Name: Former Ashley & Bailey Silk Mill

Location: Third and Linden Streets, Columbia

Date: c. 1897; c. 1920

Architect: Unknown

Until recently, the former Ashley & Bailey silk mill in Columbia was a bewildering and improbable ruin– a knotted curtain of brick, vines, and broken glass.  The building lurked on the edge of the town like a Dickensian spectre, not just of an industrial past, but also of a landscape yet to come, a post-apocalyptic premonition of a built environment returned to nature.   Its ruinous state was the legacy of a tragicomic history of abandonment, redevelopment pipe dreams, and a demolition campaign that was itself ultimately abandoned.  Like Monty Python’s Black Knight, the mill complex was half-heartedly hacked away at for decades while redevelopment plans and liability concerns came and went and an encroaching wild ecosystem took root.  Trees replaced the concrete mushroom columns of the factory floor, wildflowers sprouted between amputated floorboards and joists, and hawks perched atop the ivy-covered water tower.

More than a century ago, Frederick Law Olmsted revolutionized landscape architecture by fabricating naturalistic vignettes (New York’s Central Park, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, Chicago’s Jackson Park) within an industrialized urban grid.  He worked in direct response to the threats posed to the American landscape by the new social and architectural orders embodied in buildings exactly like the Ashley and Bailey, constructed only a few years before Olmsted’s death.  In a sense, then, the chickens came home to roost in Columbia, as a sublime natural ecosystem returned Olmsted’s favor and inserted itself into this industrial shell after the fortunes of enterprise waned.  This was architecture gone feral, and it was something to behold.

All this changed when a new set of redevelopment plans were unveiled last year.  The site is now being scraped clean (pasteurized?) for the Turkey Hill Experience, a dairy and iced tea tourist mecca and erstaz factory to be housed in stabilized portions of the old mill structures.  Demolition of the site has intensified over the last few months, with vegetation and windows stripped away, the smokestack lopped in half, and large portions of the surviving original 1897 mill cleared.  These were undertaken ostensibly for structural reasons, though it is worth noting that plans call for a mini-mart–first proposed in the mid 1990s–on the newly-leveled site, and there are whispers of a giant fiberglass cow standing perch on the shortened smokestack platform.  Perhaps in an ode to the recent spirit of the place, however, the mini-mart will reportedly feature a green roof.

Note: The above rendering and half the photos below depict the site before redevelopment began this summer.  As can be seen in the historic images, this constituted only a portion of the original complex, the bulk of which was demolished in 2000. (Click to enlarge)