#TBT: 1940 is the new 1920

Preston

Build me like one of your Romanesque girls.

Here we go again. . .

It’s time for another installment of Getting to Know Your Campus. A few months back, we profiled just what was happening on the Historic Horseshoe during its construction. (Thanks for sharing your vintage college photos. We’re especially fond of this snap from Preston.  

Preston
Image courtesy Preston College.

It’s been a long time since we came around, but Cola, we’re not leaving without ‘Shoe. (Lady Gaga, anyone? Anyone? Moving right along…)

This week, we’re looking at a UofSC on the verge of total collapse & the buildings that saved it.

McKissick

What’s it like in Columbia in 1935?

It sucked worse than the 2017 football team. Business wasn’t exactly booming, Olin Johnston was elected Governor, and the only thing great was the Depression.

On the campus of the University of South Carolina, things looked similarly bad. The Historic Horseshoe looked more overgrown than the Ivy League. Buildings had fallen into disrepair—roofs sprang leaks, floors sagged, and attendance hovered at around 1,600 students. The budget had been cut by 69% since 1929. Morale was low.  

Then, speeding over the horizon, Calabash pipe blazing, Queen blasting in the background, came J. Rion McKissick.  

McKissick
Image Courtesy UofSC Archives

The Future in a Three-Piece Suit

  1. Rion McKissick served as President of UofSC from 1936 until his death in 1944. He was known for having a strong moral character, unwavering determination, and an affinity for Virginia tobacco. This guy was steadfast when it came to improving morale—he knew most students by name, often rode his bicycle around the Horseshoe, and gave spontaneous speeches in the dining hall. (This man STOOD ON THE TABLES, for goodness sake. He was like a character from Rent before Chris Columbus was even born.)  

“Employment to those who need it and works of genuine worth”

Segue: The Works Progress Administration was the coolest thing to come out of the Federal Government since—oh, I don’t know—free speech. It was an American renaissance meant to inspire the population by providing support to artists, architects, and writers. 

WPA

The support of the WPA also extended to colleges and universities around the country. It subsidized the construction of new and renovation of existing buildings on college campuses with the aim of getting more folks enrolled in school.  

The way President McKissick saw it—the way the whole administration saw it—was either Carolina pursue voraciously this opportunity from the Federal Government, or prepare to close its doors. And Gamecocks don’t give up.

So the administration petitioned the government with the same determination of a Twitter stalker until they were granted the cash needed to salvage their campus.  

HOW TO SPOT THE WPA @ USC (OMG):

Build me like one of your Romanesque girls

When it comes to spotting the new kids on the block, look for one thing: columns. Just like all newcomers to an established club, the WPA buildings at Carolina try to replicate what the cool kids were doing. And the cool kids were into columns. (It’s like a spreadsheet up in here.)

Preston

Columns, their pediments (or hats, to non-architecture folks), domes, and stylized detailing are all signature of the WPA Romanesque movement. Why go with the Romans? Because their empire had lasted for thousands of years. And the new America was going to last even longer.

Hold me closer, Tiny Horseshoe

Another way to tell if a building has been whopped by the WPA stick is to judge how close it is to the original Horseshoe. The all-new buildings: Preston, Maxcy, McKissick, the War Memorial, and Wade Hampton are all close to—if not lining—the original campus.  

Campus
Image courtesy RCPL

TWO ALLSTARS:  

Under the dome

It’s one of the most iconic buildings at the University of South Carolina. McKissick Museum was built at the end of the WPA era on campus to the tune of $560,000. It is the only twentieth-century building standing on the Horseshoe. Originally, it was built as the university’s undergraduate library, but TCoop superseded it in the 1970s.  

McKissick
Image courtesy Historic Columbia Foundation

Like a lot of WPA buildings, McKissick suffers from a little Romanesque dejavu. If you’ve been to Davidson College or spent time at the Sarasota Spa, the museum’s façade might look a little familiar. As Vitruvius once said, If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  

Keep your eyes peeled—this recycled architecture is a trend we’ll come back to in a future TBT. (Which we’re pretty sure is a paradox.)

Born to be Weird: Preston College

Preston
Image courtesy University Archives

Preston was built to emulate the residential colleges of Oxford in Columbia. Though, the crowd it originally attracted weren’t exactly your English grammarians. In an oral history of the site, one resident admitted to summoning the police to the building for an invented crime, then sneaking out of his own window and taking the cop car for a joyride. And that’s just one story from the early years.  

Preston
Image courtesy Garnet & Black Magazine/University Archives

Preston was a blue-gray—the traditional color used at Oxford—until a Board member described it as “depressing for a building,” so they went with a warm buff for the repaint.  

Preston
Image courtesy Preston College.

Preston recently celebrated its 75th anniversary by inviting former residents home. Some incredible images and stories came out of this reunion. It also turned up the original Preston facebooks from 1995-2008. (They are amazing.)

Tl;dr

In 1935, UofSC was on the cusp of closing its doors. One year later, a forward-thinking cyclist busted in and changed all of that. Now, because of the improvements to campus, expansion of the physical footprint, and a federal endowment for education, the University is celebrating its past and preparing for the future.  

And we think that’s pretty dope.

McKissick

That’s it for us this week! Do you have any snapshots of your time in a Carolina dorm? Historic Columbia would love to add them to our local history collection. Be sure to drop us a line and tell us about your res hall hijinks (though, the police car bit is pretty hard to top).  

If you’d like to explore the University Hill neighborhood this weekend, take a gander at our mobile tour. It’s a great way to get in those steps before your next holiday meal…

We’re off to go explore the current exhibit under the dome at McKissick. See y’all in two weeks for the historic holidays.