The Magazine of South Carolina


Grandeur Is Restored at the South Carolina Statehouse


Statehouse lobby

Rare Revolutionary War painting

Blue granite columns & arched ceilings

Rosed mosaic stained glass window

The unsmiling John C. Calhoun

Inside the House chambers

Door handles with cast bronze, palmetto frond hardware

Article by Aïda Rogers/Photos by Michael Seeley

"The first time I came in, it was like walking into a castle. It was so beautiful."—Rev. Dr. George Meetze, South Carolina Senate chaplain, on entering the renovated statehouse in 1998


Once, before a war changed everything, South Carolina was grand—rich in money and dreams. The wealth was to be expressed most gloriously by a new statehouse in Columbia. "A building that would reach for the stars" was architect John Rudolph Niernsee’s vision in 1855, when he was commissioned to design it.

That didn’t happen. But better late than never, and now, after three years of intensive renovation, the statehouse is looking good. Its dome is sporting 44,000 pounds of new copper. And it’s home to several other neat and cool things—many of them unknown to unsuspecting citizens. So spit out your gum and come on.

"This is a working office building, so you have to remain quiet," lectures Dolly Patton, one of five statehouse tour guides. Patton is leading a class of third graders. After quizzing them about about who the governor and lieutenant governor are, she settles down to the business of pointing out the remarkables. They include:

1) floors of pink and white marble from Tennessee and Georgia;
2) walls of white marble from Georgia;
3) the fact that South Carolina doesn’t produce much marble.

However, South Carolina does produce blue granite—it’s the state stone. About 56 columns of it impose themselves throughout the interior and exterior. The 22 front and back columns are the largest monolithic blue granite columns in the nation, Patton says. Except for the blue granite from Pacolet, which was used for the exterior columns, most of it came from quarries within four miles of Columbia. It’s as local as the multi-arched ceilings of red clay brick, now painted white.

All this marble, brick and granite make for one impregnable fort. Planners wanted the statehouse safe from fire and war. Today, thanks to $48 million worth of improvements, the building has new electricity and plumbing. It also has earthquake protection. The building lies on a fault line, and there’s a 70-percent chance of a major earthquake within the next 75–100 years, Patton informs.

Like other guides and Sen. Verne Smith of Greer, who spearheaded renovations, Patton is proud of the mammoth improvements. Except for the most recent renovations, from 1995 to 1998, lawmakers worked continuously in the building. "They put a temporary roof on the building in 1869 and kept working when they went from gas to electricity, and when they added indoor plumbing," Patton says.

Citizens should be glad. Besides refiguring balconies in the state House and Senate chambers to meet ADA standards and moving elevators to a more central location, the building now has adequate fire protection. The House balcony, which accommodates 194 people, had only one exit; now it has three.

Says Patton: "One man said it’s about time we spent the money to bring it up to the standards we should have kept it in."

Everything’s in fine form now. That’s a priceless oil painting of the Battle of Cowpens near the Senate chamber. Why? One reason is it’s the only painting in existence that shows an African-American soldier fighting in the American Revolution. The original brass and Venetian glass chandelier in the Joint Legislative conference room was cleaned, reworked for electricity and reproduced four times. At 847 pounds each, they hang from ornate ceilings in the House and Senate chambers and the Joint Legislative conference room (commonly called the library). Many of the original splendors remain: hand-carved doors, Senate and House center desks of British Honduras mahogany, "rosed mosaic" stained-glass windows from Baltimore.

You get the idea. No exposed sheetrock.

On the west grand staircase in the lower lobby are portraits of educator Mary McLeod Bethune and civil rights activist Modjeska Simkins, two of the state’s leading black women. Meanwhile, Senate and House chambers are lined with prominent statesmen from South Carolina and elsewhere. Two women made the cut: Ann Pamela Cunningham of Laurens County, who saved Mt. Vernon from destruction, and Mary Gordon Ellis of Jasper County, the first woman senator since Reconstruction. Also on the walls are Strom Thurmond, James F. Byrnes, poet Henry Timrod and I. DeQuincy Newman (first black senator since Reconstruction). Four U.S. presidents adorn the walls of the House, along with other South Carolinians.

A statehouse tour is part South Carolina history lesson, historic building tour, interior design and architecture crash course. You may hear the word "rostrum," referring to the large desks and the backing behind them in the House and Senate chambers. You will learn Lt. Gov. Bob Peeler often leaves his door open. You may wonder, after seeing his portrait and statue, if John C. Calhoun ever smiled.

Symbols are important. Let there be no doubt South Carolina is the Palmetto State. Observe the palmetto fronds in the specially designed, loomed carpets from Mississippi and the cast bronze door hardware from Connecticut. New wall fabrics (not paper) are embossed with South Carolina symbols—the two state seals, state flower (yellow jessamine), sword of state, mace and the letters "S" and "C."

You’ll also be reminded that England was—and is—mom. Lawmakers still abide by old English customs: The speaker of the House and the president of the Senate wear purple robes in session, and senators vote by voice. One of the mightiest prizes of all, the mace in the House of Representatives, was made in London in 1756. It’s the oldest original mace in the country.

Made of silver and dipped in gold, it has etchings of the House of Hanover, Province of South Carolina and Province of England. Hidden during the Revolution for fear British soldiers would take it back to England, the mace remained lost for 40 years because the man who hid it died before revealing its location. A South Carolinian found it in a Philadelphia bank and returned it to its home state. Today, the mace is the symbol of the House’ authority; when it’s placed in front of the room, the House officially is in session.

Likewise the present sword of state in the Senate, etched with the state seal and yellow jessamine. When placed in its rack at the front desk, the two original lamps at either end light up. Thus signals the Senate in session. "Oooh," the children sigh in rapture.

A tour with children might remind you of things you’ve forgotten. Raise your hand when you have a question. Hold the rail when you climb the staircase. Turn your head up to see how beautiful the dome is—then be amazed to learn you’re actually looking at one of two domes; a second, larger dome covers the inner dome, much like a larger coffee cup turned upside down over a smaller one. That means the dome you see from the inside is not the dome you see from the outside. The interior dome shines through the exterior dome at night.

Of course, more tantalizing than the dome is the desire to go up in it. The answer to that, boys and girls, is no.


* Stevens & Wilkinson of South Carolina, Inc.

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