Three different buildings have served as the capitol of South Carolina. Construction of the first statehouse began in June 1753 in Charleston. Authorities first occupied the building three years later, but the interior was not fully finished until the late 1760s. Located at the northwest corner of Broad and Meeting Streets, the Statehouse in Charleston was among the most sophisticated public buildings in the American colonies. It stood two stories tall and was built of brick finished with stucco. A central pavilion with four Composite-order columns dominated its broad, symmetrical facade. The building burned in 1788. Officials decided to rebuild immediately and returned it to service in the early 1790s as the Charleston County Courthouse.
The destruction of the Charleston building occurred as work on a new statehouse was already under way in Columbia. In 1786 the General Assembly had decided to move the capital from Charleston and chose Columbia as the seat of government. The new statehouse stood at the southeast corner of Senate and Richardson (now Main) Streets and was first used for the legislative session of 1790. Built of wood with a base of stuccoed brick, its distinguishing feature was a projecting central portico. Offices occupied the ground floor; the legislative halls were located upstairs. Evidence suggests that the building was poorly constructed and deteriorated quickly. In the 1840s the legislature made frequent appropriations for repairs.
As the limitations of the statehouse became increasingly apparent, efforts to secure funding for a new capitol building gained momentum. The mounting cost of repairs and concerns about the preservation of official records ultimately compelled the General Assembly to authorize construction of a new capitol. In 1849 Governor Whitemarsh B. Seabrook decried the poor conditions under which the state’s early records and official documents were stored on the ground floor of the statehouse. The following year the General Assembly decided to build a fireproof building adjacent to the statehouse for archival storage and required that it be designed to serve, if needed, as the basement story for a wing of a new capitol. Construction began in December 1851, and the following year the General Assembly decided to proceed with construction of a new capitol.
The General Assembly declared its intent that the new statehouse was to be a monumental building “comparing in convenience and magnificence to any in the Union,” but the chances of fulfilling such ambitions were cast in doubt when the project got off to a troubled start. The architect Peter H. Hammarskold was dismissed in June 1854 after the legislative commission overseeing the project discovered structural flaws in the foundations erected under his supervision. His replacement, George E. Walker, lasted only eight months before the commissioners grew tired of his temperamental outbursts, political ineptitude, and managerial shortcomings. Only after the Baltimore architect John R. Niernsee took charge of the project in 1855 did construction proceed swiftly. His design combined classicism with the central-block-and-wings form that had become virtually standard for capitol buildings in the antebellum republic.
The Civil War brought work to a standstill and ensured a different outcome than had been originally planned. By the fall of 1861 the exterior walls were nearly complete but the building had no roof or interior finishes. The fire that swept through Columbia on the night of February 17, 1865, destroyed the old statehouse but did not seriously damage the new capitol building. Almost entirely ruined, however, were the building materials stored at the site, which included massive quantities of cut marble and granite intended for the lobby and legislative halls. In preparation for the legislative session of 1869, authorities installed a temporary roof and interior finishes, but the statehouse would not be completed for another thirty years.
Work resumed in 1885 when Niernsee returned to Columbia to complete the project he had started three decades earlier. By then his health was failing, and he barely finished drafting construction plans before his death on June 7, 1885. Authorities then hired J. Crawford Neilson, Niernsee’s former partner. Neilson completed the legislative halls before rising tensions with state officials led to his dismissal. In 1888 Niernsee’s son Frank, an architect and engineer with a growing practice in Columbia, took charge. Under his supervision, workmen installed galvanized metal ceilings, fireproof floors, and cast-iron staircases, galleries, and balconies. The interior was substantially complete by the fall of 1890. The architect Frank P. Milburn finished the exterior by adding porticoes and a dome between 1900 and 1903.
The State House has undergone remarkably few changes since its completion more than a century ago. The legislature considered proposals to enlarge the building in the 1910s, in 1946, and again in 1995, but each was rejected because of financial considerations and respect for the historic design. Instead, the building underwent a series of cosmetic and functional alterations during the twentieth century: remodeling of the Senate in 1913, the House in 1937, and the governor’s office in 1966; installation of air conditioning in 1959–1960; and renovation of the lobby in 1962. In 1992 work began on the first full-scale renovation in the building’s history. With a total cost of more than $40 million, this project installed new mechanical systems, refurbished the interior, and made the building handicapped-accessible and compliant with current fire and safety codes. Also installed was a seismic protection system designed to minimize damage in the event of a major earthquake similar to the one that devastated Charleston in 1886. Completed in 1998, the renovation preserved the building’s historic appearance and modernized it to meet the needs of state government well into the twenty-first century. See plates 38 and 40.
Bryan, John M. Creating the South Carolina State House. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.
Lounsbury, Carl. From Statehouse to Courthouse: An Architectural History of South Carolina’s Colonial Capitol and Charleston County Courthouse. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.