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The town that was: Historians take final notes to remember the Bull Street village

By Clif LeBlanc
cleblanc@thestate.com

COLUMBIA The Bull Street property that Columbia leaders hope will become a new urban city within the city center once was the opposite – a self-sufficient, walled village apart from the rest of town.

Hundreds of people lived and worked on the sprawling property that for generations housed the state’s mentally ill and their caretakers. Remnants of those lives largely will be gone after construction begins as soon as this fall on a huge, modern, walkable neighborhood. Historians who have permission to visit the site are squeezing in their final looks at what’s left behind.

Starting in the late 1880s, patient buildings were surrounded by a bakery, kitchen, laundry, ice-making factory, firehouse and farmland, tilled largely by African-American patients, to grow food. A rail line helped supply the campus, and a steam-powered dynamo provided enough electricity to light key buildings.

A walk through the sprawling property today makes it clear that a village once thrived there. The years have taken a toll, but ghosts of a community linger. Paved streets dotted with well-worn buildings from their own era wind behind the architectural showpiece that is the Babcock Building. What was once a Civil War prison camp is now a grassy field.

Five buildings are to be preserved, but the village setting is likely to be gone.

Buildings from the 1930s and ’40s reflect changes in attitudes, a looking outward, in the treatment of the mentally ill. Patient intake, treatment, visitation and dormitory spaces are clustered along a shady, tree-lined street anchored by the Williams Building and flanked by a library and a chapel built of bricks from the property’s 10-foot peripheral wall. The Ensor Building was constructed as a research facility.

The Chapel of Hope, built in 1962, stands as a tangible example of the one effort by the state mental health agency to reach through the wall and connect with its neighbors.

“Here is when they lowered the wall, a very symbolic way of saying, ‘We’re opening up the campus,’ ” said Kim Campbell, a University of South Carolina graduate student in history who has studied the site.

The experiment didn’t succeed.

“After generations of being essentially sealed off from the city of Columbia, this city within a city was not really embraced by the city when the walls came down,” said John Sherrer, Historic Columbia Foundation’s director of cultural resources.

Campbell said the wall also served a therapeutic purpose.

“The asylum pretty much always had a wall because doctors believed that if (patients) were kept in their own environment, they could be healed.”

Construction of the wall began in 1878. It eventually stretch about 1,350 feet and was built especially tall in places to keep outsiders from peering at female patients, said Brian Dolphin, another South Carolina student who has researched the property.

Even in 2013, the separation is strong.

“It’s astounding when people say, ‘I’ve lived in Columbia all my life, and I have no idea what assets lie behind those walls,’ ” Sherrer said. “It still carries the stigma.”

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