Since the late 1800s, the cupola of the Babcock Building stood at the end of Elmwood Avenue greeting everyone as they came into town. It was the centerpiece of the South Carolina State Hospital, a former psychiatric facility that was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981 but abandoned in 1996 and left to decay.
I suppose we all took the building for granted. I did, though that shouldn’t have been the case. My father worked there as a social worker in the 1970s, and an aunt I only knew as a shadowy, erratic figure lived and died there as a patient.
I only came to appreciate the Babcock Building after I started taking aerial photos that framed it against the new development of the BullStreet District. The newer buildings made the paint-flecked red dome seem more vintage than derelict. Its silhouette was turned into a logo for the development, and there were plans for it to be refurbished.
I was driving down Elmwood on the afternoon of Sept. 12, and the dome looked particularly proud that day. I stopped and launched my drone and took a wide-angled shot of it standing erect above leafy green oaks against a blue sky crowded with puffy, white clouds. It turned out to be a parting shot, probably the last image ever taken of the landmark. A fire was reported in the pre-dawn hours of Sept. 13, and by daylight the dome had burned and collapsed.
Perhaps if the dome had overseen a different past, say as a center of government or hall of learning, we would have taken better care of it, and if we had we would be celebrating its preservation rather than mourning the empty space in the sky at the end of Elmwood.