COLUMBIA — At 460 square feet, this tiny brick building on Columbia’s main drag boasts a backstory that flies in the face of South Carolina’s racially charged past.
It’s a history that almost never was. And now it’s at risk again.
The current owner of the building on the 2500 block of Gervais Street, Heather Cairns of Cairns Law Firm, pays tribute to the property’s origins and how it bucked the racial inequality of the time with a framed newspaper page in her law office. The newsprint displays an ad that the property was for sale, but just to Whites, a segregationist restriction allowed at the time.
That sale would fail, though, and a judge would later order the property sold.
This time, the property came into the hands of the Woodsons — a Black family — staking their claim on the precipice between the historically Black Waverly neighborhood and nearby Forest Hills, settled predominantly by Whites.
Cairns, a Cleveland native who has called Columbia home for more than 20 years, says she wants to preserve that part of the city’s history, and with it, the legacy of the Woodson family.
For Cairns, it started with the Woodson home directly to the east. The house likely would have been torn down had Cairns not renovated it as an office, she said. Now, the real estate lawyer hopes to do the same for another small building on the property, once a neighborhood store run by the Woodson patriarch.
The roof of the former store is in bad shape and might fall in unless Cairns replaces it. She said she needs historic tax credits to make it financially feasible and is seeking the necessary zoning changes.
If renovated, Cairns plans to put it back to use, renting it out as a small office.
“It’s this cool little space,” she said, complete with 9-foot ceilings and brick walls.
The diminutive building is now one of the shrinking number of business-related properties that were established within the residential fabric of Gervais Street, according to John Sherrer of the preservationist group Historic Columbia.
“This is one of my favorite ‘little’ properties in Columbia,” he said. “I remember seeing this building standing there for at least the past 45 years, as its size and differing appearance from that of the house always caught my imagination, even as a kid.”
Inside the former grocery, the shop counters are still in place. Most of the shelving is not, having been damaged by termites. There are lots of sewing needles and thread, wares the proprietor once sold.
Cairns isn’t sure how long the Woodsons operated the shop, but the front step is well worn.
“So there was clearly lots of foot traffic in and out of building,” she said.
Cairn’s interest in the property follows a long-held tradition in the Capital City. It’s a common sight around Columbia, law firms housed in the city’s historic homes.
And when she first started practicing law, Cairns worked for a firm that rented space in an old house. So she wanted to uphold that tradition when she hung her own shingle.
Before going into law, Cairns studied landscape and architecture. Digging into the state archives, from birth and death certificates to property and Census filings, also piqued her interest, given her professional focus on estate planning. It was pulling back a curtain on how the things she practices today were done a century before.
Cairns would learn George Woodson was born in 1865 at the end of the Civil War. His father, Elijah Woodson, started buying land as soon as the war ended to give to his sons. He signed his will to George with an X, a common practice during a time when slavery and educational inequality left many African Americans illiterate.
When Elijah Woodson died in the 1910s, a probate was opened.
“Then, the whole thing fell apart,” Cairns said.
Cairns said she looked with disbelief at a letter from the judge to George, chiding him for his failure to properly administer his father’s estate.
But that is because the federal government paid the heirs directly for land taken for Camp Jackson, now Fort Jackson, amid World War I, the judicial correspondence showed. That was likely the source of funds George Woodson used to buy the property on Gervais Street.
Prior to that, spotty Census records show George Woodson working for the Southern Railroad. His daughters made names for themselves as teachers, one of whom held positions of some prominence at Booker T. Washington High School, Columbia’s primary Black high school when the system was segregated.
A house on nearby Manning Avenue was still in the family, owned by a daughter-in-law who Cairns said died just this year.
Cairns said the small brick building has garnered sizable interest from local historic preservationists, like Robert Lewis, who has saved such buildings as the Curtiss Wright Hangar that is now home to the Hunter Gatherer Brewery and Alehouse.
“Nobody wants to see it gone,” she said.
But many historic building tax credits require a minimum investment of $1 million, Cairns said, which the building’s small size renders implausible.
That’s why Cairns is looking to the city. She plans to seek a property tax abatement under the “Bailey Bill,” which applies to renovations of historic buildings.
City officials expect it to go for a hearing before the Design/Development Review Commission in December.