Step into South Carolina History at the State House

By:Kerry Egan

Date:1/24/2017

Right at the head of Main Street and surrounded by beautiful gardens, the South Carolina State House in Columbia is one of the most beautiful buildings in the state. A tour of the State House is like stepping back through history, and an experience no visitor to the state's capitol should miss.


The dozens of granite steps on the front of the building might beckon you up, but you'll actually find the tour entrance on the ground level nearest to the Sumter Street side of the building. There, your journey into South Carolina history starts with a 15-minute video about the construction and architecture of the building. Then, with one of the incredibly knowledgeable tour guides as your leader, the real fun begins as you walk through the building.


Both the legislative and executive branches meet in the State House, and you'll get to see where those meetings take place. If you visit when the legislature is in session, you'll also get to see the politicians at work.


As you walk through the marble halls and through the grand chambers, your tour guide will talk about the history, art, architecture and civics that make the building so impressive. Construction on the State House began in 1854. In February of 1865, construction halted when Gen. William T. Sherman and the Union Army captured Columbia in Sherman's famous March to the Sea. During the battle, the State House was hit by light-caliber cannonballs. Look outside and you can still see the spots where the cannonballs hit. They're marked by six bronze stars affixed to the granite walls of the building. Construction didn't resume on the building for many years after the war and was finally completed in 1903, almost 50 years after it had begun.


The interior of the building is grand. White marble walls are covered with dozens of paintings. Most of the portraits are of long-gone South Carolina governors and congresspeople, but look closely and you'll see some familiar faces among them, like Ronald Reagan and Robert E. Lee. Take a moment in the Senate Gallery to look for the portrait of Sen. Clementa Pinckney, murdered in the attack on the Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015.


Ornate twin staircases rise from the pink marble parqueted floors. Enormous, rare mosaic stained glass windows let in the light. They were designed and created by a friend of the original architect of the State House. And see that dome high above you? Well, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was inside of the dome you see on the outside of the building, but it is, in fact, a "false dome." The architectural slight-of-hand was built so the dome would be centered over the lobby.


The heavy carved wood, colorful stained glass and dozens of portraits are impressive, no doubt. But it's really the stories of the people of South Carolina, told with great verve by your guide, that will leave the most lasting impression.


If you prefer a self-guided tour, you can pick up a brochure and map right in the State House, too. This gives you the chance to really linger and examine the building, and might be perfect for the history buff who wants to take his or her time with the tour.


Once you've finished touring the inside of the State House, make sure you give yourself the gift of exploring the beautiful grounds, which contain over a dozen monuments and scores of ancient trees and lush flowers.


Tours are free and are offered between 9:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. on the half-hour when the legislature is in session, and on the hour during other times. Tours also are offered on most Saturdays between 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Find more information here SouthCarolinaParks.com or by calling the tour office at 803.734.2430.

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