‘Everything in here has a story’: Darlington’s Grand Old Post Office undergoes major renovation
By Betsy Finklea
Special to the News & Press
It takes a man of vision to look at an old post office and see the endless possibilities and its true potential. That’s exactly what Darlington County Coroner J. Todd Hardee has done making a significant investment of time and resources to preserve this historic treasure while giving it a new purpose in just a matter of months. From an aging, empty building, the Grand Old Post Office, located on Pearl Street, has emerged as a venue that can host both large and small events while sharing a slice of Darlington’s proud history in every available space. From the moment one approaches the building, history is shared. The handpainted sign by Jimmy Jolly greets visitors, and in front of the newly planted Palmetto trees (the South Carolina State Tree) are foot markers in loving memory of Earle B. Wilson Jr. (1927-2018) and James Whitfield “Whit” Lee (1920-2008), two dedicated U.S. Postal Service employees who served in the facility and who would have surely loved to have seen this building repurposed and preserved for the years to come.
The half-million-dollar renovation of the building, which included a new roof and installing 15 miles of new wiring, began on April 1, 2020, and was completed in December 2020. Interestingly, the post office, which was built in 1912, was completed in one year. It served as a post office until 2001. Blaine Eads, executive director of the Grand Old Post Office, said they have created “a multi-functional space that will be a resource to the community by promoting and supporting local businesses and talent.” They plan to be “an active venue” holding their own events that add to the culture of the community. “We took our time deciding what we wanted to do with the building to ensure that everything we did at The Grand Old Post Office would enhance the city of Darlington. Our goal is to give the community something to be proud of,” said Eads. The front lobby is beautifully decorated with pieces that came from Scarlett’s and Pageland Antiques. She said they wanted to make sure everything they had either had a story or was local. Also in the lobby is a photograph of Dr. Vera P. Kistler, an important woman to the Hardee family who they wanted to honor in this building, along with Dr. Kistler’s Order of the Palmetto, some music she wrote, and her piano. Eads said when they had Dr. Kistler’s estate sale, the piano was sold. She said when Hardee bought the post office, he decided he wanted that piano here so they ended up tracking it down and buying it back. Eads said when she was researching the history of the post office she found that Mrs. Ida Jeffords sold the parcel of land where the post office was located. Mrs. Jeffords is a relative of Dr. Kistler. She said it was funny how things have come full circle and that the piano has returned to a location once owned by a relative of Dr. Kistler. She said when people walk in she wants them to be impressed with what they see. The lobby was where the post office boxes were located. She said when someone walks in she wants them to be able to remember how it was and how much better it looks now. From there, one travels to the area where the old post office counter was located where they see one of the most nostalgic parts of the building — a wall-size photograph of the old postal counter showing the postal employees waiting on customers. Eads said this was one of the few existing photographs that they found of the post office showing Earle Wilson and Whit Lee. Eads, who shows true enthusiasm for what has been accomplished at the building, said when people come in, they say, “Oh, wow. That’s exactly how it used to look.” She said it truly takes people back in time. Just around the corner is a display box containing the postal rates from 2001. Eads said when they bought the building, there wasn’t much left from when it was the post office, but this piece of memorabilia survived so they decided to leave it. She said people enjoy looking at it and seeing how the rates have changed over the years. On the wall beside the display case is meaningful artwork. “Throughout the building there is artwork that means a lot to the Hardee family or Darlington,” Eads explained. “We want to make sure that everything in here has a story of some sort.” Leaving this area and going back to the lobby, the doors that one travels through are even significant. They are some of the original doors that were found in the building. They had stickers on them, but Eads said they decided “that they were such a cool piece of the story that we kept them.” Traveling back through the lobby, one notices some of the original display cases from the old post office on the wall that feature items of historic significance. As one goes down the hall, the wall is decorated with artwork. They decided to have someone make something for them that would be important to them and important to Darlington. Two local Darlington women, Mrs. Polly Bristow and Mrs. Sue Moore, painted beautiful artwork to display. The hall leads to the spacious grand ballroom. They wanted to make sure that wherever one is in the ballroom