Perhaps no one person has left a greater mark on the built landscape of Columbia than a figure known of by few today. Some may have heard of him as the second architect of the South Carolina State House, who was fired from the job and censured in what is looking more and more like the results of bureaucratic intrigue. A few may know him as the designer of the first wing of the Babcock Building in the State Hospital complex (now called The BullStreet District). Some may even know him as the designer of the Governor’s Mansion (1855), originally the officers’ quarters of Arsenal Hill Military Academy, which was burned in 1865. But perhaps only a rare number know him as the engineer of both the Columbia City Water Works and its Gas Works in the 1850s. He was also the designer of one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks: the slender neo-Gothic spire of First Presbyterian Church.
One of the city’s most historic structures — the site of the state’s secession convention in December 1860 — was also of his design in 1858, but his name is only mentioned in passing in the church history and does not appear on archival markers. First Baptist was new in 1860, dignified and imposing with one of the largest seating capacities in the city. It was state-of-the-art neo-Roman design of perfect proportion, and it still gets praise for its beauty, even though it is now dwarfed by modern glass and steel.
He also worked in some capacity on the buildings at South Carolina College in the 1850s.
Architectural historian John Bryan, Ph.D., in Creating the South Carolina State House, declares that little is known of this figure. Dr. Bryan even gives his birth date as around 1810, which is actually 16 years off the mark of 1826.
Some of the architect’s buildings remain in the city, but just as many were burned by Union Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s army in February 1865, including one of the most important and impressive neo-Gothic churches anywhere in the South — Christ Episcopal, designed in 1858. Almost as great a loss was his neo-Roman Richland District Courthouse of 1858 and the chaste gem of neo-Roman temple architecture, the Presbyterian Lecture-Reading Rooms of 1855. He is known to have designed many private dwellings in the city, throughout the state, and as far away as Charlotte.
Our shadowy figure was George Edward Walker, born in Charleston in October of 1826. He was the son of Robert Walker, the now celebrated cabinetmaker whose prized works are in museum collections in Charleston and other states. He grew up on Church Street and lost his father when he was 6. He became apprenticed at about the age of 18 to the period’s most celebrated Charleston architect, Edward Brickell White, designer of the French Huguenot Church, Grace Episcopal Church, Market Hall at the head of the Charleston Market, Centenary Methodist, and the tower of St. Philip’s Church, to name but a few of his best-known landmarks in Charleston.
Walker likely first came to Columbia as White’s apprentice in building Trinity Episcopal Church in 1845-1847. During this time, Walker designed Charleston’s Gatewood House on Legare Street, perhaps his first solo commission. He remained in Columbia from 1847 to about 1850 to survey and help engineer the building of the Columbia and Greenville Railroad and work on depots and station houses. He and his partner, John Johnson, published the important new Map of South Carolina Compiled from Rail-Road, Coast and State Surveys, no small undertaking.
Walker returned to Charleston when White called him to assist in the building of the new United States Custom House. At the end of 1850, Walker felt financially able to start a family and married Agnes Frost, the daughter of John Davis Frost, Sr., a planter with more than 7,000 acres in Fairfield, Richland, and Newberry districts. The imposing Frost home was a landmark in northwestern Richland County. It escaped destruction during Sherman’s infamous march but burned around 1955. The couple had a son in 1852, John Frost Walker.
During this period in Charleston, Walker designed Charleston Public School No. 6 in 1851, which was destroyed by the earthquake of 1886; the lecture rooms of his home church, First Scots Presbyterian in 1853; the library at the College of Charleston in 1854; and the renovated Georgetown District Courthouse in 1854.
In summer 1854, the state appointed Walker the second architect of the State House. Less than six months later, former Gov. John L. Manning succeeded in securing his own favorite architect, John Niernsee of Baltimore, to replace Walker. Such a high profile firing at his young age might have ended the career of a lesser person, but Walker was a hard worker, as those who knew him could attest, and he was deeply devoted to the art of architecturally sound structures.
Columbians evidently were not dissuaded by the state’s early firing of Walker. They saw his talent firsthand and witnessed his great energy. Johnson said he never rested and never gave himself the “luxury of relaxation.” Fortunately, he had made friends in central South Carolina, and they secured him commissions in 1854 and onward. One friend, Adam Summer, owned Ravenscroft and Pomaria plantations. Projects included the neo-Gothic brick and stucco St. Luke’s Episcopal chapel in Newberry village in late 1854, the imposing Albert C. Garlington house in Newberry in 1855, and the large neo-Gothic main building of Newberry College in 1856. St. Luke’s was Walker’s first known neo-Gothic design and is thus significant in charting the architect’s growth.
The Oxford Neo-Gothic Ecclesiastical Movement for church design was in full swing. The founders felt medieval architecture was particularly appropriate for ecclesiastical buildings because they considered this period of the great cathedrals the height of Christian spirituality.
