Architects. John Niernsee was the principal architect responsible for the design and construction of the South Carolina State House and had a significant influence on architectural practice in the state during the second half of the nineteenth century. His son Frank followed in his father’s footsteps by finishing the interior of the State House and operating a successful architectural practice in Columbia during the 1880s and 1890s.
John Niernsee was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1823 and immigrated to the United States in 1838. The following year he was hired by Benjamin H. Latrobe, Jr., as a draftsman and engineer with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. In 1848 he established a partnership with James Crawford Neilson, another B&O engineer, and in the following decade the architectural firm of Niernsee and Neilson became the largest and most successful in Baltimore. During the same era, Niernsee developed a reputation for serving as a consultant to troubled building projects. After portions of the interior of James Renwick’s Smithsonian Castle collapsed in February 1850, Niernsee was one of three architects called in to inspect the damage and recommend repairs.
Niernsee became architect of the new state capitol in Columbia in April 1855. He had initially been summoned to Columbia during the summer of 1854 to inspect the failed foundations built under the direction of Peter H. Hammarskold, and he had served as a consulting architect during George E. Walker’s short-lived supervision of the project. Once Niernsee took charge, construction proceeded swiftly. He was far more capable than either of his predecessors and demonstrated considerable skill in administering contracts, overseeing the quarrying of stone from sites along the Congaree River, and managing a labor force that numbered close to five hundred men at its peak in 1860. The arrival of the Civil War halted work on the State House, and Niernsee became engaged in the war effort by serving as a military engineer. After the war he returned to Baltimore and resumed private practice. When the legislature refocused its attention on completing the State House in the early 1880s, Niernsee headed to South Carolina once again and was reappointed architect on January 2, 1885. By then his health was failing, and he had barely finished preparing plans for the project when he died on June 7, 1885. He was buried in St. Peter’s churchyard in Columbia.
Frank Niernsee was born in Baltimore in 1849 and spent much of his childhood in antebellum Columbia, where he watched his father supervise the construction of the State House. He studied engineering at the University of Virginia and began practicing architecture with his father in 1878. The first major commission handled by Niernsee & Son was an opera house in Lynchburg, Virginia, from 1878 to 1879. Frank Niernsee moved to Columbia in 1882 and worked in partnership with the engineer Ashbury Gamewell LaMotte from 1893 to 1896. Completing the interior of the State House was his most important achievement. After John Niernsee’s death in 1885, state authorities hired his former partner, J. Crawford Neilson, to finish the building, but under his supervision the project was plagued by a litany of small problems. Neilson managed to finish the legislative halls before he was replaced by Frank Niernsee in 1888. Niernsee installed fireproof floors throughout the building and completed the lobby, legislative library, committee rooms, and offices. By 1890 the interior was finished, although it would be another decade before the legislature decided to add porticos and a dome to the exterior.
In addition to his work at the State House, Frank Niernsee had an active practice in Columbia. His designs in the city included St. Paul’s Lutheran Church and Ladson Presbyterian Church, and he also supervised the construction of a new municipal waterworks plant in the early 1890s. Niernsee’s work elsewhere in South Carolina included a jail and sheriff’s residence in Sumter (1892), Maxwell Asylum in Greenwood (1894), school buildings in Sumter (1891) and Camden (1893), and Oakhurst, a stylish residence in Newberry built for Bud Cate Matthews (1894). Niernsee died in Columbia on May 28, 1899, and was buried in Trinity Episcopal Churchyard.
Bryan, John M. Creating the South Carolina State House. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.
Wells, John E., and Robert E. Dalton. The South Carolina Architects, 1885–1935: A Biographical Directory. Richmond, Va.: New South Architectural Press, 1992.