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Hampton-Preston renovations dig deep into mansion’s past

Architecture
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The most obvious change to the renovated and newly reopened Hampton-Preston Mansion is the burnt ochre color that replaced its previous beige façade.

But it’s not the most profound.

The Hampton-Preston Mansion underwent year-long renovations, including a re-painting of its exterior to a burnt ochre color representative of its antebellum past. (Photo/Historic Columbia)Inside the 19th-century mansion at 1615 Blanding Street in downtown’s Robert Mills historic district, visitors will find more than new oilcloth flooring in the foyer and entryway walls scored and textured to mimic their original cut-stone appearance. Updated exhibits include interpretative panels and an iPad-enhanced tour designed to present a more inclusive picture of the mansion during its many incarnations — specifically, insight into the lives of the enslaved Africans and African Americans integral to its storied history.

“The idea is that, for so long, when you came to the site, there was a relatively narrow band of interpretation that was being had, and that was largely the story of the people who owned the property during the antebellum period,” said John Sherrer, director of cultural resources for Historic Columbia, which owns and maintains the mansion. “But obviously there’s a lot of history beyond that. And even during that time period, there were a lot of things going on, particularly in regard to the enslaved persons who lived and worked here whose stories simply haven’t been focused on before.”

The mansion’s anecdotal past is well-known in preservation circles. Wealthy Columbia merchant Ainsley Hall and his wife, Sarah, had the house built in 1818 and lived in it until 1823 until Ainsley Hall sold it to Wade Hampton I, one of the South’s richest planters – without, rumor had it, Sarah’s knowledge or approval. The house and its gardens flourished as one of Columbia’s grandest homes under a succession of plantation owners before taking turns as a women’s college and a tourist lodging and finally becoming a public property in the 1970s.

But there is a deeper history that Historic Columbia wanted to uncover as the mansion, which reopened last month, underwent a year-long renovation that included stucco and moisture repair, an exterior repainting to more closely reflect its antebellum past and an exhaustive online cataloguing of its horticultural features.  

Along with majestic chandeliers and cut crystal, visitors can now take in informational panels with such titles as “A Forced Relocation” and “Slavery and Sport.” The latter details the role enslaved men and boys played in the sporting activities, including horseracing, of the planter class, drawing upon Jacob Stroyer’s slave narrative, My Life in the South. Stroyer began riding around age 5, and each time he was thrown from a horse, his trainer whipped him.

Other features of the new exhibits include the “Schedule of Property” of Wade Hampton’s wife, Mary Cantey Hampton, which listed her assets when she died in 1863. She divided those assets, including 427 pieces of silver and 31 people, equitably among her daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren, separating members of the enslaved families.

Historic Columbia researchers mined wills and census records from 1850 and 1860, as well as slave schedules. The memoirs of period diarist Mary Boykin Chestnut, whose restored 1840s ballgown is displayed on the house’s second floor, also provided a research tool.

Attention is paid to every detail in the exhibits, including the use of the word “enslaved.”

“Whereas three decades ago or two decades ago, people would often say ‘servants,’ that’s a very benign word. It deflects a lot,” Sherrer said. “Since that time, people often say ‘slaves.’ Slaves is really a dehumanizing kind of term, so we say enslaved persons, enslaved men, women and children. None of these individuals were born a slave, but they were born into the condition of slavery.”

One of the more arresting images unearthed during renovation research is an 1850 daguerreotype found in the archives of Harvard University depicting Fassena, an enslaved man from West Africa who labored at Columbia’s Millwood Plantation, also owned by the Hampton family. He stares woodenly ahead, scars visible on his chest.

A daguerrotype from Harvard University's archives shows Fassena, an enslaved man from West Africa who labored at Columbia's Millwood Plantation, also owned by the Hampton family. (Photo/Melinda Waldrop)“When you don’t have any obvious physical connections, tangible links to a people’s past, it’s easy for those persons to become invisible,” Sherrer said. “When you come into a historic house museum and you see rooms such as this, it’s a little bit easier to talk about the people who owned all the stuff, but it’s not necessarily as easy to talk about the people whose labor helped amass this wealth and whose labor helped maintain it. … By including direct references to people, you help humanize the past.”

The story of the house and its residents continues upstairs, where newspaper advertisements placed by relatives seeking information about enslaved grandparents mingle with artifacts from the house’s time as Chicora College in the early 20th century. A room replicating the property’s incarnation as a segregated tourist home in the 1940s and 50s features old-fashioned twist-key lamps and a vintage copy of Reader’s Digest that jog the memory of some visitors, Sherrer said, as might a copy of the Negro Motorist Green-Book.

The publication, with references to Columbia sites, served as a guide for African-American travelers in that era, letting them know where it was safe to eat, get gas or find a room.

The Negro Motorist Green-Book provided a guide to safe lodging and restaurants for African-American travelers. (Photo/Melinda Waldrop)“You never knew really what you were up against, what you might encounter,” Sherrer said. “This would be your roadmap to ensure that you were traveling to places safely.”

With the NAACP issuing an advisory for African-Americans traveling through Missouri last August, the faded green book does not seem like a long-ago relic – an example of timeliness that helps the Hampton-Preston mansion tell its story, Sherrer said.

“A lot of times people go to historic sites or museums and they think, ‘Oh, it’s the past. It’s not relevant,’ ” Sherrer said. “Everything that we’re talking about here is relevant, whether it’s race, class, (or) gender. There’s a lot of topics that we go into.”

A final exhibit showcases the house’s role in celebrating Columbia’s tricentennial in 1970, when it was flanked by two 20,000-square-feet geodesic domes.

The mansion’s gardens, renowned during their heyday as among the finest on the East Coast, also underwent substantial renovations, including the re-establishment of historic pathways and plant beds. The gardens are open to the public during tour hours.

“Our hoThe mansion's renowned gardens were also renovated, with historic pathways and plant beds re-established. (Photo/Historic Columbia)pe is that people can use this as a neighborhood public park,” said Anna Kate Twitty, Historic Columbia director of marketing and communications. “We really want visitors to Columbia, but also Columbians, to come and enjoy this space.”

That enjoyment now comes with a more well-rounded education.

“When people come to this site, we talk frankly about the past,” Sherrer said. “From the get-go, the very foundation of this building, of this estate, was based on slavery. … It’s difficult because it’s so ingrained and so nuanced in the culture, and that’s why talking about is important. While we don’t live in the past, we can learn from the past.”

This article first appeared in the June 18 print edition of the Columbia Regional Business Report. 

Contact Melinda Waldrop at 803-726-7542.

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