Merriam-Webster defines the word “icon” as “emblem; symbol.” Whenever long-time Columbia residents speak of the Tapp’s building on Main Street, the words icon and iconic inevitably surface. For more than 90 years, a locally established department store operated on the corner at Blanding Street. Many who remember fondly the locally famous advertising slogan “Meet Me at Tapp’s!” mourned when downtown shopping became obsolete and the store could no longer afford to operate. Generations who “met” at the Fountain Room for delicious corn sticks and other Southern delectables felt as if a treasured, trusted friend had passed.
A decade later a real estate developer saved the old building by converting it into residential space while also preserving the main levels of the department store area for something more. In 2011, the Tapp’s doors under the giant clock opened again to the public — this time as a multi-functioning contemporary arts center. Although “Meet Me at Tapp’s!” has come to mean something different, this special building still bears the Tapp’s name and draws visitors young and old inside to view modernity and history at the same time.
Tapp’s became a locally recognized name during the early 1900s in Columbia when James L. Tapp established a store in his name on the corner of Main and Blanding streets. The store eventually became the go-to place for everything from housewares to luggage to clothing. In the 1930s, the original building was razed and what stands today was built: an Art Moderne, Depression-era architectural style structure with the name Tapp’s presented largely and boldly over the imposing main entrance.
The Tapp’s business enjoyed several decades of prosperity, even expanding to include a total of four stores in Columbia in the 1970s. Then, in 1979, the Tapp’s building was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Richard Freeman has lived in Columbia all but two of his 73 years. He clearly recalls his mother taking him often to Tapp’s when he was a young boy of 5 or 6 years old. “She dragged me along, but most of the time I didn’t mind. I remember the restaurant was always packed, and the corn sticks were really good.”
After all these years, the memory of a particular elevator operator, “a sweetheart,” always speaking kindly to him is crystal clear. “Sometimes she would let me ride up and down with her while Mama shopped,” Richard recalls.
One floor housed the shoe department. As a boy, Richard was fascinated with the X-ray machine that, when you put your feet in it with shoes on, showed the foot bones inside the shoe. “It would light up green and show how the shoe fit the foot,” he says. “I guess, because of the radiation factor, they stopped having X-rays in shoe departments!”
As the century wound down, however, increased retail competition and urban sprawl caused the demise of downtown shopping. By the mid-1990s, the Tapp’s department store legacy ended.
With the past decade’s resurgence of downtown Columbia, city officials and area developers determined the time was right for the prominent six-story Tapp’s building to become something relevant to the current age. It was important to many that the exterior not be drastically altered. Even the high ceilings, columns, and other Art Moderne and Art Deco-inspired interior details remain intact on the first floor and in other areas.
A total of 42 upscale contemporary one- and two-bedroom apartments are located on floors two through five. On the street level, open to the public, is space dubbed “a giant artistic laboratory for artistic engagement.” The non-profit, board-run Tapp’s Arts Center occupies 22,000 square feet of the main street level floor and the basement; it also has the 200-seat Skyline Room, which can host various events and performances, as well as the Fountain Room (site of the former Fountain restaurant), which seats 75 and is used for boutique musical performances. “We do private rentals and have hosted everything from wedding ceremonies to film premieres,” says Caitlin Bright, who became the center’s executive director in 2014.
The 300-linear-foot gallery in the center provides space for solo and group exhibitions. And 30 artist studios are available for rent. Visitors can watch artists work and purchase items for sale. “We rent to a variety of artists in the community from music producers, such as Fat Cat Da Czar, to handbag designers to painters,” says Caitlin. “All studio spaces are leased, and there is a waiting list of 25 people right now.”
Mary Catherine Kunze is one of those artists leasing a space. Her creative business, Uniquely MC, focuses on one-of-a-kind handmade handbags. Mary Catherine says she was looking for a place to rent so that she could separate her work life from her personal life. She learned about the arts center in 2014 and has rented a space since. Her mother assists her in the space full time cutting out all of the patterns and helping to make design decisions. Working at Tapp’s, says Mary Catherine, is ideal. “What we love most is being a part of the Tapp’s culture and rubbing elbows with so many artists. We gain so much energy, inspiration, and encouragement from everyone here.” Besides a local draw to the center, Mary Catherine says she has noticed people visiting from out of town who want to experience the vibrancy of the city. “We think Columbia shines a little brighter with Tapp’s being on the scene,” she shares.
Caitlin says that the center is funded through individual contributions, grants, sponsors, rentals, ticket sales, and beer and wine sales. “The arts center has become a hub for the Columbia community to explore, connect, experiment, make, discover, get inspired, and celebrate the creative community.”
The Movement Arts Co-op was recently launched at the arts center. Ashley Moore manages this endeavor. The MAC is considered a space for “fringe” artists, those offering something experimental in style or subject matter. Independent instructors have an opportunity to teach a myriad of movement art classes, such as Tai Chi, hooping (with hula hoops), or belly dancing. Currently, 13 separate series and workshops are being offered with nine different instructors. Ashley, who teaches belly dancing, says working there is a dream come true.
Another new addition to the arts center is Space Hall Dark Room, which provides dark room services for photographers and artists, but is also for community use. A 24-hour film and print development service is in the works.
Molly Harrell, a freelance photographer, both lives and works at Tapp’s. Her apartment is on one of the floors above the arts center, while her photography studio is located on the basement level.
“I commute via elevator or stairs,” she says. “Working on the 1600 block of Main is where it’s happening in Columbia. Whether you are interested in visual arts, performing arts, comedy, music, or holding an event, it’s happening at Tapp’s.”
She believes the new Space Hall Dark Room is needed. “I think a darkroom is another wonderful item Tapp’s Arts Center has to offer. I have spent many hours over the years in darkrooms, from my undergraduate days working at The Daily Beacon at The University of Tennessee, and again while attending The Art Institute of Atlanta. Since moving to Columbia in 2002, darkrooms have been hard to come by. Currently, I am unaware of any public darkrooms in Columbia.”
Another important area of the center is Space Hall, where experimental music and visual arts events can take place. And, twice annually, an artist-in-residence program offers studio space and a minimal budget to an artist who creates a large-scale installation project.
A look at the Tapp’s Arts Center website reveals just how full of life 21st century Tapp’s has become. It is not uncommon to see two dozen events or classes listed in a month. Daily, scores of people are working, creating, performing, teaching, and, yes, shopping.
“It’s pretty action-packed here,” says Caitlin. “The arts center provides numerous ways that the community can access the arts, socialize, learn new talents, and make Columbia an even more fantastic place to live.”
When people realize the building is no longer lifeless, they visit and want to reminisce and share nostalgic anecdotes. John Sherrer, director of cultural resources for Historic Columbia, says, “‘Meet Me at Tapp’s!’ is the generations-old rallying cry for Columbians who once flocked to one of the capital city’s most iconic shopping destinations, as well as for patrons smitten with the store’s famous cornbread sticks sold at its basement lunch counter. Tapp’s today provides unique residential options for folks who love urban living and the art scene.”
Those renting space at the center regularly take visitors on tours and lend an ear to listen to memories of former days at the department store. Says Mary Catherine, “People just get excited when they walk through the doors. And we are excited that we get to be a part of Tapp’s continued history and culture as a fond landmark in our city.”