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The LaBorde Building: Evolution of a 20th Century Patient Ward

By: Stephanie Gray

The LaBorde Building has been known by many names since its construction in 1929: the tuberculosis pavilion, ward B-21, and finally LaBorde. The various name changes over the years coincide with the change in the composition of patients it housed. Constructed for mentally ill patients with tuberculosis, LaBorde later became the home of female patients and then elderly regressed patients. The adaptability of the building to suit the needs of different types of patients with mental illnesses allows its narrative to engage with important parts of the history of mental health in the United States and the South Carolina State Hospital’s campus on Bull Street in particular. A small ward building, but in close proximity to the grand Babcock and Mills buildings, LaBorde’s role in patient care at the S.C. State Hospital should not be overlooked in the evaluation of its preservation during the future redevelopment of the Bull Street campus.

Although LaBorde was not constructed until 1929, its history began over three decades earlier, as evident in the conversations about the need to build a ward for the State Hospital’s mentally ill tuberculosis patients published in the institution’s annual reports. Superintendent James W. Babcock led the effort to make the care of tuberculosis patients a top priority on the institution’s agenda. In the annual report for the year 1907, Babcock wrote that since the “Report of the Superintendent” he published in the 1894 annual report, he has maintained that tuberculosis is “the chief cause of mortality among our patients.” According to Babcock, the hospital was not adequately addressing the problem of this highly infectious disease, and beginning back in 1894 he began to “advocat[e] the isolation of tuberculosis patients from the nontuberculosis.” He cited Dr. Drewy of the Patterson Asylum in Virginia, who said that “the segregation of the tuberculous in separate cottages or canvas tents, has been a distinct advance, which promises well nigh universal approval.”[1]

The following year, in 1908, Babcock made recommendations to the General Assembly after studying Watson’s “Handbook of South Carolina.” He voiced the same adamant plea of the year before that “the means of separating the tuberculous from the nontuberculous is at the present time a question of vital importance.” Arguing for the maintenance of poor conditions from year to year, the Board of Health reported that “no provisions have been made for the isolation of tubercular patients, and they are allowed to sleep and mingle with others not infected, thereby causing a continual spread of this disease in this Institution.” Again, the Board of Health emphasized the need to build a structure for contagious patients and recommended that land be purchased outside of Columbia to build the Farm Colony that would house tuberculosis patients along with epileptics and the mildly insane.[2]

The concerns expressed in the annual reports from the first decade of the twentieth century did not result in the creation of the Farm Colony as proposed, but the need to build a structure for tuberculosis patients persisted on the hospital’s agenda over the course of the next twenty years. In 1915, a year after Babcock resigned as superintendent, South Carolina Governor Richard I. Manning appealed to the National Committee for Mental Hygiene to conduct a study of the hospital because of its reported unsatisfactory and unsanitary conditions. After conducting his study, Dr. Arthur P. Herring recommended in a “Plan of Reorganization” that “the most evident step at the present time is to remove all of the negro insane, the idiots and imbeciles, the tuberculous and pellagrous patients, to the State Park.”[3] After more than a decade of silence in written reports, probably as a result of underfunding, the call to arms to build a tuberculosis ward building was reprised in the annual report of 1928: “An urgent need at the institution in Columbia is a Tuberculosis Ward Building for the white male patients. These patients are now housed in the Parker Annex which has been renovated but is intended to be used for an industrial shop. It will be necessary to build a pavilion with capacity of forty beds, which will cost Forty Thousand Dollars.”[4]

This time, however, the Board was successful in receiving the funds to build a ward, and contracted the Columbia architectural firm Lafaye & Lafaye Architects to design the building and procure bids for its construction. In late May of 1929, the Board of Regents accepted the bid of the Mechanics Contracting Co., the lowest offered at $22,981.[5] A letter from Lafaye & Lafaye in November stated that the “T.B. Pavilion was ready for acceptance” from the Board of Regents.[6] By December, the “one-story brick building covered with a tin roof, concrete floors, and heated from the central heating plant” was completed and occupied by white male tuberculosis patients.[7]

The LaBorde Building, though not yet named, was built as a symmetrical structure with a central pavilion facing north, flanked by two wings to the east and west. The central pavilion includes a medical office, reception hall, supplies room, nurses’ room, dining room, and kitchen with a storage closet and vestibule. The two wings are identical and each features a large, dormitory-style ward room, three private rooms, a linen room, toilet, bath, and a paved terrace at the back of the building, facing south.[8] These details, procured from Lafaye & Lafaye’s architectural drawings, reflect simplicity in the building’s design. The ward was an efficient structure to facilitate ease for the nurses in caring for patients.

