In the capital of South Carolina stands a long-forgotten piece of architectural history. On what is still the headquarters for the South Carolina Department of Mental Health are a number of buildings proudly holding on to an old story. Construction began on the South Carolina Lunatic Asylum in 1822 and continued throughout the latter half of the 19th century, with punctuated interruptions from the Civil War. As only the second state in the nation to adopt a care system for the mentally ill, South Carolina legislators laid the groundwork for modern psychological healthcare in the United States. Today the property is marked by beautiful red-brick buildings which have fallen out of use. Each of the larger structures on the property were designed by prominent architects of the time specifically for mental treatment and are reflections of the ever-changing ideals about how treatment of psychoses should be conducted.
In the center of the compound is the Babcock Building, the reason I was so fascinated with the site in the first place. Construction on this particular building began in 1857 and was not completed until 1885. The Italian Renaissance Revival style building was designed by three different architects who were each individually responsible for 1 of 3 wings. Babcock was built due in part to an ever-increasing population and the focus on providing adequate care for patients in asylums. Following the prominent Kirkbride System of the day, Babcock’s design reflected contemporary medical thought which embraced a progressive style of treatment. This building housed patients until the 1980’s and has been sitting abandoned ever since.
As I walked through the buildings and wound up and down each floor I was struck by how much natural light there was. Huge paned windows looked out to a courtyard and over a lawn of swooping trees. I expected to see small windows covered in bars and instead was met with high ceilings and large doorways. The large Cupola in the center of the middle wing creates a sense of grandeur and importance. The stained glass in some of the hallways creates an eerie, but still very beautiful glow.
This beautiful piece of architecture has fallen into a sad state of disrepair that will surely lead to its demise in the very near future. Many attempts and proposals to restore the building have fallen through the cracks and understandably so. Much of the third floor has collapsed and the exposure to weather elements has undoubtedly compromised the stability of the floors throughout. Many of the windows are blown out and the bottom floor has been vandalized by taggers. Even being listed on the National Historic Register cannot save you from a narcissistic youth who wants to spray paint his name inside of a heart on your walls. Although within the past few years, there has been a push to secure the property and tighten surveillance to deter vandals and vagrants. The tight watch the local law enforcement has placed on this property has led to epic urban legends amongst locals. It was reported to me (by different individuals) that this place had once been a torture chamber, a brothel and the headquarters of a cult.
Standing proudly between old and new, the future for Babcock is unclear. It’s location in a prime part of downtown Columbia may jeopardize it’s staying power. In past battles between preservation societies and real estate developers, it’s historic significance won out but the buildings relevance would be amplified by restoration and functionality in modern Columbia.
For the full set on Flickr: Sanitorium