South Carolina State House Under Construction:1854-1907

The South Carolina State House, as it looks today

Did you know that it took 53 years (1854- 1907) and six different architects to complete the construction of the South Carolina State House? That originally a square tower, rather than a dome, was to top the statehouse? Or, that granite was quarried from the nearby Congaree River to build it? All these details and more can be found by searching “South Carolina State House” in Chronicling America and historical South Carolina newspapers.

Architect John R. Niernsee's design of the State House, circa 1862. Note the square tower rather than the dome that tops the statehouse today.

In 1854, Governor John L. Manning and the South Carolina General Assembly advanced plans to construct a grand new state house adjacent to the older ca. 1790 state capitol, under the guidance of John R. Niernsee, an Austrian-born architect well known for his work as chief engineer on the B & O Railroad. Niernsee’s original design planned to have a square tower ornamenting the state house, as you can see in this circa 1862 illustration above. Although an 1857 article in The Vermont Phoenix stated that it would be made of “pure white marble,” much of the structure was built with locally quarried granite, including the 43 foot tall and 37 ton monolithic (cut from a single piece of stone) Corinthian columns on the south and north porticoes. From 1854 until 1860, great progress in the construction of the new statehouse took place. One article notes that “in anticipation of the approaching great conflict the work was feverishly pushed until the war stopped it.” During the war, Niernsee served in the Confederate Army and was away from Columbia. By 1861, it was claimed that two million dollars had been expended thus far on the unfinished structure with no roof.

SC State House as it looked in 1865

In February 1865, Sherman and the Union Army occupied Columbia. The unfinished state house “presented a very conspicuous mark to the enemy’s cannon on Lexing heights” from their position across the river. Several shells entered the bare window openings and five struck the building.” Cannon fire damaged sills, walls, and columns on the west and north facades and, rather than be repaired, they were marked with bronze stars that can be viewed today.

Read this article in the Columbia Phoenix, April 11, 1865.

An April 1865 article in the Columbia Phoenix describes the damage further wrought to the state house by occupying soldiers, such as defacing the walls with their signatures, regiments, and “appropriately foul comments.” Curiously, the bronze statue of George Washington, which stands at the front steps of the capitol today, was the target of rocks, brick bats and sharp shooters. Washington’s cane remains broken to this day. The state library, Niernsee’s personal archive of 25 years work, and $700,000 worth of raw marble and granite were destroyed when the state house was set ablaze. Bells from St. Michael’s Church brought up from Charleston, for safe keeping at the capitol, were also damaged. You can read more about the mayhem that ensued in the city in a series of articles titled “The Capture, Sack, and Destruction of the City of Columbia” published in the Columbia Phoenix.

Circa 1867 article in The Charleston Daily News described the condition of the State House.

In 1865, a mine was prepared underneath the state house by Sherman’s men intended to destroy it completely! As they passed out of the city, Sherman ordered the blasting powder to be removed declaring it “a useless waste of ammunition” and that he, Sherman, “would leave the people [of South Carolina] so d—d poor that they would never complete it.” An 1867 article in The Charleston Daily News describes the status of the state house two years later. “It will be many long years before the Treasury of the State can afford to appropriate enough money to complete it in the style originally intended. All the wrath of Sherman’s burners was inflicted on the unoffending pile.”

A circa 1895 image of the State House before the dome and steps were added.

Governor Wade Hampton III had a temporary roof added to the state house in 1876 and funded work to landscape the grounds of the capitol. In 1888, Niernsee was rehired to finish his work on the State House but, unfortunately, he passed away just six months later. His business partner James C. Nielson continued Niernsee’s work from 1885-1888, and was later replaced by Niernsee’s son, Frank M. Niernsee, from 1888-1891. Plumbing and electricity were installed during Frank Niernsee’s work phase, as well as fireproof features such as cast iron railing, marble floors, and pressed metal ceilings. Niernsee did not complete the state house due to the small amount of appropriations set aside in 1891. From 1900 to 1903, Frank P. Milburn resumed work on the statehouse, replacing the roof, adding the dome, and finishing the immense stair cases on the north and south porticoes. Charles C. Wilson completed the interior from 1903-1907. Later, concerns over misappropriation of funding during construction sparked debate.

Read this circa 1897 article in The Watchman and Southron (Sumter, S.C.).

In 1897, a visitor to Columbia was told to “be sure and visit the State House” and she found it to be the “most imposing building and most interesting archive of history [which] like all people, bears its scars and hides its skeleton.”

Read this circa 1902 article in The Anderson Intelligencer (Anderson, S.C.)

When it was finally completed in 1907, the state of South Carolina had expended upwards of 3.5 million dollars in state funds. Fire, cannons, corruption, nor a dearth of funding did not deter South Carolina legislators from seeing to completion this imposing edifice that has witnessed and, indeed, endured so much of South Carolina’s history and its capitol city’s rich history.

To search for articles on South Carolina and the SC State House yourself, try these search terms: South Carolina state house, state house, statehouse, capitol, General Assembly, or by the various architects in charge of constructing the state house: P. H. Hammarskold (1851-1854), John R. Niernsee (1854-1865, 1883-1885), James C. Nielson (1885-1888), Frank M. Niernsee (1888-1891), Frank P. Milburn (1900-1903), and Charles C. Wilson (1903-1907).

To learn more about the South Carolina Digital Newspaper Program, visit our website at http://library.sc.edu/digital/newspaper/index.html.

Credits

1. The South Carolina State House as it Looks Today photograph, courtesy of wikipedia.org.

2. Architect John R. Niernsee’s design of the State House, circa 1862, courtesy of the South Carolina Digital Library and the SC State Museum Digital Collection.

3. SC State House as it looked in 1865, University Libraries, University of South Carolina Digital Collections, South Caroliniana Library, SC and the Civil War Collection.

4. The Columbia phoenix (Columbia, S.C.), April 11, 1865, courtesy of Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.

5. The Charleston Daily News (Charleston, S.C.), January 7, 1867, courtesy of Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.

6. A circa 1895 image of the State House before the dome and steps were added, courtesy of the South Carolina Digital Library and the SC State Museum Digital Collection.

7. The State’s Capitol One of the Most Historic Buildings in the South, The Watchman and Southron (Sumter, S.C.)., August 4, 1897, courtesy of Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.

8. Capitol of South Carolina: Facts About Building Now Nearing Completion, The Anderson Intelligencer (Anderson, S.C.), January 1, 1902, courtesy of Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.

9. South Carolina State House History, courtesy of scstatehouse.gov website.

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