‘Bet’s vision’ for Historical Commission taking shape
By Samantha Lyles
When Carolyn “Bet” Norment Phillips passed away two years ago, her bequest of $4 million to the Darlington County Historical Commission came with a set of marching orders: Use the money to establish a museum and bring more of our rich local history into public view.
Speaking at a recent meeting of Darlington Kiwanis, Historical Commission director Brian Gandy said that mission took a big step toward fruition with the signing of Hartsville-based architect Robert Goodson, who delivered a museum concept that would have pleased even the notoriously discerning Bet Phillips.
Though the architectural renderings are not yet available to the public, Gandy described the future museum as an 8,800-square-foot “L”-shaped addition that will bracket the current Historical Commission and match its exterior design. Gandy said that building, a red brick and ship-steel citadel built in 1937 to house the Darlington County Jail, will get a facelift to make it look friendlier.
“We’re looking at opening up those (bricked over) windows on the front of the building … some with faux windows,” Gandy said. “From streetside, you’re going to see a much softer appearance, a building that’s welcoming and inviting.”
Three exhibit galleries on the new museum’s ground floor will showcase items of interest, and a second floor research room will offer visitors a deeper dive into related information.
“We’re not just going to raise hunger and curiosity, we’re going to satisfy that with this new facility,” said Gandy. “That’s an awesome opportunity for us and we’re grateful to Bet for that.”
A keen collector of historical items herself, Phillips would regularly call Gandy over to her home to sort through batches of documents and photos to see if they should be added to the commission’s archives.
During these visits, Phillips sometimes quizzed Gandy on how he would use a donation of $5,000 or so to improve the commission. Evidently she was pleased with his answers. When probate judge Marvin Lawson told him about the bequest included in Phillips’ will, Gandy was certain there had been a mistake.
“I kind of crossed my arms and stepped back and said, ‘Marvin, you miscounted commas and you miscounted zeroes.’ But when he showed me the will and let me read it for myself, I was absolutely blown away,” he said.
Phillips and Gandy shared a belief that the commission’s formidable collection – mostly amassed by Horace Rudisill during his 35 years as director – should be accessible to the public. Excepting educational institutions, the Darlington County Historical Commission has the fourth largest archival collection in South Carolina.
Gandy said the museum’s first exhibit will likely focus on natural history with displays of local rocks, fossils and minerals. Donations have already been secured from patrons to supplement the commission’s existing collection. The second gallery will highlight Native American history, and the third and largest gallery exhibit will span early American history to modern days.
“What we’re looking at doing is facilitating a flow pattern that will start with our earliest understanding and bring us all the way up to where we’re at today,” Gandy said.
The next steps involve some vetting and voting, as members of the Historical Commission board and Darlington County Council must both approve architectural plans before construction can begin.