While the conversation to build the tuberculosis building is well documented and rich in detail, LaBorde’s later history is more difficult to piece together. Despite the decades-long battle to construct a tuberculosis pavilion, LaBorde no longer housed T.B. patients by the mid-1940s, although discussion about what happened to the treatment of tuberculosis patients is not recorded in the institution’s reports. The Wilson building, however, was enlarged in 1952 to accommodate tubercular male and female patients as noted in the annual report for the year 1956.[9] Sometime in the 1940s, white female patient moved into LaBorde, but by 1949, LaBorde was home to forty-eight elderly semi-invalid patients. Although the building’s capacity was forty-six, a report recorded that “a very unsatisfactory and unsanitary condition results” because one ward is used as a day room, and “facilities should be provided to relive the crowded condition as soon as possible.” [10] The report suggested that additional wings be added to each end of the building, but the proposal never came to fruition.

Instead, LaBorde was one amongst many of the State Hospital’s patient ward buildings that experienced overcrowding in the 1950s.   When South Carolina Governor James F. Brynes visited the State Hospital in January 1952, he went on a tour of the ‘White Male Service’ wards. After visiting the Taylor Building, he toured 21-B [LaBorde] and the Parker Annex. The hospital’s guide sheet for the route to be taken by the governor and members of the legislature directed the tour to STRESS CROWDED CONDITIONS [capital letters in original].[11] An article in The State reported Governor Byrnes’s tour and described LaBorde as “a separate one-story building for invalids entirely dependent on attendants. These patients have to be fed forcibly. Most of them have to be picked up bodily for baths or to be moved about in the building.”[12] Thus, Governor Byrnes visit to the S.C. State Hospital both highlights the overcrowded and poor conditions of ward buildings, as well as the nature of the patients that LaBorde housed in the early 1950s.

The name LaBorde begins to appear in written sources in the late 1950s, so sometime between the governor’s visit in 1952 and 1958 the building received its official name and ‘LaBorde’ and ‘1929’ were affixed to its façade. [13] In the next decade, the volunteer program established at the S.C. State Hospital brought church groups to LaBorde to throw parties for the patients. The most frequent visitors were ladies from Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Columbia, who came regularly every month on a Sunday afternoon. When they arrived, everyone gathered in the dayroom or in the adjacent yard outside and engaged in social activities such as eating and drinking, watermelon slicing, and singing religious songs.[14] The volunteer program and church group visits to patient wards were part of the S.C. State Hospital’s campaign in the 1960s to cultivate stronger relations with the external community of Columbia by adopting an “open-door policy,” placing the S.C. State Hospital within the broader national trend to transform mental institutions into “mechanisms for the achievement of social objectives as related to the mentally ill.”[15]

After the 1960s, it becomes more difficult to determine what role LaBorde assumed at the S.C. State Hospital. According to a permanent improvement study completed in 1971, LaBorde housed forty-nine semi-invalid male patients, which seems to suggest that the overcrowding of the 1950s, given attention by Governor Byrnes’ visit, had been reduced to a manageable situation comparable to the conditions of 1949. The study reported that the general conditions were poor, particularly in the bath where the shower hose hung from wire. Overall, however, the study found that the “office has recently been renovated and is in much better condition than any of ward buildings.” [16] Therefore, while LaBorde suffered neglect in the 1970s, its condition was not as poor as some other buildings as the hospital, which may suggest that patients were housed at LaBorde for a longer period of time than in some other ward buildings.

LaBorde underwent a transformation in 1974 in preparation for its use as an office space, thereby signaling the near end of its function as a patient ward. LaBorde was completely rebuilt with the installation of new floors, plumbing, lighting, air-conditioning, heating, and windows, and space was which was originally used for wards was divided into private rooms. “When the interior was complete, the building was painted on the outside, giving it a new look on the exterior.” [17] Thus, the once brick building was given its whitewashed appearance that it maintains today. In the early 1980s, all patients had been moved out of LaBorde, and it was used to store supplies. Sometime in the 1980s or early 1990s, the Public Safety department moved in the building, but left around 1995.[18]

Many questions still remain about the history of the LaBorde building, and further research in the records of the Department of Mental Health can help elucidate the building’s role in the early to late twentieth century at of the S.C. State Hospital. For example, what year was the building named, and why was LaBorde the chosen appellation? What nurses or doctors worked in the buildings? How was LaBorde’s precise location on the Bull Street campus chosen, and what accounts for the shift from the early twentieth century annual reports that call for a structure to be built at a distant Farm Colony to a centrally-located position in close proximity to the Babcock, Mills, and Parker buildings?

The LaBorde Building is an important structure on the historic S.C. State Hospital campus because it was built as a space to house patients whose care was the foundational function of a state mental hospital. While it is not unique in purpose, design, or use, LaBorde’s evolution is a testament to the flexibility of twentieth-century patient wards at the State Hospital.

