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A look inside historic Columbia landmark

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The Whaley House on Gervais St. in Columbia is being renovated The Whaley House on Gervais St. in Columbia is being renovated

Thousands of people pass by the Whaley House on Gervais Street every day.  And no doubt, many have noticed a transformation at the Columbia landmark.

Some even may be curious about what the inside of that turret looks like.

The former home of one of the city's richest men and longtime funeral home will eventually be home to the University of South Carolina School of Law's Children's Law Center.

"There's a lot of interest in protecting this building," said Harry Davis with the Children's Law Center.

It was built in 1892 by W.B. Smith Whaley, who was instrumental in electrifying Columbia's cotton mills.

In 1925, the house was sold to the Dunbar Funeral Home. After serving for 72 years as a funeral home, Stewart Enterprises of Louisiana donated the historic property to USC and the Historic Columbia Foundation.

 The National Historic Landmark was listed for sale for years, with no buyer. Once renovations are complete, the property will be turned over to USC.

Although its 15,000 square feet makes it obsolete as a private home, Davis says it's perfect for the Law Center's needs. It will house offices for 30 employees, a training center, even a courtroom where young attorneys can practice. Davis says as many as 10,000 people a year will visit the building.

"This building is so well-suited for use as a training center," he said.

"It's location across the street from the new law school, the fact that it has a large parking lot.  It's about convenience.  It's about the synergy that will occur when all of the child-serving organizations in the Columbia area will have a home to come to participate in training, study, research, and policy development for children."

Davis is quite familiar with the three-story home and the adjoining building that served as a mortuary and casket display room.  He paid for law school working funerals for Dunbar.

"It is very exciting to me to see the adaptive reuse of this building," said Davis.

$450,000 in exterior renovations are expected to be done by the end of 2012.  Then the Children's Law Center concentrates on the interior work, including raising about $3.5 million to pay for it.

"We will be looking for contributions by the local community," said Davis.  "We'll be looking from individuals as well as businesses. We'll be looking to national foundations and corporations.  There's been a lot of interest in helping to fix up the building."

Once the interior is done, people visiting the law center won't see much of a difference from the funeral home days.

"We don't intend any significant interior changes to the building," said Davis. However, new plumbing, HVAC and electric systems will be installed.

In addition to the distinctive Queen Anne style architecture, including the corner turret, the building features typical Victorian touches such as fireplaces, woodwork, stained glass and original gas lights. Even the tiles in the bathrooms are ornate.

Davis is proud that he could be a part of saving the historic Columbia landmark.

"To take something that has been a treasured landmark in the Columbia area and convert it into a new and dynamic and exciting use, it ensures the support for child advocacy, for child services and it protects the history and legacy and the future of this building."

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