they can see and hear everything that is happening on the stage. They have two televisions and a projector that shows the stage. “Throughout the building, we have tried to keep everything very timeless so it would still have that historic feel and also be very elegant,’ said Eads. “We wanted to make it so people still remembered how it looked when they walked in, but now it is very beautiful and modern.” At the stage, the bricks around the bottom are from an old laundromat. It has all the modern necessities for state-of-the-art light and sound. There is a catwalk around the stage that is also historically significant. The catwalk has three entrances — two inside and one outside. Eads explained that when it was a post office, the postal inspector would come, no one knew who he was, and he would go in the outside one into the catwalk. He would walk around the catwalk, which had double-sided mirrors, and watch the employees and the postmaster to make sure that everything was going as it should be. This, of course, was before security cameras. Many post offices that have been renovated don’t still have those catwalks. Outside is the outdoor stage. Car church was held here during the pandemic. This was Eads’ first experience with the post office and her first memory here. “Because of what we are doing here at The Grand Old Post Office, our grandparents, parents, and now our children and great-grandchildren will have a memory with this historic building,” she said. There are five bathrooms on site. The gentleman’s bathroom is one of the favorites. It’s a gentleman’s quarters/groom’s room and has a working record player. All of the furniture is from Scarlett’s or the Hardee family. With this particular room, they wanted people to step back in time when there used to be a lounge outside of a gentlemen’s bathroom. The bathroom itself has the original green tile for that nostalgic feel. There is a handicapped restroom with the original tile, which was the original ladies’ room. There is an employee restroom with the original sink. The ladies’ restroom was an add-on. Eads said they wanted to make sure it had that same historic elegance as well with black and white colors and vanities. They drew what they wanted on the wall and their contractor made it happen. This drawing is now actually covered with a large mirror. There is a historic photo in each stall. Featured are pictures of Miss St. John’s 1971, The Wall Family Wedding 1955, and Miss Southern 500 1956 — just another small way to incorporate the history of Darlington. The next feature is the prep kitchen. Their sister business, South of Pearl restaurant, which is the historic Boatwright home renovated in 2015, provides the catering for the Grand Old Post Office. The prep kitchen is equipped to keep foods hot and cold and has china and all that is necessary to have a successful, high-quality event. One of the modern features is the state-of-the-art sound room. All of the speakers for the ballroom are run through the sound room. This room is also where they create their own podcast called the Grand Old Post Office. It was originally started by the family and was called the Board Meeting. It has since been moved to the Grand Old Post Office and renamed. They talk about things happening in Darlington and how to support other businesses, etc., trying to boost everyone up. They also talk a little bit about themselves as well. They will rent out the space for others to do their own podcasts and are happy to assist in this. When they were developing their concept, they wanted to help to promote local businesses and give them a way to create their own things here. The original vault is intact and is used for storage. “It is really a step back in time as well,” Eads said. There is a conference room that is used as the entertainment green room, a place that businesses can use for small meetings, and to give photographers a place to create and use for backdrops. The executive director’s office is the last thing they have been working on. It was actually the postmaster’s office. Eads said they have a basement, which is similar to a bunker, that they will be working on in the future. “This building is so important to the rich history of Darlington and I am truly honored to be a part of this project. It’s a good feeling when you wake up every day knowing the work you are doing is impactful,” said Eads. “Our hope is that this project will inspire others to join us on the journey of revitalizing our special town. This is just the beginning of an upward trend for Darlington.” One thing is certainly for sure, the Grand Old Post Office is truly an inspiration and a cultural asset to the community that will likely lead to a revival of other historic properties in the Darlington area. Author’s note: Take an inside look at the building as we tour with our hostess, Blaine Eads, executive director of the Grand Old Post Office. The video will appear on The News & Press page on Facebook.
To contact Eads: Blaine Eads, The Grand Old Post Office, Thegrandoldpostoffice.com, 201 Pearl St., Darlington, SC 29532.
See also, the extensive PHOTO GALLERY on The Grand Old Post Office here…https://www.newsandpress.net/photo-gallery-the-grand-old-post-office/