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Trezevant: A Building Handsome, Hopeful, and Healing

By: Diana Garnett

The history of Trezevant has fallen largely into the cracks of written record. Its design and structure are small and relatively simple, not like the more grandiose Babcock Building or its former (now demolished) neighbor, the North Building. Its function has always been rather mundane—it provided ward space for elderly white women—not patients with infectious diseases or violent tendencies. Nonetheless, the building has been spared demolition and debilitating deterioration for over three-quarters of a century. Though neglected for decades now, Trezevant possesses architectural integrity and historic value. It is both viable for and deserving of rehabilitation.

When architect Robert S. LaFaye drew up a construction contract for Trezevant in 1931, the South Carolina State Hospital was facing unprecedented growth in patient admissions. The Annual Reports of the Hospital during the 1920s and 1930s frequently bemoaned the lack of ward space and the resultant overcrowding and insufficient care for their fragile patients. These Depression-era decades were a difficult time for financing new buildings, and though construction of Trezevant commenced in November of 1931, a shortage of funding brought progress to a halt in January 1932.[1] LaFaye resumed work in April of that same year, and completed the following June.[2] The dates of the contract and initial construction explain the date “1931” that is mounted above Trezevant’s main entrance.

There is considerable ambiguity regarding Trezevant’s origins as described in the State Hospital’s Annual Reports, but it is clear that Trezevant is one of only two buildings newly constructed during the years 1930-1933 (the only new buildings built in 1928-29 were Laborde, part of Parker, and wards at State Park).[3] One of these buildings was a “colored dining ward,” built at State Park. The other building listed as completed in 1932 is called, confusingly, “The Williams Building.” Though the name is deceptive, the building described is unmistakably Trezevant: a one-story, brick building with a tin roof, built for the care of fifty “old and infirm” white female patients.[4] This specific purpose is readily evident both by Trezevant’s single story design, and by the ramps which provide access to the north and south entrances of the building.

The construction of Trezevant is exemplary of the architectural and social philosophy guiding the development of mental health campuses in the early and mid-twentieth century. The movement toward the cottage or segregate plan was well underway by the 1930s, and Trezevant represents this effort to house specific groups of patients in smaller, disparate housing.[5] LaFaye constructed the building north of the other female wards Babcock and North, by one account because, “there was no room elsewhere.”[6] Trezevant stood slightly behind its neighbor to the south, the North Building (no longer extant); however, it does align perfectly with the facade of the Babcock Administrative building, which seems unlikely to have been merely happenstance.[7] This is an especially intriguing choice of alignment considering that in the 1930s, state asylums for the mentally ill were—and had been for decades—very much an object of criticism by both the scientific, medical professions and the general public. Specifically, doctors derided the Kirkbride plan—which characterizes the design of Babcock—as an outdated and bogus concept of curative architecture, the antithesis to modern medicine and scientific progress. Why would the architects and planners for the South Carolina State Hospital choose to align a new, segregate building with an edifice which historically connoted controversy and skepticism? Could this have been an effort by the SCSH to unify two different architectural philosophies on a single campus, the new (Trezevant) seeking to mitigate the negative associations of the old? Or perhaps, aligning the new building with Babcock simply looked symmetrical and logical. There are no explicit answers available for this question of Trezevant’s location on the site, but together with the building’s handicap-accessible design and classical detailing, it is clear that an intricate and thoughtful planning process guided the construction of Trezevant.

The building is laid out in an H-shape, with a central wing protruding from the back of the H’s hyphen.[8] The exterior of this central wing, or extended pavilion, is nearly identical in exterior form to the two pavilion wards on the north and south ends of the building, suggesting that it served as additional ward space. All three pavilions have staircase exits in the back—the building is built on a hill so that the ground floor of the east side of the building is at an elevation—which indicates that accessibility for the elderly patients was limited to the front (west side) of the building. It was not until 1960 that the SCSH extended its “Open Door” policy to Trezevant, allowing patients the freedom to enter and leave their wards with minimal or no supervision.[9]

Architectural choices in Trezevant’s simple neoclassical design reveal an intent to make the building not only functional but attractive. Quoins adorn the corners of its pavilions, front and back. Classical wooden frames with paneled windows surround the doors. Concrete scrolls mark both corners above the wooden frame of the main, central entrance. The windows were originally quite large, on average about 4 x 5 feet, and in the typical fashion of patient ward buildings (for example, Babcock), they were guarded by iron grids. Sometime in the late 1940s—the exact date is not clear—Trezevant was renovated.[10] Disaster struck the building a decade or so later, in November 1959, when heavy rains caused the ceiling to collapse. The female patients moved temporarily to the James F. Byrnes Clinical Center until workers could repair the damage.[11] Engineers altered the building again in the 1970s. The Annual Report of 1974 recommended the allocation of funds in the following year (1975) to remodel and air condition Trezevant and Thompson.[12] It was mostly likely during this 1975 renovation that the large, bottom portion (over half) of each of the windows was bricked over, leaving a narrower, rectangular opening.[13] It was probably also at this time that workers applied a wash to the brick exterior.[14]


In 1937, the completion and dedication of the Williams Reception building indicates that in that year, Trezevant was no longer called “Williams,” as it had been named in 1932.[15] Instead, the building emerges in written records during the 1940s as “Ward 18A,” still occupied by elderly, white female patients. At last, in January 1955, the Palmetto Variety newsletter notes that Ward 18A is now known as “Trezevant.” The function of the building remained the same throughout that decade, and Palmetto Varieties describe festive holiday parties lighting up the ward, charitable visits and performances by local churches, family visits, and the recovery and rehabilitation of sick patients. Viewings of movies and television shows took place frequently at Trezevant in the 1950s, explaining the presence of a large, concrete-coated satellite dish still situated in the yard behind the building.[16]

