Long-Term Capitol: South Carolina's Victorian Jewel

Tuesday, June 25, 2013 Road Junkies 0 Comments

COLUMBIA, South Carolina— On our way to North Carolina to visit family, we paused in Columbia to check off another state capitol building.  Fifty-two years in the making, the South Carolina State House, as it is known here, holds the record (as far as our cursory research revealed) for the longest time from construction start to completion.

After South Carolina's state capital moved west from Charleston to Columbia in 1786, a fine Federal style state house was built in the new planned city.  By the 1850s, lawmakers had grown concerned about the safety of valuable state records stored in the increasingly deteriorating wooden building.  By 1855, construction had begun on a new state house which would provide fireproof storage for important artifacts and a grander and larger structure which would better reflect the state's growing prosperity.

Original design for South Carolina State House  (image from South Carolina State Museum)
Plans called for an imposing state house with Roman and Corinthian details topped by a 180-ft square tower.  Work proceeded well until the onset of the Civil War.  By 1861, records indicated that more than two million dollars had been spent on the unfinished capitol which still lacked a roof.  During the next four years with both human and fiscal resources directed toward the war effort, work on the state house slowed to a crawl.

South Carolina State House after extensive war damage (image:  SC State Museum)
As the war neared an end in late 1864, General Sherman marched his troops in a fiery raid across Georgia.  From Savannah, Sherman advanced northward through the Carolinas with a particular determination to punish South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union. By the time Union troops left Columbia in February, 1865, the old wooden state house and much of the central city lay in ashes and the still unfinished new capitol building had been heavily damaged.  Building material, architectural plans and construction equipment lay in ruins.

With the South Carolina economy in shambles and struggling to recover from the war, little meaningful progress was made on the statehouse until the mid-1880s when work on the the interior began in earnest.  Over the next ten years an elegant Victorian jewel was created inside.

John C Calhoun stands over the main lobby outside the legislative chambers.
A variety of stained glass mosaics by a Baltimore studio adorn the building's interior.  These beautiful works of art depict scenes and symbols significant to the state.  Overlooking the main lobby, a large mosaic featuring the state seal required more than 37,000 pieces of glass to create.

This jeweled mosaic dates from the late 1800s.
By the time the exterior of the state house was completed in the early 1900s, the most recent architect on the project convinced lawmakers to ditch the tower design in favor of a central dome, a popular trend in other state capitols.  Finally in 1907 after the dome was added and porticos and exterior steps were finished, construction on the South Carolina State House, was declared complete, only 52 years after it was begun.

The southern face (rear) of the State House
When the exterior was finished, the damage inflicted by shells from Sherman's cannons was not repaired.  Rather, like a soldier awarded a medal for meritorious service in a combat zone, the building wears six bronze stars to mark the Union cannon fire wounds.

Bronze stars mark scars left by Federal troops in 1865.(image from Wikimedia)
On our tour of the South Carolina State House today, we found the building to be a stunningly elegant and dignified seat of government.  Both the splendid interior and the beautifully landscaped 18-acre grounds, featuring a vast array of specimen plantings, are meticulously maintained.  Metered parking was readily available on the street adjacent to the capitol complex, and the security screeners at the entrance were professional if not particularly friendly.  In terms of attractiveness and state symbolism, we would rate the South Carolina State House in the top four of the capitol buildings we have seen to date.

South Carolina State House Stats:

  • Architectural style:  Roman Corinthian
  • Building height:  164 feet (to top of dome)
  • Construction dates:  1855-1907
  • Construction cost:  $3,540,000
  • Exterior material:  granite
  • Dome surface:  copper

 More Photos from South Carolina State House

Statue of George Washington near entrance still bears damage from Union invasion
(tip of walking cane broken off)
Joint legislative conference room (formerly legislative library)
Interior of state house dome
Lower lobby arched ceiling of handmade brick
North entrance (front) of state house seen through gardens
The House Chamber
The massive columns on the porticos were each carved from a single piece of stone.
The Senate Chamber
The impressive fabric wallpaper of the House Chamber
Wrought iron staircase with design featuring state flower