After making the decision to relocate the Winthrop campus to Rock Hill in 1893, the college trustees selected the firm of Bruce & Morgan of Atlanta, who had just designed the Clemson campus, as architects for its new buildings. During the following year, plans for the main building, dormitory, kitchen, and power house were completed. The main building, housing academic and administrative departments, took up most of the $200,000 budget, composed of donations from the Peabody fund, $50,000 from the State Legislature, and $60,000 from a local bond issue. In addition, local industries made generous donations of brick, stone, and rail lines. The Thompson Decker Construction Company of Birmingham, Alabama, began work in May 1894, after a widely attended cornerstone ceremony.
The main building bears a remarkable resemblance to the main building at Clemson, also named for Ben Tillman. Both are massive masonry and stone buildings with conspicuous clock towers in the Richardsonian Romanesque style so popular in the 1890s. Clemson’s plan, however, was symmetrical as opposed to Winthrop’s offset arrangement of geometrical forms. Also, at Clemson, the auditorium was in a separate building rather than in a rear wing as is the case at Winthrop. The more modest structure at Clemson was built entirely with state funds ($83,000), while Winthrop was more reliant on private funding. The significant difference in cost is explained by a larger and more elaborate building at Winthrop, and the severe recession of 1894.
Both Winthrop and Clemson used convict labor. While Clemson employed convicts from the start, Winthrop did not accept their services until the general contractor went broke and was forced to abandon the project. Colonel W. A. Neal, the superintendent of the State Penitentiary, was assisted by W. H. Stewart, a local farmer/builder who provided competent supervision of construction and management of funds. Neal was regarded as one of the most corrupt officeholders of the Tillman era. He was especially lax in keeping account of funds, which Winthrop had little of. Another bonus for Winthrop was the experience gained by prison laborers in building Clemson. The building was completed on schedule for opening day in October 1895.
The completed building remains basically unaltered except for partition changes on the lower floors and bricking in of the auditorium arcade. It has a “T” shaped plan, with the main section and side wings facing the front lawn on Oakland Avenue and the long back wing running perpendicular to the main campus axis. The separate hipped slate roofs over the main section, side wings, and back wing have pedimented attic gables and are bordered with galvanized iron cornices.
The building’s height and mass of masonry is broken into levels by various stone friezes and belt courses roughly corresponding to floor levels. On the basement level a course of South Carolina granite in natural ashlar is laid in a broken course, with an angled glacis around the base of the tower. (In medieval architecture, the glacis was intended to ricochet stones cast down from the tower into besieging armies). The granite course extends up the tower beyond the first floor level, setting it off from the adjacent main section. Rusticated granite belt courses form continuous sills for windows on the first three floors. Alternate granite belt courses above these connect with the dripstone window lintels. The roof line is further offset by a heavy wood cornice with brackets separating the third floor and fourth floor levels.
The clock tower, set in the south corner of the main section, rises seven stories to a conical turret covered with green copper plates. Under the roof and its masonry support pillars is a solid slab of Ohio sandstone carved in Sullivanesque motifs for an elaborate entablature. At the seventh story level, a circular clock face set in masonry arches with prominent keystones looks out from all four sides. Below the clock, on the sixth level, an open belfry with stone rails is set in the masonry walls with a banded effect created by recessed courses of brick. The fourth and fifth levels of the tower are solid masonry with small stairway windows. At and below the third floor levels, the tower connects with the main wing.
The most unifying features of the façade are the semicircular masonry arches above the windows on the third floor of the façade and partway around the sides, around the clock faces on the tower, over the side entrances, and above the back wing auditorium windows. On the central façade section and tower, these arches are filled with lattice-framed transoms above complex bay windows on the second and third floors. The bay windows’ 1/1 sash units are separated by carved wood fretwork panels. Windows are generally rectangular, double hung 4/4 sash. Fourth and fifth floor attic windows are smaller sash units closely spaced with common rusticated granite lintels, separated by masonry pilasters.
The main entrance has a recessed porch supported by two semi-elliptical masonry arches with prominent keystones and a side semi-circular arch. The porch has an inlaid marble floor, granite steps, and heavy stone railing. Above the base of the tower, just left of the entrance vestibule, an elaborately carved stone frieze with Sullivanesque floral designs displays the college name and state palmetto emblem. Stone quoins extend from the decorated frieze to a stone lintel course for the second floor tower windows, just above the original President’s office on the main floor. The cornerstone naming the Trustees is at the base of the tower’s southeast corner. The main entrance leads on the first floor to a reception hall with lounges and parlors on the right and the original administrative offices on the left.
The reception hall intersects the main hall, running through the length of the front and wings to the arcaded end entrances, which narrows, and continues down the back wing to music rooms that were located at the end of the wing. Classrooms of various dimensions were originally in the side wings and along the narrow corridor in the back wing. A wide stairway with two flights leads from the entrance hall to the second floor. This elaborate stairway has a curved entrance, paneled wood sides, and massive paneled posts with fluted column extensions and floral capitals. Another stairway, off the main hall between the center section and north wing, leads down to the basement and up to the second floor. Interior halls and rooms on all floors are finished in various combinations- oak tongue and groove wainscoting, paneled doors with moulded corner block frames, fluted pilasters, and paneled siding. The plaster walls are occasionally decorated with ornamental motifs and floral designs.