In Columbia, the commissions poured in. He designed the State Agricultural Society’s buildings on Elmwood Avenue in 1855-1856. Adam and William Summer were mainstays of the organization and had a branch of their nursery adjacent to these buildings. Walker received the commission for the Arsenal Hill Military Academy in late 1855 and the Columbia Female Academy in 1856. Twenty-nine year-old Walker had proven himself. The Columbia commissions increased and became more prestigious: the Presbyterian Reading-Lecture Rooms in 1855-56, the spire of the First Presbyterian Church around 1856, the Richland District Courthouse in 1857-1858, the new State Hospital complex in 1857-1858, Christ Episcopal Church in 1858, the First Baptist Church in 1858, St. John’s Episcopal Congaree in 1859, and numerous unnamed homes and commercial buildings.
It should be noted that the state that fired him in 1855 was now giving him commissions, and it had to compete for his time. While the State House had not yet reached its second floor windows, the city’s citizens no doubt took note that the South Carolina native Mr. Walker did beautiful work and actually finished it. Walker’s completed new Richland District Courthouse was an elegant neo-Roman structure. Its six fluted columns were single granite shafts with intricately carved granite Corinthian capitals. They were set on Walker’s signature arched and rusticated one-story base. Excellent stone carvers were engaged in building the State House, and Walker may have used them.
At this point apparently more and better skilled craftsmen were available, and the city was having a building boom of very fine structures. The courthouse was a more finely detailed version of the Georgetown District Courthouse, which Walker had designed three years before, and a refined version of his and White’s Chester District Courthouse finished in 1855. The famous image by William Waud of Columbia’s Main Street in flames shows its collapsing facade engulfed in fire. So ended this truly beautiful masterwork of art — the crowning achievement of the city’s civic architecture before the war.
The destruction of Columbia in 1865 robbed the city of what is arguably one of the most beautiful buildings ever to grace the city. This was Christ Episcopal on the southeast corner of Blanding and Marion Street. When it was finished in 1858, it had the largest seating capacity of any Episcopalian church outside Charleston until White added the transepts to Trinity in 1860-61. Several photographs of its ruins, by George Barnard (rear view) and Richard Wearn (side view), allow replication of its design. The obvious inspiration for the structure was Charleston’s French Huguenot Church, designed by Walker’s mentor, White, 10 years earlier, as well as Walker’s neo-Gothic St. Luke’s Episcopal in Newberry in 1854. Emma LeConte noted in her diary (published as When the World Ended) in 1865 that Christ Church was one of the last buildings in the city to be burned. She described Blanding Street as “the finest in the town” before the conflagration. The cornerstone of Christ Church is saved beneath the steps of Good Shepherd Episcopal two blocks east at 1512 Blanding.
The loss of the neo-Roman Richland Courthouse was perhaps as great. Its reconstruction from photographs of the ruins reveals Walker’s eclectic genius to be on a par with White’s. It stood during its short life as a completed version similar to what would become the body and portico of the State House 50 years later. The designs of these two civic structures and the United States Custom House, on which Walker worked, all bear similarities noticeable at once.
Walker did not work only in Charleston and Columbia. Two of his most important neo-Gothic churches were in Abbeville and York, South Carolina. The church at Abbeville may be his most successful surviving work in this style. Walker’s last known design was for the Carpenter-Neo-Gothic Episcopal chapel of St. John’s Congaree. It is a gem of simplicity.
The Civil War prompted Walker to return to Charleston and build Battery Bee on Sullivan’s Island. Ten years earlier, he had redesigned the streets of Moultrieville and knew the terrain. He worked on the Confederate defenses of Savannah and Mobile, Georgia, and was reconfiguring railroad routes in Columbus, Georgia, in September 1863, when he contracted diphtheria. His obituary states that although ill, he would not stop work because he knew the dire situation of the South. He died at age 36. Searches have not located his place of burial. He may lie in an unmarked grave in the Confederate section of Linwood Cemetery in Columbus.
His wife, Agnes, and their son survived the war. Walker’s young grandson, John Frost Walker, Jr., took part in the burial of Gov. Wade Hampton and as an adult became a respected lawyer in Columbia after attending law schools at the universities of South Carolina and Virginia. He served in the State Legislature and in both World Wars. Walker’s great-grandson, John Frost Walker, III, also became a lawyer, legislator, and a professor of economics at Wingate College.
Walker’s large number of works in so short a time is quite impressive, and he should be remembered as having Columbia’s first modern architectural office. He and John Johnson opened it on Main Street in the summer of 1856.
Walker may not be well known and celebrated today, but his indelible mark resides in the surviving brick and mortar that he shaped through his architectural talents — well-loved landmark structures from Charleston and Columbia to Abbeville and York.
Dr. James Kibler is restoring his 200-year-old plantation house in his native Newberry County and plants hardwood trees in the forest he is reclaiming from monoculture pine. He is also in the process of completing a biography of George Edward Walker.