COLUMBIA — On a mid-March morning, Colby Tinsley was on the phone before dawn with her friend Pat Smith. Tinsley said the “country girls” are always up early to take care of morning chores.
“The sun hadn’t even come up. There was just the blue-purple haze,” Tinsley said of the timing of the call.
One of the things Tinsley and Smith talked about was the historic Guitar house, located near Tinsley’s home and smack-dab in the middle of a shopping center planned for the property at Range Line Street and Blue Ridge Road. Tinsley went to take a glance at the home while she chatted with Smith.
“There was a pile of dirt blocking my view,” Tinsley said. “But there were two large pieces of machinery doing something very early in the dark.”
Later that morning, Tinsley went to feed her animals. With the sun now up, the machinery at the Guitar house began to rumble, she said.
“All of a sudden, the earth started trembling, like thunder,” she said. “I stopped and thought a storm was coming, and I thought, ‘An earthquake? Here?’ My horses stopped eating and looked up, and then there was a pillar of dust. I thought it was smoke at first.
“I ran up the pasture and looked at the house, but there was no house. Equipment was moving, trucks were in a line, and the highway was shaking. In a matter of minutes, they were moving.”
In less than 10 minutes, Tinsley said, at least half a dozen trucks were rolling away, carrying the rubble of what had been a Civil War-era mansion just minutes before. Having lived in her own home since she was a child, Tinsley had been to the Guitar house countless times. She can still describe the details of the cast-iron doorway, crystal chandeliers, antique piano and polished cedar cigar room.
David Atkins of Rampart Developments had set his sights on the land, which was ripe for development given its stellar location, since the death of Abiel Leonard Guitar in 2004. He bought the land in 2005 and last year won the appropriate zoning for his shopping center, which will include a grocery store, an auto center and other retail and commercial businesses.
But what would the fate of the Guitar house be?
Plans to save home fail
Robert Hollis, Atkins’ attorney, said every effort possible was made to save the Guitar house. Ultimately, though, it was impossible because no one stepped up with a specific plan to move the house.
“There were extreme efforts to save it,” Hollis said. In fact, he had advised Atkins to tear the home down much sooner because vandals were taking a toll on the house, and he faced liability if anyone were injured there. Atkins, however, resisted, saying he wanted to find a way to preserve the home.
Atkins, Rampart’s managing member, sought input from an informal committee that formed to look into saving the house. He also met with members of the Historic Preservation Commission, surrounding neighborhood associations and the Columbia City Council. At one point, a local architect proposed relocating the home and renovating it for office use, Atkins said, but the architect never followed through, and that plan fell apart.
The house had belonged to Abiel Guitar, a Columbia horse breeder and a son of Odon Guitar, a state politician and Union general in the Civil War. The house had also been known as the Brown house, named for the family that built it, and the Roux house, after another family that once owned it.
Brian Pape, who was chairman of the Historic Preservation Commission when the 2005 meetings took place, said that while the developers never formally met with the commission, members were informed of and invited to all the meetings where discussions about the house took place.
“Usually there was a good amount of people,” Pape said, estimating 20 to 30 would attend the sessions. In the end, however, they never came up with a definitive plan.
Providence expansion expedites demolition
Three years after the meetings, there were no proposals to save the house, and Atkins said time had run out. The urgent need to tear it down stemmed from the City Council’s call for bids on a $4.1 million extension of Providence Road from Vandiver Drive to Blue Ridge Road. The extension, which will serve the Rampart development and neighboring subdivisions, includes a bridge over Bear Creek.
Atkins said the agreement for the road extension calls for Rampart to provide thousands of cubic yards of dirt for the bridge, and the elevated ground on which the Guitar house stood was the source for that dirt.
“The bridge is the catalyst for the project,” Atkins said.
Brian Treece, who is now chairman of the preservation commission, disputed the notion that the dirt for the project needed to come from the Guitar house location.
“There are plenty of places to get dirt in this city,” Treece said.
Construction on the Providence extension, which has been called for in city road plans for years, is set to begin this summer. Atkins said the developers had to prepare to fulfill their obligation to the road extension, and that meant knocking the house down and beginning to move soil.
The demolition permit was applied for on March 7 and approved by the city.
A lesson for the future
Treece said he was disappointed by a lack of recent communication from Rampart.
“Part of the problem is the Historic Preservation Commission was not informed this property was being considered for demolition,” Treece said. “We want to have the opportunity to review and comment on it.”
Demolition cannot take place until 10 days after a permit is issued by the city. However, permits are often approved the same day the application is filed, Treece said. He hoped the commission would be notified when buildings more than 50 years old are scheduled for demolition so that the commission will have time to assess the structures’ historical significance.
“We do not want to impede the development process, but I think most people agree there should be more than 24 hours before you can destruct a building in the city of Columbia,” Treece said.
Pape said the loss of historical buildings happens with development, but he hopes the demolition of the Guitar house will grab people’s attention.
“It can alert people in the community that there are other old houses that need saving,” Pape said. “It takes long-range planning.”
Given that the Guitars were a large and prominent family in Columbia’s history, there once were several Guitar houses, Pape said. Now, however, the Guitar Mansion at 2815 Oakland Gravel Road is the only one remaining. It’s being used as a bed-and-breakfast.
With the Guitar house on Blue Ridge gone and development of the area inevitable, Colby Tinsley is sad to see her country lifestyle coming to an end. It’s the only home she’s ever known, but her landlord plans to sell her farm to a developer, and she’ll be moving out within the next few months. The forest that once surrounded her home and the Guitar house is nearly gone, and she fears the area will soon become unrecognizable.
“It’s all going to be leveled,” she said. “I assume they are going to do to this property like they did to the Guitar property. ... You would have thought they could have left a little piece of green space.”