Like many towns, the fact that there is a Florence today, is due to decisions made 150 years ago about whether a railroad would be placed here or, maybe, over there. In the 1850s in this area the main town was Mars Bluff and the largest store was owned by Colonel Eli Gregg. Gregg apparently was not overly fond of railroad workers and refused to allow the new Wilmington and Manchester Railroad to build their depot in his neighborhood. The depot instead was placed seven miles to the west in virgin pines. It became an important railroad junction in 1853 when the Northwestern Railroad arrived. A third line, the Cheraw and Darlington, entered and established shops in 1859.
A surveyor, S.J. Solornens was then hired to lay out streets and lots of what now constitute the core of Downtown Florence. Seven streets shown on the plat dated 1858 and 1860 are as follows: Evans, Dargan, and Cheves named for judges; Coit, Irby and McQueen named for notable citizens chiefly from the upper Pee Dee; and, Front Street, which was changed to honor N.B. Baroody. Florence was named after the baby daughter of General William Harllee, head of the Wilmington and Manchester Line, who was instrumental in the town’s development. And Mars Bluff? It remains an unincorporated community best remembered for the dubious distinction of having been inadvertently bombed with a nuclear weapon by the United States Air Force in 1958.
During the Civil War Florence developed into a shipping center and later a hospital town. Three miles south of town a “prison pen” was constructed in September 1864 and eventually held as many as 12,000 Union soldiers. Before the stockade was complete the incoming stream of prisoners was herded into an improvised camp and unsanitary conditions led to an outbreak of typhoid fever. The daily procession of wagons hauling the dead, piled with 100 bodies at a time, overwhelmed local coffinmakers and many corpses were simply wrapped in blankets and buried. The prisoner cemetery became the nucleus of the Florence National Cemetery; a six-acre shrine often referred to as South Carolina’s “Little Arlington.”
Florence experienced continued growth after the Civil War, in large part because of its status as a major regional railroad junction. While the railroad remained the most important economic factor in town, the 1880s represented a shift in mercantile history as the center of trade began to move toward the intersection ofDargan and Evans streets. During the decade of the 1890s the city suffered four devastating fires. For this reason, many of the buildings on Evans and Dargan streets were built after the last major fire in 1899. Dubbed the “Gate City” of the Carolinas, annual railroad passenger traffic climbed in excess of 500,000 and by the 1940s Florence was the largest rail station in South Carolina with 14 passenger and 48 freight trains passing through the city each day.
The hustle and bustle of the railroad days has disappeared and so have some of the key buildings associated with them - the old city hall, the old courthouse. Our walking tour to see what’s left will cover the ground of the original town and begin where the goods first rolled into town along old Front Street...
Florence Railroad Museum
Irby Street at Baroody Street, beside City-County Complex
Florence began as a railroad junction in the mid-1800s and was a major rail center for the movement of men and military supplies during the Civil War. This museum is housed in a renovated box car and caboose and is filled with hundreds of artifacts and photos.
Florence City-County Complex
180 North Irby Street
The 12-story Florence City-County Complex was completed in 1972, an oft-reviled interpretation of the Brutalism branch of the International style.
WALK SOUTH ON IRBY STREET.
former U.S. Post Office
northwest corner of Irby and Evans streets
The old U.S. post office is an outstanding example of the Second Renaissance Revival style, completed in 1906. A massive three-story building with hipped roof, the edifice features a cut sandstone basement and first level. Upper floors are of tan brick. The roof is characterized by circular “Eye of a Bull” dormers and heavy cornice brackets supporting projecting eaves. A major three-story addition to the rear of the building took place in 1935; it provided service until a new post office was constructed in 1975.
Central United Methodist Church
25 West Cheves Street at North Irby Street
Central United Methodist Church was formed in April 1870 when seventeen charter members gathered to organize a Methodist Church to serve the nearly 300 persons who resided in what became the city of Florence. The first edifice for the Church was located at the corner of Dargan and Cheves streets. Destroyed by a tornado before it was completed, the fledgling church rebuilt but in 1883 disaster struck once again as fire destroyed the building. Undaunted, the congregation built a new and larger structure, this time from brick. By the beginning of the 20th century the church had outgrown its new facility, and the current sanctuary was built in 1914, at a cost of $97,000 for the lot and building.
