Columbia, SC (WLTX) - It was an underground hotspot on Main Street, Columbia for just a few years in the early 70's, and ever since, its been a topic of mystery and rumor.
Built in 1912, the Arcade Mall was South Carolina's first indoor mall. But if you're even walking too fast, the white-on-white carved Italian terra-cotta sign outside that reads "equitable arcade"at 1300 Main Street is easy to miss.
"We have plans to try to put a directory sign of sorts in the front in the entry way, to sort of draw people into the building because it's not immediately obvious who is in here when you walk by," says Brad Shell, the co-owner of Down Under Columbia.
The building is now being renovated., making room for restaurants, shops, and offices in an effort to attract more foot traffic to this historic location.
"I'd love to see a wine, craft beer bar in here. maybe a nail salon would be great in here," Shell says.
But it's the basement of the Arcade Mall that often draws the attention of the more curious, where there's another world, a subterranean vestige of a failed underground nightlife. It was a series of bars and restaurants literally underground in Columbia.
From it's opening, there are mostly just rumors of how the basement was used. There were horse stables and ice storage down there..
Despite the fact that there is good information about the improvements that were done, there's no indication as to exactly how this area of the building was used from 1912 until the 1970's
And then, a new idea began to take shape.
"Here at down under Columbia you had, at least temporarily during the 1970's, a place where you could go and have an experience from live music, to really good food. singing, dancing, all things that you'd expect out of a good restaurant and several good watering holes," said Shell.
But what started out as an idea of fun and entertainment would not last.
Some people said that it was the fact that many people were not coming downtown as much for entertainment. Others said that on Main Street there was, at least, a perception of heightened crime.
Still others claim part of it was potentially mismanagement on the part of the owners at the time.
After just a few short years of operation, Down Under Columbia was shut down.
Nearly 40 years later, the entire basement level now wears the scars of time and neglect. This once lively night scene giving way to deteriorating floorboards, a moldy carpet, and one broken-down wood-framed trolley car.
But the equitable arcade, along with its infamous underground, is poised for change, with ownership changing hands in recent years. There are some signs of new life and hopes of bringing the basement, out of the darkness--although that change is ripe with challenges.
"Modern building codes, you know, and fire codes make it much more challenging to do that it 2018, than in 1971," Shell said.
But suddenly, the idea that underground Columbia can live again is not entirely impossible.
"We'd love to get a tenant in the basement," Shell said. "It's just gonna come down to finding a tenant that's gonna want to make that commitment to be in the basement and negotiate all the hurdles that are gonna come with occupying it."
And maybe, just maybe, what is old could become new again.
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