It’s been a convent, the headquarters of the Union Army and a governor’s mansion.
Funded in part through $1 million received from Richland County for capital repairs, the mansion is being repainted a burnt ocher with a dark brown trim, colors “more historically appropriate” than its current off-white, said Historic Columbia executive director Robin Waites. There is also a plan to recreate the house’s historical shutters, as “right now, it looks kind of naked,” Waites said.
The Hampton-Preston Mansion and Gardens is one of six sites managed by preservation foundation Historic Columbia. Planned improvements also include a new HVAC system to address moisture issues and the recreation of the renowned antebellum gardens that once drew visitors from all over the East Coast.
Mashburn Construction is handling the heavy lifting, while 1x1 Design is the project architect. The work is expected to be completed by the spring of 2018, when the house will turn 200.
“It’s really looking at the whole property and addressing the physical needs and the storytelling aspect of the site,” Waites said.
One major change won’t be visible from the outside. Inside exhibits are being reconfigured and re-interpreted to provide more details of the lives of everyone who lived at the mansion.
“The site is really known for its association with Wade Hampton I and his third wife Mary Cantey, who acquired the house in the 1820s,” Waites said. “For a long time, we really focused on just that story — this wealthy planter family life in Columbia.”
Twelve years ago, Waites said, an exhibit was installed in the house’s basement to address urban slavery, but with the help of a grant received a few years ago, Historic Columbia wants to integrate those stories into the main-floor exhibit experience.
“The goal is to look more holistically at all the people who lived and worked at the property, to hear the story of all the people together as opposed to literally segregating those stories,” Waites said. “The voices of enslaved worker and the enslaved families will be heard on the same plane, with the same kind of privileges if you will, as the white family that lived there.”
Telling the slaves’ stories proved challenging, Waites said, as not as many documentation sources existed for the slaves as for the white families they served.
“There’s a lot of work that goes into trying to do that in an authentic way,” said Waites, who said the foundation drew upon records using slaves’ Anglicized first names from Cantey’s will. Census data also proved useful, as did diaries describing dinner parties and daily life.
“We know that anything that was prepared for the family was done by the enslaved people that were there, so we can then talk about the jobs that an enslaved person would have had,” Waites said. “There are different ways you can piece those stories together.”
The exhibit also examines the difference of urban slavery versus plantation slavery. The work urban slaves did — mending clothes, tending to the gardens — differed somewhat from that of a field worker, Waites said, and urban slaves often had more access to other slaves or freed blacks in a city environment.
“If you think about the site in its heyday, there may have been six and 10 white family members living there, but there were at times eight times as many enslaved African people working there,” Waites said. “That’s a pretty large group of people whose voices have not been really heard today.”
Exhibits will also include expanded timelines for the site, which has also been a women’s college and a tourist hostel, Waites said.
In 1947, the gardens were bulldozed and the four acres of land subdivided for various commercial uses. After an extensive rehabilitation, the house reopened in 1970 as the centerpiece of the Midlands Tricentennial and began its visible role as a historic landmark.
Tours of the mansion will now feature interactive digital elements such as iPads and added audio/visual elements.
The recreated gardens are divided into three sections. The welcome garden faces the house from the front gate. The fountain garden languishes to the left, and to the right is the butterfly-shaped children’s garden. Guests will be able to access a digital plant database to learn about the types of plants and gardening techniques during different time periods.
Arbors were installed in October, Waites said, and ongoing planting will culminate in February.
“We’re hoping that the plants will have some growth by May 2018 when the house is finished,” Waites said. “We’re really trying to make it a much richer story.”