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Equitable Arcade Building

  • 1332 Main Street/1216 Washington Street
  • Columbia, SC 29201

Historical Overview (source: Historic Columbia Foundation)

Located within the 1300 block of Main Street, the Arcade Mall was Columbia's first indoor shopping center. The Equitable Real Estate Company, a group of Columbia businessmen that included Edwin Wales Robertson, a prominent banker and developer, constructed this building in 1912 at a reputed cost of $200,000.00.[1] At the time it was built the Arcade Mall was strategically situated within a very popular section of this main commercial district. The structure’s proximity to the Barringer Building, Columbia’s first skyscraper, undoubtedly ensured its tenants exposure to large numbers of pedestrians conducting business downtown.

Tenancy within the mall fluctuated throughout the twentieth century. Early tenants included Henry Abell’s Shoes, The Kiddie Shop (catering to high-end children’s wear), Mrs. McMaster’s Tea Shop, the Seaboard Ticket Office, Colonial Life, and several brokers. Later, engineering firms, other insurance agencies, soda fountains, styling salons, contractor offices, and further real estate and investment companies operated out of the desirable location.[2] With the suburbanization of Columbia during the mid-20th century large shopping malls located outside the city’s former commercial core surpassed the Arcade Mall and other downtown shops and department stores in popularity.

Architectural Overview
The Equitable Arcade is an important local example of the Renaissance Revival style of architecture that derives its inspiration from Italy. Originally an open arcade, patterned after those in Italy, the two-story, L-shaped, masonry structure featured reinforced concrete floors and roof and was deemed “fire proof,” as recorded in the 1919 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, shown at right.[3] Initially the building’s central passage was open to the elements. However, the passage became partially roofed some twenty years after the building’s construction and then fully enclosed by the mid twentieth century.

Accommodating its L-shaped layout and entrances on both Main and Washington streets, the mall has two identical facades five bays in width and ornamented in terra cotta and marble. The central bays on each of the first floor’s facades feature an open passage and the second floors a Palladian window.[4] Defining the bays are terra-cotta pilasters, with Tuscan columns flanking the central passage. The pilasters have a variety of urns modeled into their tiles, which were manufactured in Italy. In contrast to this vertical motif, tiles embellished with cherubs and garlands span the front of the building in a horizontally oriented fashion. Above the entrance is an entablature that reads “Eqvitable [sic] Arcade,” denoting the building’s original use. Inside, the second story features an open balcony. A skylight illuminates the building’s interior. All the exterior motifs, the repeated design elements of urns on the columns and garlands, cupids, putti and rosettes on the sides of the balcony, ornament the interior as well.

Hidden from view is the structure’s interesting basement area, which once housed “Columbia Down Under,” a series of shops, bars and eateries that operated in the early 1970s. Mimicking the success of “Underground Atlanta,” “Columbia Down Under” was created after a year’s worth of renovations for the new nightspot. Though initially successful, ”Columbia Down Under” succumbed to the suburbanization that came to plague the stores and businesses located above, in the building’s aboveground levels. Opened in 1972, “Columbia Down Under” closed in 1974, after two short years of operation. Today, “Columbia Down Under” is remembered in popular memory as a unique attempt to capitalize on the Equitable Arcade building location and architectural layout.[5]

The only significant changes to the building’s facades include the addition of new marquees, awnings (subsequently removed), shop windows and lanterns, all of which were rendered about 1970, and small iron balconies adorning the second floor’s window, installed at an unrecorded time.[6] Due to its architectural and cultural importance the Equitable Arcade has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places and carries the distinction of being a local landmark, protected from demolition.[7] The building’s massing and style provides a visual reminder as to the types of two-story commercial structures that once dominated Main Street’s 1300 block for the majority of the twentieth century.

[1] National Register of Historic Places Nomination, 1982, State Historic Preservation Office, South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia, SC. Copy held within Historic Columbia Foundation Archives.

[2] City of Columbia Directories, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC.

[3].Sanborn Fire Insurance Company, Map of Columbia, (New York: Sanborn Map & Publishing Co., Ltd. June 1919), South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC, http://www.sc.edu/library/digital/collections/sanborn.html

[4] Andrea Palladio was the famous sixteenth-century Italian architect who incorporated elements of Greek and Roman architecture into his designs.

[5] Jeff Wilkinson, “Hidden Main Street,” The State, 18 November 2001; “Hungry for History Tour 2003,” Historic Columbia Foundation Archives.

[6] Bultman, Coulter, Gasque Associates, Columbia’s Commercial Heritage: An Inventory and Evaluation of Older Commercial Buildings in the City Center, April 1977. Copies available in Historic Columbia Foundation’s Archives; “Main Street 1300 Block,” Architectural Survey [1970s], Historic Columbia Foundation Archives.

[7] National Register Nomination, SHPO.

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