I was walking to the courthouse in downtown Walterboro, South Carolina, last New Year’s Eve when I passed an unexpected sight: a waterfall. I’ve blathered on about how much I love flowing water in the past, and it’s not often that I come across a waterfall cascading from the back of a building. It was a dreary day, but I spent a few minutes admiring the site and took pictures on my phone. Before I continued on toward the courthouse, I made a mental note to open an investigation into the matter. This post is the result.
I spent the week after Christmas on vacation in Edisto Island with my parents and my six-year-old niece. It was my first time back to the island in nearly a decade. I took some pictures of what I found interesting on the trip and I’ll write about them periodically. This is part five of the loose series; read the other parts here, here, here, and here.
Founded in 1783 as a vacation retreat for Lowcountry plantation owners, Walterboro is an old city. In 1817, it was designated the county seat of Colleton County. Although a historic courthouse has anchored downtown Walterboro since 1820, the area was an unattractive place by the 1980s.” Some of the old storefronts stared out at the streets like something just waiting to die1,” wrote editors of Walterboro’s Press and Standard. In 1984, Walterboro’s City Council decided to combat the issue by designing a new plaza on Washington Street, just a block east of the venerable courthouse on a vacant lot where a building burned down several years earlier2. Mayor Elton Culpepper and other officials hoped that the plaza would help spur remaining merchants downtown into making renovations of their own and help revitalize downtown, which suffered from the opening of suburban shopping centers.
Architect Wade Burns was responsible for the Washington Street Plaza’s design. He included a brick-and-tabby plaza, trellises, landscaping, and the plaza’s central feature, a 26-foot-tall waterfall designed to withstand a hurricane3. Burns consulted with an engineering company that built fountains for Walt Disney World in Florida and Chicago’s Sears Tower4. One of the most respected outdoor architects in the country, Robert Marvin, lived within walking distance of the plaza and donated his expertise to the project5.
With a low bid of $159,500, the Mitchell Construction Company won the contract to complete the plaza, which was required to be finished in 180 days6. Work started on March 14, 19857, and the plaza opened at 3 p.m. on Sunday, August 25th, in a ceremony accompanied by the Walterboro High School band. “Walterboro deserves a few nice things,” said architect Wade Burns at the ceremony. “This is a permanent improvement for the central district. It will be a successful investment8.”
Local businesses were thrilled about the plaza’s construction, and many took out ads in the newspaper that congratulated its completion. Washington Street Plaza was successful in the immediate aftermath of its opening! Not only did it attract people downtown to shop, but officials were surprised to see people visiting the plaza after business hours. The plaza was used for catered parties, wedding receptions, and family reunions, but its impact wasn’t limited to Washington Street alone: the plaza’s opening brought attention from two big newspapers in South Carolina, the Associated Press, three TV channels, and other media9.
Seating was added to the plaza in 1987 when City Council members made an about-face. Burns hadn’t recommended they be included in his original design, and council members initially thought that seats would attract the wrong kind of people, those up to no good. It seems that, by and large, that didn’t happen.
In 1989, Donald Davis and Johnnie Thompson -a Walterboro City Councilman and member of the Tuskegee Airmen- recommended that the City Council fund and install a war memorial at the plaza10. Consisting of four granite slabs framed in brick, the Colleton County Veterans War Memorial was installed on the west side of the plaza the following year11. A fifth slab, honoring those who perished in the Global War On Terrorism, was dedicated on May 27, 2019. The memorial’s main inscription reads:
Short and tall, rich and poor, black and white, farmer and shopkeeper – they came from every walk of life. The men and women of Colleton County have always answered the call to defend the flag and protect our freedom. They have done this without hesitation during times of conflict and peace. They gave their all for God and country. We owe them a great debt.
In 1991, the Mayfield Garden Club held a bake sale at the square, commonly known by then as Waterfall Plaza. The following year, the Colleton County Arts and Crafts Guild and the Downtown Walterboro Development Corporation hosted their first Artisans on the Plaza event. Santa Claus made an appearance there in 1998. The plaza, along with Gallery Music, Downtown Books and Espresso, and Hiott’s Pharmacy, hosted Walterboro’s Downtown Jam, which invited interested musicians to come downtown and play for fun.
Around 5,500 people live in Walterboro today. The city’s population is about the same as when Waterfall Plaza first opened. The place is still a popular spot to hold events, but it’s unclear if the downtown revitalization its completion brought still continues. Although downtown Walterboro was once heralded for its antique stores, many closed for good because of COVID-19, according to a local I chatted with. Even a nearby restaurant my parents stopped at during their last visit a couple of years ago had closed for good.
That said, downtown Walterboro remains an attractive place to spend time in. Beyond researching the plaza’s history, I’ll admit that I haven’t looked into the economic forecast for a small city 697 miles away from my home that I spent an hour in. Downtown Walterboro was only beginning to wake up when I visited, but recent weeks have seen the community catapulted into a furor thanks to a nationally-publicized murder trial that involves one of the region’s most prominent families.
I’ve followed the murder saga for some time, but I didn’t realize the trial was imminent and that it would occur so close to where we were staying in Edisto Island. Had I known the area would be thrust into national prominence, I’d have documented more of Walterboro than the plaza and the courthouse! Nevertheless, stumbling across it reawakened my love of flowing water. Although its drains and pumps were hidden, it reminded me of the many trips I took to the Fort Wayne Zoo with my grandma when I was a kid. In erecting Waterfall Plaza, officials in Walterboro took a blighted, vacant lot and transformed it into a 5,000-square-foot space that locals can still be proud of today, whether or not its surrounds still thrive.
1 Excited About Downtown (1985, August 15). The Walterboro Press and Standard. p. 2.
2 Plaza’s Opening Greeted Warmly (1985, August 29). The Walterboro Press and Standard. p. 2.
3 Johnson, D. (1985, August 22). Architect Likes Project So Far. The Walterboro Press and Standard. pp. 1-2
4 Tobin, R. (1984, December 6). Grant Process Begins. The Walterboro Press and Standard. p. 1.
5 (See footnote 3).
6 Tobin, R. (1985, January 17). Mitchell Construction Co. To Construct Downtown Plaza. The Walterboro Press and Standard. p. 3.
7 Work Underway On Downtown Plaza (1985, March 14). The Walterboro Press and Standard. p. 1.
8 (See footnote 3).
9 (See footnote 2).
10 Stoner, H. (2006, November 10). Vision a reality. The Walterboro Press and Standard. p. 20.
11 Colleton County War Memorial (2018, January 12). The American Legion. Web. Retrieved February 4, 2023.