COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - After one of the worst fires in several years, the property owners of the historic Babcock building say they will keep moving forward.
In a statement, Robert Hughes, the master developer of the BullStreet District wrote, “Though the iconic dome and the central portions of the interior are destroyed, we are thankful that the Columbia Fire Department was able to contain most of the damage to the central portion of the building.”
The statement went to say, “site cleanup had begun...progress will continue at The BullStreet District.”
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin agreed with the developer’s sentiment.
“If there’s some opportunity to preserve some portions of the building, we will work with developers and others to make it a reality,” Benjamin said.
Benjamin said the property group, Cachlan Properties, was planning to begin renovating the Babcock building into an apartment complex next week.
“It couldn’t have come at a worse time,” he said.
Renovating the building is one part of a years-long city effort to revitalize the BullStreet District. However, the mayor stresses this wasn’t the only part of the plan.
“The development was moving pretty aggressively without the Babcock being developed,” the mayor said.
An REI has recently opened in the area, and the district’s project manager said a Starbucks and brewery will open in the area soon.
“Things are happening there. But, yes, this beautiful building that so many people for years have confused as the state capitol when they first visit the city...the cupola is gone. But hopefully, there is an opportunity to preserve some of the building.” the mayor said.
Benjamin said whether the cupola and other parts of the city are reconstructed will be discussed and he is determined to remain optimistic.
He said the BullStreet District is important to the long-term prosperity of Columbia. He said the area makes up more than two times of the city’s business district.
“This was never meant to be a short-term development,” he said.
Benjamin added he even considers the development of the area to be part of his personal legacy as a city leader.
For Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins, while public safety and his team’s health were his top priorities, keeping the building intact was another concern.
“We were able to stop it before it went to the other wings. We were able to stop it before it did a lot of damage,” Jenkins said.
He estimates only about 25 percent of the building was damaged.
Jenkins said it was one of the biggest fires the city has experienced in years. About 75 to 80 percent of the department helped fight the fire in some capacity, he said.
However, 36 hours after the fire started, Jenkins said Columbia Fire is still not able to determine how or where in the building the fire started.
The Babcock building had wooden floors, which Jenkins said created a “pancake effect” when the fire started.
“It’s still very difficult to get inside because of the fallout. Floors fell on top of floors,” he said.
The day after the fire, dozens of people came to the district to see the damage for themselves.
Some say they did part of their rotations in nursing school in the building, others remember learning to drive on the rides surrounding it, and some say seeing the Babcock after a long time away from the Capital City gave them the feeling of being home.
“It’s important to the people of the city that we develop effectively, and we also preserve our history,” Benjamin said.