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Little Chapel (1823 - )

Digitized Collection

Little Chapel ca1937

This small building was removed from Columbia, SC to Rock Hill, SC in 1936, as the most important landmark of Winthrop’s history on the campus. The college began in this converted carriage house in 1886 when Winthrop Founder and First President, David Bancroft Johnson, then superintendent of Columbia’s public schools, received permission from the Columbia Theological Seminary to use the building for a teacher training classroom.

It had been designed by Robert Mills and built as a stable/carriage house in 1823 on the grounds of Ainsley Hall mansion in downtown Columbia. The one story, rectangular one-room masonry building had a high, arched central doorway for horses and carriages. It has load bearing brick walls and pilasters, semicircular arched doorways and end windows, slate shingled gable roof with an end parapet and boxed cornices, and plain vertical board doors. This arcaded masonry design was a Mills trademark and reflects the design of the Ainsley Hall mansion.

In 1830, the mansion was acquired by the Presbyterian Synod of South Carolina and Georgia for a seminary campus, and the carriage house was converted into a chapel for the Columbia Theological Seminary. The main arched doorway was removed and replaced with a smaller rectangular window. Additional sash windows were probably added then to light the chapel, but this is not documented. These windows probably were not in place during the building’s time as a stable. The stalls were removed and replaced with pews and a pulpit on a raised wood floor for the chancel.

The ca. 1830 chapel remains basically unaltered. In 1886, David Bancroft Johnson requested the use of the Little Chapel as a classroom for the inaugural academic year of Winthrop Training School. The Seminary was closed because of an internal religious dispute. Permission was granted by the Presbyterian Church and the Little Chapel became the birthplace of Winthrop as an institution. The Little Chapel only served Winthrop as a classroom during its inaugural year. In the fall of 1887, the Winthrop Training School moved to a much larger building on Marion Street in Columbia, SC which contained four large rooms and the chapel returned to its prior use as a religious center for the Columbia Theological Seminary.

In 1927, the seminary moved to Decatur, GA. and the Little Chapel was left vacated. With pleas from the Winthrop Alumnae Association, Winthrop  began a campaign to have the structure moved to Rock Hill. Their efforts were rewarded when the Seminary Board of Directors presented the Chapel to Winthrop on May 7, 1936. Plans were then set into motion to transport the building, brick by brick, to the Winthrop campus in Rock Hill, SC.

On the morning of September 29, 1936, with aid from a Federal Works Progress Administration grant, a long procession of cars and trucks set out from Columbia with 36,000 numbered bricks, massive hand-hewn timbers, and other building materials. Chaperoning these materials along its route to Rock Hill were such Winthrop dignitaries as Winthrop president, Dr. Shelton Phelps; former Winthrop president, James Pinckney Kinard and his wife, Lee Wicker Kinard; Mrs. D. B. Johnson, widow of Winthrop’s first president; and 55 representatives of Winthrop’s numerous alumnae chapters.

The reassembling of the chapel on campus under architectural supervision took several months and was completed in the early spring of 1937. A formal dedication of the Little Chapel was held on May 29, 1936 with numerous prominent South Carolinians present, including Archibald Rutledge, S. C. Poet Laureate and 4 of 5 living members of Winthrop’s first graduating class of 1887. President Johnson’s remains, buried on the front campus in 1928, were re-interred under the chapel in 1936. His wife, Mai Rutledge Smith Johnson, who died in 1978, is also buried at his side.

The chapel sits amid a grove of large oak trees on the plateau above the athletic field, northwest of the amphitheater. This pastoral area is all that remains of Oakland Park, which originally covered most of the campus. Laid out in 1890 by W. B. Wilson, the park attracted patrons from “downtown” Rock Hill who came out on Wilson’s privately built street car track. The park’s main features were a large pond where the depressed athletic field is now, a casino, bandstands, and landscaped walks.

The area immediately surrounding the chapel was landscaped in 1936 with sidewalks and shrubs. The building and grounds continued to be maintained through the years, however, by the early 1980s the larger surroundings of the chapel and the amphitheater, built around 1916, had fallen into disrepair and suffered from inadequate drainage. Also, the building was kept locked and was only used during special ceremonies.

In the early 1980s, a significant revitalization effort was implemented and the Little Chapel received much needed repairs. Following the completion of these repairs the Little Chapel was rededicated and reopened at a ceremony on October 13, 1983. These efforts were largely spurred on by Winthrop’s centennial celebration in 1986.

In 2005, effort was made to return the Little Chapel to a more prominent and appealing place within the campus community. The David Bancroft Johnson Bust which had been commissioned by the Winthrop Alumni Association to celebrate Winthrop’s centennial was removed from the front campus and relocated to the Little Chapel. Also, a sculpture garden was added to the lawn in front of the Little Chapel with Architectonic Benches and a meditative garden to further its appeal to visitors.

The chapel retains its 1830 integrity, even though moved from the original site. In 1970, as part of the Ainsley Hall House restoration, the carriage house was reconstructed on its original site by the Historic Columbia Foundation. This reconstruction is currently listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The original chapel is at least of equal significance.

President Woodrow Wilson, whose father was a professor at the seminary in the 1860s-80s, regularly attended services and lectures in the chapel. In 1873, he took vows to become a member of the Presbyterian Church there. Much of Wilson’s intellectual stimulation came from listening to sermons and philosophical lectures given in the chapel. Wilson had been a student at the seminary until 1886, when scientific and philosophical differences with established religion caused him to seek a career in secular academic life.

For many reasons this small building seems clearly eligible for National Register listing. It is a Robert Mills building of distinctive style and elegance; it was the site of President Wilson’s early education; and it was the original Winthrop Building. The careful 1936 move to Rock Hill was a pioneer accomplishment in historic preservation. An official State Historical Marker is already in place.


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