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Columbia’s historic BullStreet cupola is one step closer to completion

Christina Lee Knauss //August 10, 2023//

Columbia’s historic BullStreet cupola is one step closer to completion

Christina Lee Knauss //August 10, 2023//

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A historic fixture of Columbia’s skyline is one step closer to returning.

Work on the iconic cupola that sits atop the Babcock Building at the BullStreet District in Columbia continues. On July 26, the cupola’s base was raised to the building’s roof. It will be topped by a red dome and a spire which will be raised in the next couple of weeks.

A ceremony to reveal the spire, give thanks to people who have made the building’s restoration a reality, and honor those who are part of its long history was held Wednesday, Aug. 10.

Staff members from the companies who helped restore the building, first responders who helped save the building in 2020 and former staff members of the South Carolina Department of Mental Health were among dozens invited to sign the metal base of the spire, their signatures becoming a permanent part of the city’s future history.

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Representatives of BullStreet’s master developer Hughes Development Corp. and Clachan Properties described the process of bringing the building back to life. Based in Virginia, Clachan specializes in historic restoration, and the Babcock is their biggest project ever.

Many people feared the Babcock Building was doomed after it was severely damaged in a fire on Sept. 11, 2020. The cupola, one of the most recognizable parts of the city’s skyline, fell amid the flames.

Hugh Shytle, president of Clachan Properties, said the quick actions of Columbia firefighters saved the historic building, which dates to the 1850s and once housed mental patients and staff members of the South Carolina State Mental Hospital. The Babcock Building was closed and abandoned in 1996.

“Fifty firefighters responded to one of the largest fires in Columba in recent memory, and their efforts saved the vast majority of the building,” Shytle said.

Robert Hughes, president of Hughes Development, recalled how Clachan Properties came forward two weeks after the fire and said they would go ahead with the building’s restoration. That commitment, he said, allowed a project that officials from both the city of Columbia and Richland County had been working on since 2010 to continue.

“A building that was abandoned for 24 years has now been turned into one of the coolest places in the Southeast,” Hughes said.

Restoring the cupola was one of the centerpieces of the entire project because since the 19th century it has become what historians describe as the second most recognized dome in the city’s skyline, second only to the South Carolina State House.

Once fully restored, the reconstructed cupola will stand 66 feet tall from its steel base to the end of the spire, which is 18 feet long. The dome measures 21 feet 3 inches and the clerestory, already installed, is 25 feet 4 inches.

The Aug. 10 ceremony drew three Columbia mayors who have been involved in the BullStreet District’s evolution: former mayors Bob Coble and Steve Benjamin and the current mayor, Daniel Rickenmann. Richland County Council Chairman Overture Walker and South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster also attended.

“When that fire happened in 2020, everybody’s hearts sunk,” Rickenmann told the crowd. “Now this project is a phoenix come out of the ashes.”

Rickenmann called the Babcock Building the centerpiece of the emerging BullStreet District, which is one of the largest urban redevelopment projects in the country and has so far attracted visitors from seven U.S. cities who want to see how the project is being done.

Bob Hughes, chairman of Hughes Development, called the Babcock Building a “microcosm of the entire BullStreet story.

“Creating something unique from ruins requires belief and courage,” he said.

A date for the raising of the dome and spire will be announced soon.