Rebirth of a Landmark

Monday, December 01, 2008

This is the story of a building, S.C. State University's Lowman Hall, brought to life by black hands, killed, in part, by white indifference, and now being painstakingly, lovingly restored by a multiracial coalition of craftsmen, engineers and architects.

This is the story of a university trying to bring back the striving pride and promise of another era.

"Everybody's just as excited as can be," said S.C. State president George Cooper, whose office is within earshot of the work being done at Lowman Hall, the 24,000-square-foot building scheduled to reopen in September 2009.
"It brings back lots of good memories."

DESIGNING LOWMAN

What is now S.C. State University, the flagship historically black college in the Palmetto State, was only 21 years old when a bright young architect -- a rare profession for a black man then -- designed a male dormitory and oversaw its construction.

It was 1917. A great and terrible war raged in Europe that, by April, had sucked in the United States.

According to the Orangeburg Historical and Genealogical Society, Miller F. Whittaker would serve in that war as a second lieutenant who saw duty in France. But the architect's clearest mark would be made at S.C. State, where he taught physics, served as head of the Division of Mechanic Arts and, from 1932-1949, as president of the school.

Whittaker, only 39 when he assumed the presidency at S.C. State, was a particularly accomplished man, acquiring multiple degrees from Kansas State College and studying at Harvard and Cornell.

The Orangeburg Historical and Genealogical Society notes that Whittaker designed most of the buildings constructed at S.C. State after 1914.

Lowman Hall stood out.

Inside its solid brick, square structure, wainscoting marked the walls of the wide hallways on each of its three floors.
There was an elegant portico over its main entrance, and its rafters were stylishly exposed.

This was the vision of Whittaker, but it was the work of S.C. State students, who put their new trade skills to work erecting the building.

Those skills were often the best hope for black men of that time. In a time of segregation and limited opportunity, those skills could keep a man employed and his family fed.

PRIDE AND LOSS

Growing up in Mount Pleasant in the 1930s and 1940s, William L. Mazyck saw his father, a farmer who ran a vegetable stand, scratch and claw his way to a solid community standing.

The elder man owned his house, a great source of pride for the family, and he had one request -- a demand, really -- of his son William.

"My father told me, in exact words, that I was going to college whether I wanted to or not," Mazyck said.

Good thing Mazyck was a standout student. He had earned a Charleston County scholarship that covered tuition at S.C. State.

When he got there in 1951, he and other scholarship students were housed at Lowman Hall.

Their living quarters were the envy of all on campus.

"It was totally an upscale building," Mazyck said. "The dean of men lived in that building with the students. The students didn't tear it up. We didn't run up and down the steps. We didn't run down the hall."

Lowman, refurbished in the early 1950s, also was better insulated and better heated than other buildings on campus.

Ronald Wilson, a football player for S.C. State in the 1950s, remembers that warmth.

"You could go in there and take your shoes off to get warm," he said.

Mazyck said the students who lived in Lowman took great pride in the building.

"For many of us, it was better than what they experienced at home," he said.

Professors would come through to make sure students were studying. Girls were not allowed in the building, not that they weren't interested in what was inside.

Mazyck met the woman he would marry at S.C. State.

"She wanted to see what my room looked like," Mazyck said. "We would have open house, and the girls would want to see the interior of the building."

As the decades went by, Lowman slowly lost much of its luster.

Its plaster began to peel. Its wood was scuffed. There were structural problems near the main entrance.

There were ongoing efforts by school officials to get state funding to repair Lowman and other facilities on campus, but the General Assembly did not appropriate enough to meet those needs.

Even today, Cooper said S.C. State has deferred maintenance needs in excess of $100 millioncampuswide. Three-quarters of the school's buildings are at least 25 years old and need extra care.

"We have a serious deferred maintenance problem," Cooper said.

Lowman's historic significance was noted in 1985 when it gained a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. But, by 1993, it had to be closed.

'FIRST QUESTION I'M ASKED'

For 15 years, Lowman stood shuttered, a drab shell of its former self.

Even as Lowman's doors were closed, some school officials had hoped to bring the building back on line.

The General Assembly approved the renovation of the building in 1993 and stepped forward with $1 million to help pay for the work.

But the historic designation, which school officials describe as an honor, has been something of an albatross, too.

A special building has to get special -- and expensive -- treatment.

“You can't tear it down, and you can't just do anything do it," said John Smalls, S.C. State's senior vice president for finance, facilities and management information services.

The National Park Service, which gave the school a $700,000 grant to refurbish the building, sends a representative to Orangeburg each month to make sure things are going smoothly.

They are, but they also are going slowly.

Original woodwork must remain intact if it is structurally sound. Because the windows must be preserved, each has been removed and sent to special craftsmen who refurbish them and send them back for re-installation -- a $300,000 job by itself.

All told, the project is expected to cost $7 million -- $3 million more than the university would have to pay if it could cut a few corners and not heed the strict guidelines of the National Park Service.

Smalls and the project manager, Thomas Sinclair, acknowledge that there have been times when they wanted to do something faster and with less expense.

But they said they have made peace with what must be done and are eager bring Lowman back to life.

When the building reopens, it will be the administrative hub of the university.

More than football, more than basketball, Cooper said older alumni ask him about one thing when they approach him: Lowman Hall.

"That's the first question I'm asked when I meet with alumni groups," the president said.

For Mazyck, S.C. State without Lowman is unthinkable.

"We have got to be sure that all of black history is not eliminated," said the now 74-year old Mazyck, a retired Army colonel. "We need to be able to go back and point to something, so we can reminisce about that building, so we can say, 'That was there when I was there.'"