In 1821, construction began on one of the United States’ first public mental health clinics. Conceived as a centralized refuge for the mentally ill, the South Carolina State Hospital would become one of the countries oldest psychiatric institutions ever established.
Before the nineteenth century, there was little government interference in the care of the mentally ill; instead, families were usually responsible for their ailing loved ones. As a result, many people with mental illness were hidden away or placed in workhouses and prisons. But in the late seventeenth century, that all began to change.
Over the years, South Carolina devised a number of undertakings to provide care for its mentally ill. However, it wasn’t until the early 1800s that the state made its first major breakthrough. In 1815, several state legislators spearheaded a group of reformers in a campaign for the construction of a new lunatic asylum. Shortly after, the plans were approved.
Originally entitled the South Carolina Lunatic Asylum, the institution was designed to be a self-sustaining environment that provided an independent community for its patients. The 181-acre campus promoted a number of impressive amenities and featured its own bakery, laundromat, church, and electrical plant. In later years, additional facilities were incorporated such as a pharmacy, mattress shop, and canteen.
Towards the end of its near 200 years of use, the sanatorium began to experience issues with understaffing and lack of funding. In 1989, the hospital was closed and the state began placing its patients into various other statewide community settings. For years after, the compound’s main building saw continued use as an administrative services bureau for the Department of Mental Health. But in 1996, the office was downsized and moved to a smaller location. Since its evacuation, the campus has remained vacant.
The portion we visited is called the Babcock building, the grounds second-oldest structure. Built between 1827 and 1845, the property consisted of a four-story central structure and flanking north and south wings. While the separate vestibules served as living quarters for patients, the center building featured operating rooms, housing for staff, classrooms, and patient dining halls. At one point, the building housed over 4,000 people.
Today, the empty building has suffered greatly at the hands of vandals. Each wing of the hospital is mutilated by graffiti, its window either broken or covered in tagging. Much of the sheetrock has been kicked in and is missing from the walls. Up above, ceiling tiles hang in tatters.
Weeds have taken over the exterior of the structure; inside, paint is peeling off the walls in sheets. Gusts of wind howl through the empty hallways, causing doors to slam open and shut in their wake. The buildings creaky floors are littered with shards of broken glass and loose papers, and its stale atmosphere carries an aura of sadness. The air lies still as if the campus is holding its breath, waiting and wanting a new purpose to fulfill.
For nearly 200 years, the South Carolina State Hospital was the centerpiece of Columbia. Today, the campus is to be transformed into what boosters claim will be an economic behemoth. Already, a new $37 million baseball stadium has risen from the site’s center, and developers are promising dozens of new stores and hundreds of homes.
Dubbed the Bull Street project, the development of this site is moving full steam ahead. Change is coming for the old South Carolina State Hospital, and though it is sad that a portion of the buildings will not survive, it’s nice knowing that the majority of this historic campus will be repurposed to find new use as something much more pleasant.
GPS Coordinates: 34.015712, -81.031406