The basement originally contained a gym and swimming tank in the front section, dressing room and printing workshop in the side wings, and a large dining hall in the back wing (120’ x 58’). Side entrances to the dining hall led to covered passageways to the North Dormitory (Margaret Nance) and the South Dormitory (McLaurin Hall).
On the second floor, the front section contained the original library with separate stack areas and reading rooms. Side wings had classrooms and labs for physical sciences. The entire back wing was an open auditorium extending up to the third floor ceiling. The auditorium has a balcony at the east end, and originally there was a small stage at the west end, with a music practice room behind it. Arcaded entrances with elaborate paneled doors and transoms lead from halls to the main floor and balcony. Three sets of high, arcaded double windows, separated by pilasters ran along the sides. The ceiling entablature and pilasters had plaster floral decorations.
In 1912, the auditorium was remodeled for $7,500. A larger theatrical stage with a pipe organ was added to the west end, replacing the original platform stage, and fixed seating replaced the folding opera chairs. Plans were drawn up by Edwards & Sayward, of Atlanta, who had just completed plans for the Training School. The back wing was extended about 30 feet with supporting additions to the basement and first floor beneath. Small dressing rooms and storage areas were added behind the stage and pipe organ, replacing the music room.
The third floor had a large museum in the front section over the library, with classrooms for industrial arts (home economics) and two large society halls (meeting rooms) in the front section of each side wing. The fourth and fifth “attic” floors, reached only by a narrow staircase from the main hall of the third floor, were really one floor with split levels. The higher front, fifth floor section had art studios and storerooms, with a skylight in the ceiling of the main studio. Its higher elevation is due to the high ceilings of the library and museum beneath it. The side wings each have two attic classrooms, with a slight change of elevation between them. All these “attic” classrooms are as large as standard classrooms, with minimum twenty by thirty foot dimensions and nine to twelve foot ceilings.
Entrance to the clock tower is made from a staircase off the fifth floor. Originally, there was a 2,000 gallon water tank at the sixth floor level of the tower, just below the belfry, with lines leading down to fire hoses for the whole building. This system was abandoned in the 1920s, after a large water tower was erected behind McLaurin Hall. The highest, seventh floor level of the clockworks is above the sixth floor landing in the belfry, with stone billet style railings on each side.
The original building had electric lighting and central steam heating furnished by the power plant behind the kitchen.
Interior alterations consist mainly of partitioning of rooms on the first three floors. However, this work does not affect the architectural integrity of the interior since hall and room woodwork has generally been preserved and well cared for. In the 1950s and 1960s the hall floors were covered in linoleum tile, and an acoustical tile ceiling was hung and fixed with fluorescent lights. Several renovations of mechanical systems were also made, including adding air-conditioning in 1961.
As the college expanded, new buildings for academic departments were constructed and these departments moved out of Tillman. Generally, the college had converted these spaces into alternate uses. In 1974 the third and fourth floors were abandoned. A decade later in 1984, however, the third floor was renovated and reopened for use, including the removal of the linoleum tile on the floors and restoring the ceilings to their original look. Structural problems still exist on the fourth floor and code compliance issues need to be addressed since there are a limited number of exits.
Exterior alterations have been insignificant, except for bricking in the arcaded chapel windows in the back wing and the north arcaded side entrance. Unfortunately, there is little that can be done to replace the elaborate moulded glass transoms and double windows in the auditorium.
The building was named for Benjamin R. Tillman in 1962. Tillman was the South’s most famous proponent of agricultural populism. He promoted the establishment of Winthrop as a state institution before he ever held public office, and as Governor (1892-94) sponsored Winthrop’s construction with the resources of the state government at his disposal, including the convict laborers. Tillman also was an avowed white supremacist, architect of state Jim Crow laws, and a violent advocate of lynch law. He also served as chairman of the Board of Trustees at Winthrop and continued to take an interest in the college while in the US Senate and in his less active later years.
Historically, the Tillman Building is the most important on the campus, and was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. The many interesting stories and anecdotes connected with the building, and with Winthrop’s continuing history, can barely be touched upon in this history.
Architecturally, the Tillman Building is one of the few remaining Richardsonain Romanesque structures in the state and a landmark of enduring significance. Compared with Clemson’s Tillman Hall, the Winthrop building is large and more luxurious and offers more visual stimulation with its asymmetrical design and varied materials. The Clemson building, however, has a more attractive clock tower and is better situated, on a rolling hill, to dominate the large open surrounding campus. The Winthrop building, hidden by a screen of large trees on Oakland Avenue and the front campus lawn can barely be appreciated until one is right up in front of the fountain. This vegetative screen, however, improves the esthetic quality of the campus. Without it the Tillman building would dwarf and ridicule the closely spaced buildings on the front row of the campus. The front campus today is much more attractive than it was in the early years when the massive building loomed out over muddy fields and was approached by a drive straight off Oakland Avenue.