Columbia Star

Landscaping History

The Robert Mills House in 1967

The Robert Mills House in 1967

In my 23 years at Historic Columbia, I have directly witnessed the transformation of places both at the historic sites under our stewardship and at other properties throughout downtown Columbia that are today popular destinations for residents and visitors alike. Moreover, thanks to my access to countless historic photographs, maps, and other materials, I have a privileged perspective on a longer arc of changes throughout both areas. Suffice it to say, nowhere is there truly stasis, nor is the pace of change uniform. At times it is unremarkable and slow, while at others it is breathtakingly dramatic.

Recently, I found myself exploring the evolution of the Robert Mills House grounds. The earliest visual documentation of the site illustrates the approach the Columbia Theological Seminary, which operated there from 1830 through 1928, shaped its campus: pine, oak, and some elms largely defined the four-acre track, with here and there yucca, or “Spanish Bayonet” bushes offering a painful reminder of their nicknaming convention to unlucky passersby. These images gave way to others showing the campus on the brink of total destruction, with stale, sandy swaths punctuated with scrub grass that defied the bulldozer’s initial passes.



More recent images illustrate the vitality a landscape can achieve when visionaries work toward a common goal. Historic photographs of the Robert Mills House’s early years as an historic house museum are replete with tiny plantings that would grow into a mature landscape, some of which remains a thriving component of the urban garden park, and others of which have during the past decade fallen into disrepair and decay. It is the latter plantings that Historic Columbia’s horticultural personnel have begun to address thanks again to local visionaries and garden enthusiasts committed to ensuring that these spaces will be enjoyed for decades to come following the installation of new plantings this fall and winter.

Inspired by the insistence of the Founding Fathers of the near exclusive use of native species in their landscapes, Historic Columbia has developed a Living Collections Policy for the Robert Mills house that seeks to employ plants native to the Eastern United States in all roles in the garden. This approach is entirely unique for the state of South Carolina, as it aims to fit native species into a well-known and loved landscape design, without compromising structure or performance. As the current plantings at the Robert Mills House have begun to require significant renovation or replanting, Historic Columbia is in the process of replacing all exotics with native alternatives.

Recently, this work has moved to the area known as the “South Lawn,” encompassing the square boxwood parterres, dogwood trees, and large lawn with mature Magnolia grandiflora between the main house and Taylor street, is in the process of the greatest renovation. Its flowering dogwoods have reached the end of their lifespan, and this decline shortened the life of their neighboring European boxwoods. Soon, a new cultivar of Pond Cypress that is fast growing and will provide excellent filtered shade, and the boxwoods will be replaced by a dwarf cultivar of the South Carolina native inkberry holly. Further transforming the space will be masses of a large flowering cultivar of the native Smooth Hydrangea in each parterre and the replacement of the large indica azaleas with oakleaf hydrangea. Later renovations will take place in the adjacent Founders’ Garden, where underperforming crepe myrtles will be replaced with a pink flowered form of Kentucky Yellow wood, a red foliaged form of Virginia Chokeberry, a dusty blue foliaged form of American Snowbell, and two iconic native members of the tea family, Gordonia lasianthus and Franklinia altamaha. These plantings will be supported by a new pink flowered form of Smooth Hydrangea, native deciduous azaleas, white rain lilies, and the vastly underutilized native groundcover Pennsylvania sedge, which will encourage people and children to sit under the trees.

While I do not wish my seasons away, I do look forward to Historic Columbia fully realizing the potential of this involved renovation, which has been made possible through generous support from the Boyd Foundation, a longtime supporter of our horticultural heritage initiatives. Just as we welcome the fruits of this future landscape, we welcome you to roam our 14 acres of downtown gardens and greenspaces, each and every season.

For more about the history of Columbia’s horticultural history, visit

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