Historic South Carolina Mental Institution Destroyed in Fire

This photo provided by Columbia Fire Department, firefighters battle a blaze at Babcock Building in Columbia, S.C., on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020. Officials said crews were called early Saturday to a three-alarm fire at the Babcock Building, a shuttered former mental asylum that had been planned as part of a luxury housing development. In the fire, the first three-alarm blaze in the city’s recent history, Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins told reporters the building would likely “burn to a shell.” (Columbia Fire Department via AP)

An early morning fire has devastated an iconic building whose architectural beauty and past as South Carolina’s state mental institution have long been features of both the capital city’s skyline and historic lore.

Officials said crews were called early Saturday to a fire at the Dr. James Woods Babcock Building, part of a shuttered former mental health asylum that was slated to be converted into a luxury housing development. In the fire, the first three-alarm blaze in the city’s recent history, Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins told reporters the building would likely “burn to a shell.”

A cause had not been determined for the fire, which Jenkins said engulfed all three floors of the structure. One firefighter was reported as receiving minor injuries from falling embers.

On the National Register of Historic Places, what was known as the Babcock Building, with its famous raised cupola and 12-sided dome, became a notable part of Columbia’s downtown skyline after construction began in 1857. Video of the fire showed that dome and cupola slide off the burning structure, collapsing into the inferno below. The new building in the multistructure complex was designed by George E. Walker, a Charleston civil engineer and architect who came to Columbia in 1854 as the constructing architect for the Statehouse, becoming a resident of the city, according to the South Carolina Historical Society.

The central portion, in the Italian Renaissance Revival style, with an end-gabled core roof surmounted by what would become its iconic dome, was designed by Pennsylvania architect Samuel Sloan, according to the state Department of Archives and History.

The building was named for Dr. James Woods Babcock, superintendent of the South Carolina State Hospital from 1891 to 1914.

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SOURCE: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution; The Associated Press, Meg Kinnard