First Baptist Church
300 South Irby Street
This expansive sanctuary includes a towering Neo-Colonial steeple at its center and Neoclassical temple fronting the southern wing.
former Florence County Library
300 South Irby Street
The Florence Public Library, built in 1925, is significant as the first truly public library in Florence and as a fine example of Neoclassical Revival architecture with Beaux Arts influences. The library was designed by the Florence architectural firm of Wilkins and Hopkins, with William J. Wilkins and Frank V. Hopkins as its principals. The first library in Florence grew out of the practice of Florence attorney Belton O’Neall Townsend, who occasionally lent colleagues and friends books out of his law office as early as the 1870s. In 1903 the Florence Civic Improvement Society established a town library in City Hall on Evans Street. Miss Florence Harllee, daughter of William Wallace Harllee, president of the Wilmington and Manchester Railroad, and the person for whom the city was named, served as librarian. Not truly a public library, it was restricted to patrons with a “membership ticket.”
TURN LEFT ON ELM STREET.
Bruce and Lee Foundation Library
509 South Dargan Street at Elm Street
This new state-of-the-art $17.5 million library was made possible by the Doctors Bruce and Lee Foundation which has funded numerous projects in Florence. In addition to its collection of 160,000 books, including rare historical and genealogical works, it houses an exhibit on fossils. The 83,000-square foot building is decorated in Corinthian columns.
TURN LEFT ON DARGAN STREET.
Florence Little Theater
417 South Dargan Street at the corner of Pine Street
One of the leading community theaters in the Southeast, the Florence Little Theater has been providing high quality, entertaining productions since 1923. It has recently moved into this new 400-seat home in the new Downtown Arts and Cultural District. The oldest cultural organization in the community, in 2005 was recognized by the State of South Carolina with the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Governor’s Award in the Arts. The Theatre presents an annual season of six productions, comprised of musicals and plays, featuring casts of local talent.
Central Graded School
301 South Dargan Street
This two-story brick Georgian Revival school building was constructed in 1906-1908 according to plans by W.J. Wilkins, who revised original plans by noted South Carolina architect Charles Coker Wilson. It began life as the Central Graded School but is best known for its days as the Pynor Junior High School. In 1910, a banquet for President William Howard Taft was held at the school. The school features a central colossal Ionic portico. The main block of the building has six bays on either side of the portico with four-bay pavilions at each end of the main block. The building has a full brick basement and a stepped parapet above the Ionic entablature that is carried around the entire building. The brickwork is common bond with every sixth course bonding. The mortar is colored red. The pedimented portico has four unfluted Ionic columns and two pilaster responds with Attic bases and Scamozzi capitals. The columns are built of stuccoed brick.
135 South Dargan Street
This impressive four-story structure was built by W.M. Waters in 1914 to as a furniture store but also contained space for a funeral home.
129 South Dargan Street
Prior to the building of the O’Dowd Theatre in the 1920s, this was the site of a barn. It later became the Carolina Theatre. This is a two-story brick building with a flat roofline decorated with a band of granite. The facade is flanked with two tall pilasters near the edges of the building.
TURN LEFT ON EVANS STREET.
100 block of West Evans Street
Following the Fire of 1893 the Florence business district concentrated around Evans Street which became the city’s main commercial thoroughfare. Today the Florence Downtown Historic District is a collection of 30 commercial spaces along the 100 block of North Dargan Street, the west side of the 100 block of South Dargan Street, and a portion of the 100 block of West Evans Street. This area, which includes Florence’s earliest beginnings, contains the majority of the late 19th to early 20th century architecture remaining in the City. They are mostly two-story brick buildings with embellished cornices. Many are characterized by flat rooflines, decorative brick moldings, and vertical pilasters. While all the properties have been modified to include modern storefronts, the upper facades are largely intact.
RETURN TO DARGAN STREET AND TURN LEFT.
Commercial and Savings Bank
119 North Dargan Street
The Commercial and Savings Bank was chartered in 1900. John Kuker, one of Florence’s earliest settlers and a prominent businessman started the bank with other prominent businessmen and served as its president. It was described as “one of the soundest institutions in the city” and was “recognized as the largest and strongest State Bank in Eastern Carolina.” The Neoclassical mid-block vault dates to 1910 when local architect William J. Wilkins was hired to remodel the facility.
S.H. Kress & Company
119 Evans Street/121 North Dargan Street
The Kress chain was noted throughout the southeast for its facades of glazed white and colored terra cotta from the early 20th century. This building had wings completed in the 1930s to create an L-shape store with entrances on two streets.
I.S. Rainwater Building
142 North Dargan Street
The 1912 Rainwater Building, a three-story building with a stepped roofline, received an Art Deco make-over in 1939. In addition to decorative brickwork along the cornice there are also floral medallions in the space between the second and third floors.
TURN LEFT ON BAROODY STREET TO RETURN TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT.