The Hampton-Preston House: Reminding Us Why Race Matters
Few styles of American architecture are as iconic as that represented by the Hampton-Preston House in Columbus, South Carolina. Built in 1818, this three-story townhouse is built in a post-Colonial, Classical Revival style that conjures many layers of American history. At first glance, the sweeping veranda, Doric columns and crystal chandelier conjure a Gone With the Wind-era romance and nostalgia. A more discerning eye, however, will also see how this building represents enslaved persons who helped build it, and the trials they suffered during their plantation-era lifetimes. The space between those two starkly different sentiments bookmarks a sizable gap—one that the organization The Historic Columbia Foundation strove to close when they completed a renovation of the space for its 200 year anniversary. Nowadays, the Hampton Preston House presents a more total version of its history: one that encompasses its role as the home of the South’s societal elite, a governmental headquarters, a nun’s convent, a tourist home, and finally as a museum: all iterations of which were enabled by the labor of African Americans.
The Hampton-Preston House’s First Owners
The Hampton Preston House’s first residents were newlyweds. Ainsley Hall was a wealthy trader in the mercantile and cotton industry, whose fortune increased when he married Sarah Hall. Ainsley built the house in 1818 as a bold testament to his newly found wealth. The house caught the attention of Wade Hampton, the state’s wealthiest planter, who persuaded Hall to sell him the house for $35,000. (The deal went down behind Sarah’s back, causing Ainsley to make it up to her years later by building the equally historic Robert Mills Home, which is also right off Route 1.) That business exchange initiated the home into some of its most historic and racially charged era: the Hampton-Preston years.
The Hampton-Preston Years
Wade Hampton, one of the country’s wealthiest men, made his fortune in the South’s lucrative cotton industry, which was fueled primarily by slave labor. As one article by The Post and Courier points out, Hamptons was similar to the house’s occupants both before and after him insofar as he “measured success in the amount of land, capital and humans they owned.” Slavery was such a matter-of-fact part of the Hampton’s life that Mary Hampton, Wade’s widow, gave out slaves in her will. These enslaved African Americans (or “servants,” as they were called then), not only helped the Hamptons amass their fortune through laboring in the fields. They cared for the home, its gardens, and its inhabitant’s daily needs. As the home and landscaping expanded over time, enslaved persons helped accomplish the work with each change. They ranged from carpenters, brick masons, painters, carriage drivers, gardeners, roofers, blacksmiths, and horse caretakers. An 1860 census shows the family holding 74 slaves—an unusually large number for that time.
The house was passed down after Wade Hampton’s death, into the care of his daughter and son-in-law Caroline and John Preston. John Preston was a state senator who would eventually become a Confederate general during the Civil War. He and his wives (he married multiple women over time), built out lavish gardens on the house’s property, undertook renovations that doubled its size, lavishly decorated the house with art collected during their tours of Europe, and hosted parties that accommodated the South’s elite.
The house took on a different role when the Civil War arrived by serving as headquarters for Union troops. While the politics of the new occupants contradicted that of the house’s owners (who most likely didn’t have much choice in the matter), it also most likely saved the home from destruction. In 1865, General William Sherman led his troops through the city of Columbia, burning or destroying everything in his path. The Burning of Columbia annihilated many of the city’s properties, but it spared the Hampton-Preston House, most likely because of its role as Union headquarters. Some people, however, say that what actually saved the house was a quick-thinking nun who asked Sherman to spare the house so she could use it as a convent. Whether or not that’s true, the house did eventually become a convent—but not before John Preston sold it in 1873 in order for it to briefly host a governor, then the convent that Sherman had promised that nun.
From 1890 to 1930, the house continued to change hands. First, it housed two women’s schools: the College for Women until 1915, then Chicora College until 1930. After that, the property continued to switch ownership until landing as a “tourist home,” which was that era’s equivalent of a B&B. White travelers could stop at the house to rest, eat, and socialize, while African Americans were forced to seek out other lodgings because of segregation.
By 1966, the house was in disrepair from its multiple occupants and closed its doors. In 1969, the Historic Columbia Foundation renovated and reopened it as a historic site and museum. The foundation closed its doors again from 2016-2018 in order to renovate and reopen as a museum that acknowledges the racial divides and injustices that the house represents. One exhibit, for instance, shows a copy of The Negro Motorist Green Book, describing how it acted as a guide for African American travelers, leading them to find safe lodging outside of the racially segregated tourist homes. The renovations also restored the gardens to their splendor and repainted in order to align the visual identity more closely with its antebellum roots. Visitors are welcome to partake in outdoor tours during the pandemic and explore the house’s extensive history online until its doors reopen.
Elisia Guerena Dec 10, 2020 Memorials
Elisia Guerena Dec 10, 2020
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