Columbia developer Richard Burts has built a reputation taking on projects, such as 701 Whaley and the Palmetto Compress Warehouse, that others said were impossible. Those successes have proved to Burts the value of historic preservation and prompted others to say he really gets it. He talks with us about saving historic Columbia.
By Conor Hughes
April 22, 2016
Developer Richard Burts remembers the instant 39 years ago he discovered his passion for historic buildings, his “magic moment.”
His interest had been piqued while working on an 1882 house owned by his family in Boone, North Carolina. Then, as a high school freshman, he came across an issue of Old
Something clicked, and the next day he ordered every issue.
“I opened it and I just fell in love with all the stuff they were communicating in this little bulletin,” Burts said. “And that was the genesis of it. It went from there.”
Today, Burts is one of Columbia’s most recognized real estate developers, responsible for the preservation and restoration of buildings like the former VFW officers club that now houses Saluda’s restaurant in Five Points and 701 Whaley, the former mill village community center now one of Columbia’s most popular event venues.
He’s also been instrumental in saving the Palmetto Compress Warehouse between Devine and Blossom streets just west of the USC campus. The 320,000-square-foot building is being turned into apartments.
For Burts, historic preservation is a lifestyle, not just a livelihood. He and his wife, Janet, also a lover of historic buildings, live in one of his first restoration projects, a 1911 house on Blossom Street.
“I think it’s just something that’s in him. He’s a Columbia native. He grew up here, he’s got roots here,” said Tom Chinn, 701 Whaley’s building manager. “He has a love of what makes Columbia unique.”
Burts’ preservation efforts have earned him recognition in the community, according to Bob Guild, environmental lawyer and community leader in the mill villages.
“Richard’s taken great risk. When he bought that 701 building, they said it was going to be torn down and it was a money pit, and he knew it,” Guild said. “So Richard’s really trusted.”
That’s made Burts a close ally of preservation advocates in Columbia, said Robin Waites, executive director of Historic Columbia, which gave him its 2013 preservation leadership award.
“Every time there’s a building that’s endangered, we always call Richard,” Waites said. “He understands the economics as well as the cultural value. He’s just one of those rare people who really gets it.”
Burts, who says Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman didn’t do as much damage to Columbia as redevelopment has, says the city needs to “take a pause” and think more about its history before it allows buildings to be torn down.
Columbia Voice sat down with Burts to learn more about his projects and his passion for preservation. This excerpt has been edited for length and clarity.
(Listen to the whole podcast.)
So the house that you’re living in now, it was built in 1911, correct? … And was that a major project? …
Any time you have an old wood house, it’s just constant maintenance. Buy a brick house. So, the first part was to, after we’d lived there for a few years … the tenant that was living upstairs, they moved out, we didn’t re-rent it and I started upstairs and redid everything upstairs. I made all of my own millwork to match the existing millwork. I tried to do as good of a job as I could while at the same time realizing that it’s a house for today and you want some of the comforts more like a master bath and some other of the things that your wife and your family would need in today’s time.
And does your wife share your passion for historic buildings?
She does. In fact, we’ve been looking for a beach house, and we cannot have a newer house. She wants one that has not been worked on. She wants it as is like it came out of 1935 and has had as little work done on it as possible. So yeah, she shares the passion, and of course our renovation-restoration of the house there that we live in is still an ongoing process, all these years later. I mean if you talk with her, we’re still missing little pieces here and little pieces there. It’s the hardest thing to work on a house and live there at the same time. I used to tell her, “I’ve gotta drive around the block in the morning and come back and pull into the drive way and say, ‘I’m going to work.’ ” …
And tell me a little bit about the state of [701 Whaley] when you first bought it.
Well it was missing … probably 12,000 feet of roof and second floor. And it started with the roof but then obviously with the rain coming in, then the second floor ended up collapsing as well. So it looked like … a bomb had gone off in the building. I mean it was that bad. And still columns standing and boards hanging out in the air, it was surreal looking at it.
Was there ever a moment when you were buying it when you just kind of took a deep breath and said, “What am I doing? Is this gonna work?” or were you always confident that it was going to work out?So just to wrap up here, how have you seen attitudes about historical preservation change in your time in Columbia, what do you see as most encouraging and what do you hope to see in the future?
Well, you know, I knew what I wanted here and I also knew I didn’t have the funds to be able to do it. I mean this was way over my head financially. But I was hopeful that something could be put together, I could find the right people. … Sometimes you just think things just happen because there’s a reason for them happening. And this building truly was one of those types of situations. I mean, things just worked out, and as I have said many times, this building is in control. I mean it has a soul. … It worked out, but the building made it possible, if that makes any sense. …
Well we’ve done more damage to Columbia’s historic fabric than Sherman ever did to Columbia’s fabric. We’ve, through gentrification and through university expansion and the Ward 1 around the Palmetto Compress and other things, we’ve taken down some very significant buildings. You know, sometimes I think to myself: “Hey, we’re there. How could anybody not see the value in a building like this … 701?” It could be a convenience store, it could be a dirt lot right here growing weeds on it, but instead it’s a beautiful building that reinforces the historic fabric of this neighborhood. … It was a community that was grown over years, and when you start taking those little pieces out, it loses some of that stuff.
Well, I would think that people just ought to get it, but even today I think that every couple of years it’s another thing that somebody … tears down in the middle of the night.
There’s not a waiting period to get a demolition permit. If you owned a building, you could go down there, and in 15 minutes you could get a demolition permit for basically any building that’s not in a design district or that’s not landmarked by the city. … We need to take a pause and say “How does this building fit into the history of Columbia and is it worth preserving?” before it just disappears, ’cause you can’t get them back. And a lot of times if you say OK, what we’re building back is something that’s really worthwhile and the building has low significance. …
You know, I’m not so hardcore that I say that nothing can be taken down. But I think that if something does get taken down, we should have excellence go back in its place.