This post was updated January 15,2018.
As I was reading this fascinating article in this week’s Free Times about Columbia’s drinking history it reminded me that I was on that tour put on by Historic Columbia Foundation (HCF) where we got to go to the much storied space occupying the area below the Arcade Mall, formerly known as Columbia Down Under.
The tour started out with light appetizers and drinks on the street level area of the Arcade Building and a brief history of the structure and what role it played in Columbia’s history, given by John Sherrer, director of cultural resources at HCF. Then we went down below, in groups of 30 or so, to see this area that has been closed to the public since 1974.
Columbia Down Under was a string of indoor bars and dancing establishments, where one could go from bar to bar, all fashioned in different themes, without having to go outside to get to the next, similar to a shopping mall setup. This is what it looks like once you get down the steps that lead down to it from Main Street (though it is normally boarded up and locked). It’s quite dusty and musty since this is one of the first times the owners of the building have let it be open for tours. UPDATED: The Arcade has new owners since this original post and they have been updating the upper floors and adding new tenants. The future of Down Under Columbia is still stagnant, last I heard.
This is a great example of the special detailing done outside of one of the bars. I love the diamond pattern with the wood and the glass, and the herringbone patterned wood below.
And here is another example of the cool, retro details: velvet burnout wallpaper! As my creepy looking hand below demonstrates, it’s
feely three-dimensional! You can also tell from the caution tape in the background that this area is very much a construction/caution zone, where we had to be very careful walking and with what we touched.
This is a larger view of the velvet wallpapered bar. An older gentleman on the tour was telling us that this was a jazz bar (I’m pretty sure it was this one he was referring to) and was telling us how when you went out for the night, you brought your own liquor and gave it to the bartender who in turn put your name on it and was supposed to pour from it for you all night. Cheaper way to drink? Maybe, but they still charged you for the mixers and you still had to tip! Can you imagine taking a handle of vodka out with you for the evening?
Patrick took these photos of newspapers lining the windows. It’s so funny that they look so incredibly old, but they are just from the 1970s.
Next up is the caboose and train themed bar, which I had heard about briefly before the tour, so I kept an eye out for it. This was the height of coolness down here in the 70s, it seems!
And finally, this is a view of the inside of the street level of the Arcade Building from the lofted second floor. It’s definitely got that “made in the 70s!” vibe going on the walls and in the floors, which is a contrast to the ornate details in the fixtures and stonework along the columns and upper walls. There are art galleries, studios, a tailor, hair salon, jewelry shop, a deli, and possibly more that I can’t recall that currently occupy the Arcade of today.
It’s not the easiest place to find if you don’t know what to look for, but the Main Street entrance is easiest identified (to me at least) by the UPDATED: Pita Pit signs, or if you know where the Meridian Building is, it’s on the same block, just to the left if you’re standing there at the entrance to the Meridian. I would love if they would remodel and reopen Down Under, it would be much better for bar hopping in the winter if you didn’t have to go outside to get from bar to bar! I believe Down Under is going to remain closed though due to the extreme costs it would take to renovate to make it usable again.
For more information on the history of the Arcade, check out these links:
To see what other fantastic tours the HCF is serving up next, check out their upcoming events.