A well-constructed, structurally sound, centrally-located, and non-purpose-built building such as LaBorde presents an opportunity for a meaningful rehabilitation or adaptive reuse project. Its proximity to Bull Street and Calhoun Street position the building in an optimal location for a commercial or residential structure in forthcoming redevelopment plans, so LaBorde should be considered for rehabilitation rather than demolition. As an extant ward building, LaBorde could preserve the historical legacy of the function of state mental hospitals to care for the mentally ill, as well as the architectural characteristics of an early twentieth century patient ward.


[1] “Report of the Superintendent,” Eighty-Fourth Annual Report of the South Carolina State Hospital for the Insane for the Year Nineteen Hundred and Seven. Container 2, Series 190002, Mental Health Commission, Annual Reports of the South Carolina Department of Mental Health 1905-1958, SC Department of Archives and History, Columbia, SC. (Hereafter referred to as SCDAH).

[2] “Report of the Superintendent,” Eighty-Fifth Annual Report of the South Carolina State Hospital for the Insane for the Year Nineteen Hundred and Eight. Container 2, Series 190002, Mental Health Commission, Annual Reports of the South Carolina Department of Mental Health 1905-1958, SCDAH.

[3]Report to Hon. Richard I. Manning Governor of South Carolina on the State Hospital for the Insane at Columbia, South Carolina with Recommendations by Arthur P. Herring, M.D. January 1915, Folder 4, Series 190080, SCDAH.

[4] Report of the Architect,’ One Hundred and Fifth Annual Report of the South Carolina State Hospital for the Year 1928, Container 10, Series 190002, Annual Reports S.C. State Hospital 1926-1935, SCDAH.

[5]Minutes Board of Regents South Carolina State Hospital Jan. 10, 1929 to Dec. 12, 1929. H. T. Patterson, Sec., 29 May 1929, Container 13, Series S 190001 Mental Health Commission. Minutes of the Mental Health Commission 1828-2006, SCDAH.

[6] Ibid, dated 14 November 1929.

[7] “Report of Architect,” One Hundred and Fifth Annual Report of the South Carolina State Hospital for the Year 1929, Container 10, Series S 190002, Annual Reports S.C. State Hospital 1926-1935, SCDAH.

[8]Lafaye & Lafaye Architects, Architectural Drawings of “Tuberculosis Pavilion, S. Car. State Hospital, Columbia S.C.” Sheets 2. South Carolinana Library, Library Annex, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC.

[9] “Data Buildings – Columbia Division,” One Hundred and Thirty Third Annual Report of the South Carolina State Hospital for the Year Ending June 30, 1956 (p. 38). Container 2, Series S 190002, Mental Health Commission, Annual Reports of the South Carolina Department of Mental Health 1905-1958, SCDAH.

[10] The McPherson, Company, “Ward B-21,” Report for South Carolina State Hospital, Columbia, S.C., Container 2, Series S 190012, South Carolina State Hospital (Columbia, S.C.), Construction projects file, 1948-1962. SCDAH.

[11] “Route to be taken for visiting Governor and members of the legislature,” Unlabeled black binder. Container 1, Series S 190008, General Reference Scrapbooks 1951-1964, Newspaper Clippings; SCDAH.

[12] Austin Adkinson, “State Legislatures Thread Way Through State Hospital” The State, Unlabeled black binder, Container 1, Series S 190008, General Reference Scrapbooks 1951-1964, Newspaper Clippings; SCDAH.

[13] J.W.W., Map of S.C. State Hospital Buildings and Grounds, Container 1, Series 190093, State Dept. of Mental Health, Division of Education and Research Services, Historical Research Files, c. 1900-1999, SCDAH.

[14]Palmetto Variety, Vol. 9, No. 11 (1961), Vol 10, No. 7 (July 1962), Vol. 11, No. 6 (July 1963), Containers 5&6, S 190074, State Dept. of Mental Health. Office of Public Affairs. Newsletters (South Carolina State Hospital newsletter, palmetto variety, variety, report, digest, images, weekly bulletin, and focus) 1951-1991, SCDAH.

[15] Uri Aviram, “Facilitating Deinstitutionalization: A Comparative Analysis” The International Journal of Social Psychiatry (1981), 23.

[16] Permanent Improvement Study, Black Binder, Container 3, S 190093, State Dept. of Mental Health, Division of Education and Research Services, Historical Research Files ca. 1900-1999, SCDAH.

[17] Annual Report South Carolina Department of Mental Health, 1973-1974 (p. 55), Container 3, Series S 190002, Mental Health Commission, Annual Reports of the South Carolina Department of Mental Health 1960-1984; State Hospital Commission 1912-1913; S.C. Mental Health Commission 1958-1963, SCDAH.

[18] “Notes from First Talk with Mike Mefford,” Kim Campbell, 25 March 2014.