Anyone who has ever seen photographs of Columbia after Gen. Sherman’s troops captured the city in 1865 might think that he was looking at an image of some European urban center targeted by a bombing raid during World War II. So extensive appears the devastation caused by a fire that engulfed the downtown area on the first night of its occupation by federal forces. Only an occasional brick chimney punctuates a flat landscape composed of block upon block of leveled buildings.


Despite what would appear to be the wholesale destruction of the city in 1865, some structures survived, including three of the four homes now managed by the Historic Columbia Foundation as house museums.


Any tour begins at the Robert Mills House, whose East Flanker, one of two dependencies on either side of the main structure, now serves as a gift shop and tour headquarters. Located on Blanding Street, the Mills House was named not for its owner but for its architect. So revered has Mills become over time that any building associated with our country’s first native-born professional architect automatically acquires a cachet it would not otherwise possess. Mills designed a lot of public structures, including the Washington monuments in Baltimore and our nation’s capital as well as the U.S. Treasury, but very few of his residential buildings have survived.


Built in 1823 for Columbia merchant Ainsley Hall, the Robert Mills House is a classic Greek Revival structure featuring a striking facade of red brick with front and rear porticoes. The interior is also distinguished by the symmetry that is the hallmark of this particular style. There is a central hall with four matching doors, one of them fake, provided just to maintain the visual balance. In the back are twin parlors with curved walls and generous Venetian windows. The house is furnished in English Regency, French Empire and American Federal furniture suitable to the period of its construction.


Across the street in yet another four-acre park encompassing a full city block is the Hampton-Preston Mansion. Named after two of the most prominent families in 19th-century South Carolina, the mansion faces the Robert Mills House. This is no coincidence since both buildings were constructed for the same man, Ainsley Hall. Built in 1818, the house was purchased after Hall’s death in 1823 by Wade Hampton I for his wife Mary Cantey Hampton, who preferred the liveliness of town life over the quiet routine favored by her husband on the family’s several plantations.


She continued to live in the mansion until her death in 1863 although the home had, by that time, become the primary residence of her daughter Caroline Hampton Preston, wife of John S. Preston, planter and politician. The couple traveled extensively between America and Europe, and they brought back many items to furnish their mansion, which became a center of social activity in Columbia prior to the Civil War. In fact, in her now-famous “Diary from Dixie,” Mary Boykin Chesnut writes of the warm welcome always accorded her under its roof.


The mansion was spared during the burning of Columbia because it had been appropriated as the headquarters of Union General John A. Logan. Perhaps he took ironic pleasure in taking temporary possession of this particular residence since Caroline Hampton Preston was the aunt of Wade Hampton III, commander of General Lee’s cavalry after the death of Jeb Stuart.


Three of the Hampton family’s South Carolina plantations were not so fortunate; they were burned by Sherman’s troops. Most of the women of the Hampton-Preston family took refuge at one time or another in the Columbia mansion during the last days of the war when life in the countryside became more and more unsettled. The house passed out of family hands in 1873.


Today the mansion is restored to its antebellum elegance, with each public room devoted to a different period in its colorful history.


About three blocks from these two grand houses is a more intimate structure, the 1850 cottage of former slave Celia Mann, who, according to some historians, was one of only 200 free blacks in the city at that time. An enterprising midwife, Mann bequeathed to her four daughters a rather sizable estate when she died in 1867, including the cottage that now bears her name. In its basement, the congregation of what is now Calvary Baptist Church met.


The Mann-Simons Cottage now bears witness to the histories of two families. Celia’s daughter Agnes Jackson Mann married Bill Simons, a professional musician; and the house was passed down in the Simons family until 1970.


The fourth home open to the public was built after the Civil War. Constructed in 1872 by the parents of Woodrow Wilson, the Victorian building served as our 28th president’s home during his teenage years, from the age of 16 to 19. During that time, Woodrow’s father, the Rev. Joseph Ruggles Wilson, was a teacher at the Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Columbia and pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, in whose graveyard the remains of both of Woodrow Wilson’s parents have been laid to rest.


Designed, according to some commentators, “in the mode of a Tuscan villa,” the house features arched windows and doorways as well as elaborate latticework. The gardens, which include magnolia trees planted by the president’s mother, Jessie Woodrow Wilson, have been recently restored by the Columbia Garden Club. The interior boasts Wilson family memorabilia, including the Wilson family Bible and the bed in which the future president was born.


Tours are conducted hourly Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (last tour starts at 3 p.m.) and on Sunday from 1 a.m. to 5 p.m. (last tour starts at 4 p.m.). The first three houses are on a regular tour schedule, but due to ongoing restoration, the Woodrow Wilson Family Home is open only on specified dates. For more information, call (803) 252-7742.


A recipient of the prestigious Carolina Trustee Professorship in 2008, Dr. Tom Mack holds the G.L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken. For more information on regional historic sites, consult his book “Circling the Savannah,” available at local retail outlets and online.