The average pedestrian out for a late autumn stroll downtown likely has no idea what lies beneath the stately building at the corner of Main and Washington streets.
The first and second floors of the Arcade Mall, built in 1912, rehabilitated in 1971 and in the final stages of a years-long renovation that began when its current owners bought the building in 2015, gleam in the sun. Snowy white cornice molding and second-floor columns are draped with holiday greens, and customers file in and out of Indah Coffee, Swanson’s Deli and His and Her Tailoring, most of them oblivious to a whole other world under their feet.
A clue lies in the elevator tucked into the crook of the building where the tiled hallway makes a left turn toward Washington Street and the Blue Sky Gallery. Enter that elevator, press a button marked B, turn an access key and step out into the building’s basement and back in time.
In 1972, Columbia Down Under, the brainchild of three area businessmen, opened its subterranean doors. A mix of nightclubs and restaurants with an old-timey photo booth and a liquor store thrown in, the seven venues tucked into now-dark corners draped in the occasional cobweb, were once the quirky heart of downtown Columbia.
“From all accounts, it was a really fun place,” said John Sherrer, Historic Columbia’s director of cultural resources. “It captured people’s imagination, and it still does.”
The Arcade Mall is celebrating years of renovations with a grand reopening ceremony today, though the future of Down Under remains up in the air.
“The ultimate goal and desire is to reutilize that space in some way,” said Brad Shell, one of three managing members of Arcade Mall ownership group DownUnder Columbia LLC. “The trick with that is going to be how can you best reutilize it, and what is it going to cost and is it going to be worth it. The short answer is that we plan on using it, but we’re just not quite sure what that is going to look like.”
Historic Columbia, which became involved with Arcade Mall renovations and preservation efforts eight years ago, recently provided the public with a glimpse of the goings-on of decades gone by. The organization, which has also hosted one of its periodic behind-the-scenes tours of historic properties at the venue, kicked off its fall tour season with “Stayin’ Alive on Main Street,” which threw open the Down Under doors to a crowd decked out in its finest 70s threads.
Guest meandered through what was once the Trolley Pavilion, the longest-functioning restaurant Down Under, with its distinctive trolley car-shaped bar; Soho Place Limited, a British-style pub; steak-and-seafood venue The Boiler Room; and lunch spot The Scarlet Pumpernickel.
First-time visitors no doubt shared some of the thoughts Sherrer experienced when he first stepped foot in the space.
“It was intriguing. It was a time capsule,” he said. “What was really cool, too, is it was recent history. So many times, people are transported to a period that just have no earthly idea about, but for this, people knew about it. There are people who come on tours and they’re like, ‘I remember when I did this.’ Since that time, I’ve met people who worked in the restaurants, in the bars, who were patrons at both, people who knew of one bar but someone else knew it as another place. People remember live music or dancing.
“In some cases, their memories are absolutely rock-solid, and in others, not so much.”
The longest-running establishment Down Under was Jim’s Place, a cozy place to get a drink with 35 or 40 of your closest friends. Owned by Jim Maner, the bar featured architectural salvage such as stained glass – pieces of which are still in its wooden door – and was the last establishment to close, in 1977.
Inside the empty space these days, bits of history are affixed to a pole. Phone numbers scribbled on small stickers provide digits for other Down Under clubs, the state alcohol beverage control commission, “Jim the Boss” and some random dude named Rocky.
“You never really know what you’re going to find,” said Sherrer, shining his iPhone flashlight on the 1970s-era contacts list.
Sherrer said several factors led to the demise of Down Under, which was conceived as a smaller-scale version of Atlanta’s Underground by the Columbia trio of Gene Collins, Joe Gentry and Jack Upchurch. Establishments dealt with management issues, Sherrer said, as well as a changing downtown social scene that included a sometimes-volatile mix of college students and military service personnel.
There were also the ups-and-downs typical to food-and-beverage establishments, Sherrer said, “and just like with anything, it was a fad and it kind of burned out.”
GOING BACK UNDER?
Any talk of resurrecting Columbia Down Under comes with challenging caveats.
“Since Down Under Columbia closed, building codes have changed a lot,” Shell said. “The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) didn’t even exist back in 1972. Fire codes have changed a lot. There are ingress/egress issues in the basement that need to be worked through.”
DownUnder Columbia LLC bought the Arcade Mall in 2015 and has been renovating it since.
“We’ve had a it a little over three years at this point, and it has been under renovation and construction a lot of that time,” Shell said. “We’ve been trying to renovate it in a historically responsible manner, so because of that, it’s taken a lot longer than a typical renovation would, but we think it’s worth it to preserve this. Because there’s nothing else like this in Columbia, or really probably in the state. It’s just a beautiful building.”
There are a handful of other arcade-style buildings in the country, Shell said, including the Grove Arcade in Asheville, N.C. But his group saw something special in Columbia’s version, which had sat largely dormant since the late 70s.
“Main Street at that time, we felt like the wave was coming, and hopefully we could catch it,” Shell said. “I think our timing was good.”
The building had tenants in 2015, Shell said, but it wasn’t as bustling as it is now, with Pita Pit across from Indah, which abuts clothiers Granger Owings and forms a welcoming Main Street entrance. An electronic bike shop is among newer tenants, while Stoner’s Pizza is slated to open on the Washington Street side in December.
“There was a lot of stuff that really hadn’t been touched since the 70s that needed attention,” Shell said. “Some of it was fun stuff, like cleaning the floors and cleaning the terra cotta. Some of it wasn’t as fun, like redoing the electrical systems.”
Shell said a redevelopment goal was to “bring in tenants that were going to be there Monday through Friday, nine to five, just so there’s people in the building and it gets activity. That was one of the things we were focused on, and we’ve had some success.”
A block down, Washington Street crosses Sumter, and the revitalization boom of Main Street peters out into empty storefronts and vacant buildings. But Shell expects that to change soon, too, with the Arcade Mall helping drive the alteration.
“The advantage that tenants on our Washington Street side of the building have is that folks can come in through Main Street and get to them,” he said. “I really think that the Washington Street corridor, from Assembly to Sumter, I think that’s sort of going to be the next infill area in Main Street. You don’t have a lot of opportunities on Main Street anymore for spaces, and it’s got to go somewhere.”
Today’s Arcade Mall open house will feature light refreshments from Pita Pit, Indah and Swanson’s. Though the 3 p.m. celebration marks a milestone, “I don’t know that we’ll ever be done fully,” Shell said. “It’s sort of a labor of love at this point.”