Palmetto Variety last mentions Trezevant (under that name) in April, 1961.[17] However, mention of Trezevant persists in the Hospital’s Annual Reports through the 1980s, and it is clear that the ward was still used for geriatric patients in the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, one of the most pervasive complaints throughout the Annual Reports of these decades is the high number of elderly patients at the State Hospital due to chronic mental disorders and age-induced mental illnesses such as dementia and various forms of senility. Though by 1965, the overall rate of admissions at the South Carolina State Hospital had levelled off after years of increase, the proportion of geriatric patients was substantial, and until the James F. Byrnes Center was completed with over 200 beds for geriatrics in 1964, elderly patients were scattered across the campus in disparate wards, Trezevant among them.[18]

In the 1970s and 1980s, new federal and state initiatives for improving care for the mentally ill resulted in various re-organization efforts at the State Hospital in Columbia. One of these included the formation of six “Units” at the Bull Street campus, each unit assigned buildings with similar purposes or functions. Trezevant belonged to Unit 2, with buildings that housed chronic patients. The 1982 Annual Report states that the “female community preparation ward” was moved to Trezevant during the year due to the “inability to close Trezevant Building successfully and yet supply ventilation.” [19] Another interesting detail in this Report is the identification of Trezevant as “Ward 114.” Indeed, Ward 114A and B appear in the Palmetto Varieties of the 1980s, hosting the same kind of activities and parties mentioned in the Palmetto’s of earlier decades.[20]

A final mention of Trezevant occurs in the Annual Report of 1987, which states that completed renovation of Trezevant allowed for “the Pharmacy to become fully operational.”[21] The previous year’s Annual Report (1986) had stated that a goal for the next year was the establishment of a “unit-dose system hospital wide by developing . . . a totally new central Pharmacy.”[22] Whether the renovations that allowed for full pharmaceutical functions meant that Trezevant itself was operating as the Bull Street campus’ main Pharmacy center, or was simply re-structured to accommodate a campus-wide pharmacy outpatient system, is unclear.

In the midst of a campus which for nearly two centuries has represented the psychological, emotional, and political turbulence of mental health care in the United States, Trezevant has a comparatively quiet, steady past. Palmetto Varieties and Annual Reports from the mid and late twentieth century reveal a building—and its staff—which provided some of the state’s most vulnerable and traumatized citizens with a measure of joy and healing. This is a noble past, embodied in a dignified, if dilapidated now, building. Citizens of South Carolina, and Columbia in particular, should consider it a civic and personal duty to save such a rare emblem of institutional hope.




[1] “Report of the Architect,” 109th Annual Report of the SC State Hospital for the Year Ending September 30, 1932. Box 2, Series 190002, Mental Health Commission Annual Reports of the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, 1905-1958. South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia, South Carolina.

[2] ““Ward Buildings at the South Carolina State Hospital Construction between 1918-1972.” Inez Fripp. Folder: Building Data, Box 3. Series 190093, State Dept. of Mental Health, Historical Research Files ca. 1900-1999. South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia, South Carolina.

[3] “Report of the Architect,” 106th Annual Report of the SC State Hospital for the Year 1929.

[4] “Improvements and Repairs,” 109th Annual Report of the SC State Hospital for the Year Ending September 30, 1932.

[5] Yanni, Carla. The Architecture of Madness Insane Asylums in the United States. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.

[6] “First Fireproof Buildings,” Engineer-Architect Report for SC State Hospital, McPherson Company, Greenville, SC

[7] Map of SC State Hospital Buildings and Grounds, SC Dept of Mental Health; J.W.W, December 1954.

[8] “Trezevant: Main Floor Plan – Exterior Walls.” Heyward and Woodrum, Ltd., AIA, Columbi,a SC. December 2013. In Historic Columbia Foundation’s “Measure Drawings of Existing Buildings.” Redevelopment of Department of Mental Health-Bull Street Campus, Columbia, South Carolina.

[9] “Columbia Unit,” 137th Annual Report of the South Carolina State Hospital for the Year Ending June 30, 1960. pp 78-79.

[10] “Columbia Unit,” 137th Annual Report of the SC State Hospital, June 30, 1960.

[11] “Columbia Unit,” 137th Annual Report of the SC State Hospital, June 30, 1960.

[12] “Permanent Improvements,” Annual Report, South Carolina Department of Mental Health, 1973-74

[13] Photograph of Trezevant in “Permanent Improvement Survey.” Box 3, S 190093, State Department of Mental Health, Historical Research Files, 1900-1999.

[14] Photograph of Trezevant in “Permanent Improvement Survey.”

[15] “Dedication of Williams Reception Building,” Annual Report of 1937, SC State Hospital

[16] “Movie in Ward 18A,” Palmetto Variety, January 1955. Box 1. S 190074, State Department of Mental Health, Office of Public Affairs Newsletters, 1951-1991. South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia, South Carolina.

[17] “Trezevant News Item,” Palmetto Variety, April 1961. Box 1. S 190074, State Department of Mental Health, Office of Public Affairs Newsletters, 1951-1991. South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia, South Carolina.

[18] “Administrative Division,” 10th Annual Report of the SC Mental Health Commission, June 30, 1962, pp. 6-9.

[19] “Unit 2,” Annual Report, SC Dept of Mental Health, 1981-82. Pp 39.

[20] “Report from Unit II,” Palmetto Variety. September 1980. Box 15. S 190074.

[21] “South Carolina State Hospital,” Annual Report 1986-87, p. 216.

[22] “Component: Pharmacy,” Annual Report 1985-86, p. 194.