Preserving South Carolina’s architectural heritage is one mission of the South Carolina Architectural Foundation and the state chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and a new showplace designed to highlight that ongoing work couldn’t have a more appropriate home.
The Center for Architectural Design, housed at 1530 Main St. in downtown Columbia, is the product of a years-long vision to increase visibility of the architectural profession in the state. Before the S.C. AIA chapter purchased the building, currently undergoing renovations with an eye toward a late fall opening, there was no real center for architectural outreach and education to take place.
Since the early 1980s, the organization had operated out of “The Cottage,” a small structure on Bull Street nestled among law firms. Inspired by larger AIA chapters with a more centralized, noticeable presence around the country, including one in Raleigh, AIA S.C. decided to change that.
“We made the commitment in 2014 that we were going to look for something more prominent, both from an advocacy/lobbying standpoint with the Statehouse but also from the standpoint of where the public could see architecture in South Carolina,” said Ben Ward, project manager at McMillan Pazdan Smith and 2022 president of AIA S.C.
In 2015, AIA S.C. purchased the former Eckerd Drug Store building, where a significant moment in the state’s history took place in 1960. Allen University student Simon Bouie and Benedict College student Talmadge Neal were arrested, jailed and convicted for refusing to leave the Eckerd lunch counter, where they were denied service because they are Black.
Those events became the basis for a landmark 1964 civil rights case which, coupled with another lunch-counter case at the nearby Taylor Street Pharmacy, led to the U.S. Supreme Court overturning the students’ convictions, saying their right to due process under the 14th Amendment had been violated. Days later, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial segregation in public facilities.
“Based on historical photographs of the incident, we actually located the two (counter) stool spots,” Ward said. “In the terrazzo floor, you could see the outline of where the drug store counter was, and then you could see the circles where the stools were bolted to the floor.”
The old Eckerd Drug Store played a pivotal role, recognized with a historical marker outside the structure, in Columbia history. But like the civil rights case with origins in the building, its new tenant hopes to expand its impact beyond the capital city. While the Center for Architectural Design’s proximity to the Statehouse is critical for AIA S.C.’s advocacy of architecture and issues such as safe, sustainable building codes, its community outreach will extend into every corner of the state, both urban and rural.
“Columbia is very central and strategic in its location to the Statehouse, but really the goal of the center is to get this programming out into our communities, into Charleston and Greenville and the Upstate and the Grand Strand and the Midlands,” said Dan Scheaffer, principal at LS3P’s Charleston office. “That’s where we’re going to make the most impact once we get it into those communities.”
Adrienne Montare, AIA S.C. executive director, echoed those goals.
“We wanted to create the South Carolina Center for Architecture so we’d have a space where we can show the public what we do and enhance the services we provide our members,” she said. “We feel so fortunate to be located in the heart of the capital city, a few blocks from the Statehouse and across the street from the Columbia Museum of Art. It’s the perfect location to showcase the important work architects do to uplift communities and design beautiful, safe, and healthy places for all South Carolinians to enjoy.”
Scheaffer was president of AIA S.C. during fundraising for and design of the center, and he was a member of the steering committee for its capital campaign, which he said was met with great support from members. Currently on the S.C. Architectural Foundation board, he is excited about the center’s potential to not just promote architectural achievements but to make those achievements accessible to all state residents.
“Really the goal of the center has always been about three main things: advocacy, community outreach and member knowledge,” Scheaffer said. “That includes preserving historically and culturally significant buildings, creating affordable housing through better design and supporting programs that promote resilient design to protect homes and businesses during weather events such as hurricanes and earthquakes.
“And then one of the things we’re getting a lot of traction on and I think is really important for our profession particularly is diversity, equity and inclusion — being culturally aware. How can we create a better pipeline of diversity?” he said. “That really starts with getting into the schools. We’re doing a lot of partnerships with Clemson on programs and also K-12, creating programs that help young students see architecture as a viable career path, because that’s not often taught by guidance counselors and schools, that you can be an architect.”
The center also will feature rotating and traveling exhibits, including one called Say It Loud, created by architect and activist Pascale Sablan and aimed at increasing diversity in the field.
“We take this idea of architecture, and you go to Dillon County and do presentations for kids,” Ward said. “You go to Allendale County, some of these places where it might not be taught in school. They’re not given that as a career choice. “You can go into architecture, and you can make your community a better place” — that’s not something they hear, and it’s something they should hear.”
A goal of the center is also to keep that burgeoning talent at home.
“One of the big things for me is creating a pipeline for kids — a whole diverse range of kids — to think that they can become architects, to see the importance of the profession and to see the power for change that we have in the profession, and also to highlight that you can be a great architect in South Carolina,” said Ward, who earned a design degree from Clemson in 2003 before getting his master’s in architecture at N.C. State. “I think so many times, in rural areas, kids go to school for architecture, and then they’ll move to New York or D.C. or somewhere like that to practice when they could stay here in their home state and do great things.”
After purchasing the center, AIA S.C. held a design competition in 2017 to select the project’s architect. The winner was the formerly Columbia-based firm Watson Tate Savory, which merged with McMillan Pazdan Smith last October. The move combined Watson Tate Savory’s expertise in higher education design with the broader reach of MPS, which has offices in Columbia, Greenville, Spartanburg, Charleston, Charlotte, Atlanta and Asheville.
“Now we have the backing of this large firm that’s allowed us to do more things and go after bigger projects and participate in the community even more,” said former Watson Tate Savory principal Gene Bell, now with MPS. “We’re hoping the center will bring an awareness of architecture to everyone — not only serve as a home base for all registered architects and our members and the association, but also a home for the understanding of architecture and its impact on our community.”
The Center for Architecture will feature its current, historically protected stone façade, which will open into a bright, open event and exhibit space lined by offices.
Delayed by COVID-related supply issues and needing roof and other repairs before new construction could begin, the center is on track to open in late October or November, Ward said, with the public portion of its fundraising efforts also set to begin soon.
“We are so thankful to all our founding campaign donors who have allowed us to not only renovate our Center for Architecture space but also to develop statewide programming to advance public awareness of the power of architecture, planning and design,” Mary Beth Branham, chair of the S.C. Architectural Foundation, said. “We will now have a place, right here in downtown Columbia, where we can host those programming events that will then spread to other areas of the state.”
Having been on the ground floor of the center’s creation, Scheaffer is eager to see the project’s final shape.
“There’s been a lot of effort by a lot of (people),” he said. “Financially, our firms have invested. We’ve invested our time and our talents to make this happen, so it’s real exciting. It’s going to be an incredible space, and we’re so excited for it to be here. Couldn’t get here soon enough.”