At Saturday’s dedication of Fountain Park, speakers are likely to refer to the new park and its massive water fountain as a “magnificent ornament to Rock Hill,” one that is “beautiful (and) modern in every respect.”
Those words, however, come not from Saturday’s speeches, but from a 1910 edition of The Evening Herald describing the Friedheim mansion — the White Palace as it was known, which once occupied a downtown block bounded by Main, Black and Saluda streets and Elizabeth Lane – the park’s site.
The words, whether today’s or those of yesteryear, resonated with Sophia Beers of Rock Hill. She lived a year at the Friedheim mansion as a teenager, her grandfather’s home, while her parents’ place was being renovated.
“I’m so thrilled that something so beautiful is downtown and it replaces something that was once so beautiful too,” Beers said Friday.
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She plans to be at the park’s 9:30 a.m. dedication.
With more than 30 rooms and a front porch that featured six Corinthian columns, the mansion was one of the most impressive residences in Rock Hill from its completion in 1909 until it was dismantled in 1953. The city purchased the land for $125,000 and turned it into a parking lot to serve downtown businesses.
The mansion was the home of Arnold Friedheim, who ran Friedheim’s department store on Main Street, now the site of the Wells Fargo bank. Sophia Beers took over the department store in 1964 and closed it a year later.
The house was massive, serving a large Friedheim family which included 12 children, and two bachelor brothers August and Julius, and in later years, grandchildren, among them Beers.
Beers remembers the mansion as a gathering place where salesmen came for lunch, the Rev. Walter Lee Lingle, minister at First Presbyterian Church and later president of Davidson College, frequently dined, and that Sunday’s family dinner was a massive table set for “no less than 22 people.”
She also remembers spending Saturdays at the mansion with her uncle Sam Friedheim to listen to opera on the radio.
“It was a happy, happy place,” she said.
Now that the site is a park and no longer an unused parking lot Beers is excited to the see the land again become a gathering place where there is laughter and music.
Beers, city officials and business leaders also hope the park, and its companion, the Fountain Park Place office building, set the stage for the next downtown surge, adding more businesses and jobs.
The impetus for the park and office building started about eight years ago when the Rock Hill City Council considered a request to build multi-family housing on the parking lot, remembers Mayor Doug Echols.
“We couldn’t get the support we needed for that project and I then asked what do we want there?” Echols said.
Comporium owned most of the land adjacent to the then parking lot.
Talks with Comporium officials led to a public-private partnership between the city and the utility to develop the land. The concept was initially called “Downtown East” and called for a park and water fountain, that would become a destination for residents and visitors alike, an office building, a hotel and a performing arts center.
The $9 million, four-story office building opened in October. It is about 60 percent leased. The Rock Hill law firm of Morton and Gettys was the first to move in. Regus, which leases office space, and TD Bank recently signed leases.
Developer Warren Norman Co. hopes to bring a restaurant to empty, first-floor space with the park being a draw for restaurant owners and dining patrons alike.
Increased property values from the office building allowed the city to fund the $5 million park, Echols said. The fountain was funded by a $1.2 million grant from the Foundation of the Carolinas.
Comporium and the Warren Norman Co. are studying the feasibility of a “boutique” hotel that would have between 80 and 90 rooms and maybe a restaurant. Warren Norman said the likelihood of a hotel was one reason Regus leased space in the Fountain Park Place.
A three-part feasibility study is being conducted for a downtown arts center. Phase one looked at the need for a center, determining a 500- to 800-seat center could work. The other parts of the study are ongoing: looking at how a center would operate, a possible budget and how much would need to be raised to build and maintain a center, said Matt Dosch of Comporium.
The success of the park and office building will increase the willingness of investors to back other downtown economic projects such as the Knowledge Park redevelopment of the Bleachery textile site, said developer Skip Tuttle.
Echols said the park and office building, as well as those planned, represents a “giant step forward” for downtown, making it a destination. The park, he said, “exceeds my expectations.”
For some, business already has picked up.
Melba Peterson, who has run the East Main Guest House for 24 years, reports this is her best year ever. “Something is in the air,” she said.
East Main Guest House serves a variety of visitors, from those traveling north or south on Interstate 77 to those visiting friends here. Peterson said the word most often spoken of downtown is “charming” and the fountain adds to that charm.
“It’s the big draw,” Peterson said. Those who don’t come downtown “have no clue what they missing.”