The Magazine of South Carolina

More Than a Mansion

The state Governor's Mansion contains South Carolina treasures from generations past.


by Jim Poindexter

The South Carolina Governor's Mansion has stood at the crest of Arsenal Hill overlooking downtown Columbia for 140 years. It's a place where the veil of time is almost transparent. As visitors walk through the high-ceilinged rooms, a bit of South Carolina history greets them at every turn.

More than the residence of the First Family, the Governor's Mansion is a repository of treasures representing the heritage of the Palmetto State. The rich collection includes silver and china, furniture, paintings and documents. Some pieces date to the 18th Century.

Built in 1855, the Governor's Mansion originally served as the officers' quarters for the Arsenal Military Academy, a state-supported military school. After two years at the academy, students moved to The Citadel to complete their education. When Gen. Sherman's troops swept through Columbia in 1865, the mansion was the only school building left standing.

In 1868, the mansion was chosen as the official residence for the state's governors. Retiring Gov. James L. Orr called attention to the "commodious building commanding a picturesque view of the city and the valleys of the Congaree, Broad and Saluda Rivers." Governor Robert K. Scott, the first Republican chief executive in the state's history, moved into the residence at the end of 1869. Since then, all but six governors have lived in the home at 800 Richland Street.

The first floor of the mansion includes a large formal drawing room, the state dining room, a library and a small parlor. A small family dining room and two guest bedrooms were added when Gov. Ernest Hollings and his family moved into the mansion in 1959. The second floor, where the private family quarters are located, includes four bedrooms, a small den, a playroom and an office for the First Lady.

The past permeates every room of the mansion. In the large drawing room are two lyre tables, circa 1815. The English crystal chandelier was a gift from South Carolina native Bernard Baruch; the Sheraton sofa was made by Philadelphia cabinet maker Ephraim Haines. The grand piano was a birthday gift from Gov. James F. Byrnes to Mrs. Byrnes.

The state dining room features the silver service from the battleship USS South Carolina. There are 66 pieces, each a work of art depicting native fruit, flowers and foliage. The punch bowl, holding seven gallons, has dolphin handles and a flat chasing of the battleship on its front. The battleship was christened in 1908 by the daughter of Gov. Martin J. Ansel. The table and chairs, purchased by the state especially for the state dining room, also date to Ansel.

The family dining room is where Gov. David Beasley and his family eat their meals. The chandelier lighting the room was designed by Cornelius Baker of Philadelphia and is from the Edgefield home of Gov. Francis Pickens. Dec-orating the walls is Jean Zuber's 19th-Century wallpaper depicting scenes in North America from a Frenchman's point of view. Mrs. John F. Kennedy used the same wallpaper in decorating the White House. The stateliness of the room is contrasted by the blue booster chair currently used by David Jr., the youngest of the Beasley children.

The Beasley children themselves have become state treasures of a sort. It's been 30 years since children lived in the Governor's Mansion. By all accounts, Mary Hunter, Sarah Catherine and David Jr. are welcome additions.

"It's neat to see the children's wagons and toys on the steps of the mansion," says Carol Fowles, who has worked at the mansion for eight years. "They've added life to the complex, running around the grounds. They call the garden their 'Secret Garden.' "

Fowles is secretary of the two organizations that work closely with the state in overseeing the maintenance of the Governor's Mansion and two other houses, the Lace House and the Caldwell-Boylston House, located on the grounds. The Governor's Mansion Commission is the custodian of the contents of the public rooms of the mansion and other houses. The Governors Mansion Foundation seeks donations of furnishings and administers a trust fund used to acquire artifacts.

"The Governor's Mansion Commission is made up of six volunteer commissioners and the First Lady," Fowles says. "The commission approves all alterations, additions and renovations to the mansion. The foundation was formed in 1977 to raise funds for the preservation of the mansion complex. State appropriations provide funds only to operate and maintain the complex. Additional improvements are made possible through contributions from individuals and corporations. The foundation currently has 28 members from throughout South Carolina."

No major improvements have been made to the mansion since 1959. Fowles says plans are now underway for a much-needed mechanical and electrical renovation. The project also calls for the addition of a larger dining room to accommodate activities related to the state's business development. The new dining room will be located on the east side of the mansion, presently occupied by two guest rooms. The guest rooms will be moved to the second floor above the dining room.

"The renovation project was supposed to begin last year," Fowles says. "However, with the State Capitol being closed for repairs, it was decided to postpone the mansion renovation until the other project is completed. The commissioners decided it wouldn't be appropriate for the governor to be dislocated from his office and his home at the same time. The postponement gives the foundation additional time to raise funds for the addition before the mansion is closed."

Guided tours of the Governor's Mansion are free of charge. To learn more about the mansion or to make arrangements for a tour, call (803) 737-1710.

 Jim Poindexter is a freelance writer in Lexington.


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