other all while being literally next door to one another. As buildings designed according to theories of rationalism and functionalism, they also naturally look like Modern buildings elsewhere. It’s easy to argue that they are lesser versions of great Modern monuments in more cosmopolitan places like Chicago or London. For many, they are simply too young to appreciate. Recent, heated discussion over LBC&W’s Byrnes Building and the demolition of the firm’s first modern building on Clemson University’s campus suggest that these prejudices are gaining steam.
So why preserve them? Because they define Columbia in the same way that columns and fanlights say “Charleston.” They speak to the unique condition of a place largely demolished in the Civil War, rebuilt in fits and starts after the dismantling of the plantation system, and born anew thanks to institutional expansion. They are evidence of the chutzpah of a group of architects to grab onto a new market and to shape it to their abilities. They are emblems of a moment in which Columbia stood tall for a New South — and they remind us that those supposedly progressive agendas were often racist, classicist, and elitist. Respect for their embodied energy offers an opportunity to be mindful of the environment, rather than tearing them down for something new. Most importantly, their preservation would speak to the respect Columbia has for its own, local history and the stories that only it can tell. Designed to make the city relevant to the rest of the world, Columbia’s mid-century landscape proposes different historic narratives than Charleston. And that’s a good thing.
Lydia Mattice Brandt is associate professor of art history at the University of South Carolina. Since 2015, she and her students have researched Columbia’s mid-century architecture and landscapes. She thanks Lois Carlisle for her help with this post. Her book, First in the Homes of His Countrymen: George Washington’s Mount Vernon in the American Imagination, explores the impact of preservation and memory on contemporary architecture.
(1) Louis M. Wolff, “Modern Architecture — Its Purposes and Aims,” South Carolina Magazine (January 1953): 70.
(2) For more on arguments for/against these buildings’ preservation, see Richard Longstreth, Looking beyond the Icons: Midcentury Architecture, Landscape, and Urbanism (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015); Lydia Mattice Brandt, “Preserving and Researching Modern Architecture Outside of the Canon: A View from the Field,” Arris (The Journal of the Southeast Society of Architectural Historians) 26 (2015): 72-5.