Food Services Building

View a digitally curated collection of this building on Omeka.

By: Hannah Whitlark

The South Carolina Department of Mental Health’s Food Service Building was one of the best in the southeast during its time. While in use, the Food Service Building became an iconic and optimistic image for the State Hospital. Built in 1954, it had the capacity to provide 10,000 meals a day, and 20,000 bread meals a day (the amount of meals containing bread).1  Neighboring hospitals often looked to the  Food Service Building for inspiration. Despite the positive qualities brought about by the Food Service Building, it operated for only forty-six years. In 2000 the Food Service Building was abandoned like many buildings at the Bull Street site.

Columbia, South Carolina’s State Hospital received its first patient, a white female, on December 12, 1828. The State Hospital was the second in the United States to be established and the third to be ready for patient use.2 This was South Carolina’s second attempt to house the mentally ill. The first attempt was in 1772 by the Fellowship Society in Charleston.3 In 1915, once the patient population increased, the State Hospital added a kitchen which had a capacity to feed 1,800 people. By 1952 the State Hospital’s patient population had reached 5,300 but still continued to produce meals from the original kitchen designed to feed 1,800 people.4

On Wednesday January 9, 1952 Governor Byrnes addressed to the General Assembly that the State Hospital was the number one problem for South Carolina. There were 5,300 patients housed in overcrowded conditions and employees who worked 60-72 hours a week. For every 445 patients there was 1 doctor. For every 290 patients there was 1 nurse, and for every 18 patients there was 1 attendant. The 1915 kitchen lacked adequate equipment to prepare meals for the campus population. Some of the patched up pots being used dated back to 1915. At this time, the South Carolina State Hospital was the most overcrowded hospital in all of the United States.5

Governor Byrnes concluded that construction was needed to add wards for ‘excitable’ patients along with a new kitchen and elevators. All of these were urgent issues which needed to be addressed sooner rather than later.6 Fortunately in 1952, the State Hospital acquired a new superintendent, Dr. William S. Hall. Under Dr. Hall’s authority, the hospital received more construction than ever before.7 Together Dr. Hall and Governor Byrnes helped facilitate the construction of the Food Service Building, which would later bring the State some much needed positive attention.

The Food Service building was placed on the lower part of campus, between Babcock and the future location of the four buildings for the criminally insane. This placement of the new Food Service Building may have been due to the need for a large amount of space that was not on a slope or embankment. It would have also been more feasible to place the building here because of the increased amount of traffic that came along with larger shipments of importing and exporting food.  This location was far enough away from the patient dormitories while remaining in the overall center of them.

Construction on the Food Service Building began in 1953. The State hired Dawson Engineering Company of Charleston as contractors and McPherson of Greenville was hired as the architect. Upon completion in 1954, the State Hospital’s Food Service Building contained some of the newest utilities such as increased space for refrigeration, multiple truck loading docks and air conditioning in every room. Unlike the first kitchen, fewer patients worked here. Two employee cafeterias were located within the Food Service Building along with walk in freezers, refrigerated trash bins (to prevent rot and smell), and air pumps at the entrances to push flies away. Tiles were used on the walls and floors to allow for easy cleaning. A meat processing room located within the building contained a patty grinding machine and two meat ovens big enough to cook a thousand units a day. Meals could now be transferred throughout campus on one of the two ‘gravy trains’. These new ‘gravy trains were electronically heated in the Food Services Building and looked like actual miniature trains. It is unclear how long these trains were in operation, but it is evident that they were of great use to the campus at the time of their introduction because warm meals could now be obtained through the campus; unlike before.8    Another new development was the ability to receive and store frozen food on site.9

After spending one million dollars on the Food Service Building and four million dollars on the construction of four wards for the criminally insane in 1954,10  the Hospital faced a potential financial deficit in 1955.11 Dr. Hall announced that food and employee cut backs would be put into action to avoid any threat of financial deficit.   These two cut backs relate to the issue Governor Byrnes acknowledged during his hospital tour in 1952, when the number of employees was already at a record low in comparison to the number of patients.12  Between 1950 and 1951 the number of employees at the State Hospital decreased by 375. The re-activation of Fort Jackson, the War, and the construction of an atomic energy plant near Aiken were all factors which contributed to the decline in hospital employees. This sudden drop in employment led to lower employee standards, such as education and training.13

The Food Service Building was originally built to be a show place for the institution, and unmatched at any other State Hospital in the country.14  Despite the State Hospital having to cut back on food and employees, the Food Service Building managed to become a showcase and gained recognition throughout the Southeast. On May 7, 1956 Leland E. Crenshaw, the director of Food Services, accepted a National award for “outstanding achievement in food service installation and design in feeding institutes”.15  In 1959 a  Springfield, Illinois Food Administrator named Mrs. Ethel J. Boyle wrote Dr. Hall seeking approval to send two of her representatives down to inspect the Food Service Building. Dr. Hall replied with a yes and offered the two a place to stay with one day of free meals from the Food Service Building.16 There is proof of another tour given of the Food Service Building in 1960 by Leland E. Crenshaw to the Pineville Louisiana State Hospital Business Administrator.17

The Food Service Building had several functions. The first function was to replace the deteriorated 1915 kitchen to feed the State Hospital’s ever growing population.18   The Food Service Building’s second function was to represent the State Hospital in a way that the older ward and service buildings could not.19 This was one of the only buildings uninhabited by patients and it could be used to hold functions and meetings for the State Hospital guests. These factors prove why this building was intended to be a show place for the institution, as well as kitchen.

In 1962, the State Park Division of the South Carolina Department of Mental Health finally received their own Food Service building. This State Park campus served African American Patients20 while the Bull Street campus in downtown Columbia served white patients. Before State Park obtained their own Food Service Building, they would receive food shipped from the Bull Street Food Service Building.21 In 1965 the South Carolina Hospital began to integrate the Bull Street population to avoid the loss of government funding.22 Although integration took place, the campuses never full merged. When the Food Service Building shut down in 2000 on Bull Street, State Park shipped food to them.

The Food Service Building was one of the most positive additions to the site and should be preserved in some way to memorialize such optimism. This large amount of space has the potential to be put back to good use, even if not for producing food. A shopping center or multiple restaurants could be placed within the building, or even one story apartments. The building is unique in that it represents the modern style of the 1950’s with its flat roof and simple exterior design. These things considered it would be clever to reuse the building. If Food Service Building is demolished though, the space it takes up now should be reserved as a recreational are for it is surrounded by enormous oak trees that are native to this land. If one were to visit the Bull Street now, they would notice people enjoying the quiet scenery, taking photographs of the beautiful landscape and exercising. If anything, the trees and natural landscape must remain to honor the past and carry the future of outdoor recreation.