The Constan Car Wash was open from 1949 until last month and was home to a live tiger from 1964 to 1974. (Photo by Noah Watson)

A more than 70-year-old Columbia car wash that once was home to a live tiger could be the solution to flooding in Five Points.

The city is negotiating to buy the closed business and turn the property into a large retention pond. 

Constan Car Wash, at 1950 Gervais St. near Five Points, is within the Rocky Branch Watershed limits. The watershed is home to most of the flooding in urban Columbia, according to a 2016 report from the McCormick Taylor civil engineering firm.

“It would be a place that we could use to impound water, where the car wash is now, to slow it down getting to Five Points, where the shops are flooding,” City Councilman Howard Duvall said. 

Duvall said the city is in negotiation with Constan Car Wash owner O. Stanley “Chip” Smith III for the property.

“Mr. Smith is interested in retiring, so both the interests of the city and Mr. Smith are coming together,” Duvall said after the car wash abruptly closed in October. 

Mayor Daniel Rickenmann said the city doesn’t have the property under contract yet.

The move is part of a larger attempt to contain flooding throughout the Rocky Branch Watershed, which includes Five Points. The city in recent years added flood retention elements to Five Points’ MLK Park and now is looking to do the same to the nearby Maxcy Gregg Park, Rickenmann said.

“So much of Maxcy Gregg Park on the other side of Five Points is, you know, one of the choke points for Rocky Branch,” Rickenmann said. “A lot of the park is underutilized. So, evaluating the ability to possibly use that to also create a bioswale or retention (pond) there is a high possibility.”

The Smith family didn’t announce the carwash’s closing. But a few weeks ago its website posted the message, “It has been our pleasure to serve you for 73 years. We will miss you!”

Constan was opened in 1949 by Smith’s parents, the late O. Stanley Smith Jr. and his wife, Connie, and was one of the city’s oldest businesses. 

Its claim to fame was the tiger that lived in a cage in the car wash’s waiting area. 

Elaine Gillespie, a lifelong Columbia native, said her fondest memory of the car wash was going to see “Happy the Tiger” when she was a child.

“I remember as a little kid, my uncle taking me there to get the car washed, … and I would get to spend time looking at ‘Happy the Tiger,’” Gillespie said. “It was really cool as a kid to have a tiger that close to you.”

The Riverbanks Zoo and Garden had not been built yet, and Gillespie said that was the only way to see a live animal like that in Columbia.

Happy stayed at Constan from 1964 to 1974. Riverbanks Zoo opened in 1974, and the tiger became one of the zoo’s first residents. 

Happy lived at the zoo for five years until she died in 1979. According to a sign still hanging inside the building, Happy lived a “normal tiger lifetime of 15 years.”

Most of the flooding in Columbia happens in the Rocky Branch Watershed. (Photo provided by McCormick Taylor engineering firm)

The car wash used this 1950s-era “addressograph” credit card machine shortly after the business opened. (Photo by Noah Watson)

O. Stan Smith Jr. with Happy the Tiger (Photo provided by Alison Hays Valdependas)

Happy was moved to the Riverbanks Zoo after it opened, and Constan later posted this sign to memorialize her time at the car wash. (Photo by Noah Watson)


Noah Watson

Noah Watson

Noah Watson is a senior sports journalism major at the University of South Carolina. He looks for the obscure side of sports, focusing on the fun. He has covered sports for the student-run Daily Gamecock and WACH FOX 57. His dream job is to make sports documentaries.

Grace Tippett

Grace Tippett

Tippett is a multimedia journalist at the University of South Carolina. She plans to attend law school and practice media law. Tippett runs the sorority recruitment process at USC. She has written about voter registration and housing for the student-run Daily Gamecock. Tippett has worked with Midlands Gives, a community-wide day of giving that raises funds for Midlands nonprofits. Her work this year helped them raise more than $3.7 million.