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The Complete State House History

Charleston was the home of South Carolina’s first State House.  In 1753 construction of the two-story building began at the northwest corner of Broad and Meeting Streets.  The building was built with brick and covered with stucco.  At this time James Glen (1738-1756) was Governor of South Carolina.  The first meeting of the South Carolina Assembly in the Charleston State House occurred in 1756.  In 1786 the South Carolina Assembly voted to move the state capital to Columbia, a more geographically, centralized location.  Construction of the new State House in Columbia was in progress when a fire, on February 5, 1788, destroyed the first State House.  Charleston public officials decided to reconstruct the building; and, in the 1790’s the first State House took on a new role as the Charleston County Courthouse.  Through many renovations, additions and restorations, the building remains today as a historical landmark in Charleston.

Columbia was the location of South Carolina’s second State House. The legislature first met in this State House in 1790.  At the intersection of Senate and Richardson (now Main) Streets, the structure was built of wood with a brick basement. By the 1840’s the State House had deteriorated and repairs were being made frequently. The General Assembly had become concerned that official public records being stored in the State House would be damaged as a result of the deteriorating conditions; so, in 1850 they decided to build a fireproof building next to the State House.  The fireproof building would serve as storage for the official public records and as a wing to yet a third State House, the second in Columbia, which would become the present State House.  Construction began in December 1851.  John L. Manning (1852-1854) was the Governor of South Carolina at this time and recommended erecting a new State House.  In 1854 the General Assembly appropriated $50,000 to complete the fireproof building and to begin the next section for use as the new State House.  P.H. Hammarskold was the project architect; but, in June 1854 the State dismissed him after finding his work unsuitable and findings of structural flaws in the construction.

Hammarskold’s replacement was Major John R. Niernsee of Baltimore, Maryland.  Niernsee completely dismantled the construction by Hammarskold resulting in a loss of $72,267 to the State.  Niernsee began construction in 1854 with plans to complete the building in five years.  By 1857 it rose to the top of the basement window-heads.  On October 1, 1860, Niernsee reported that the structure had risen nearly sixty-six feet above the foot of the foundation and that the "absolute value of the work put into the building" was $1,240,063. "The Corinthian granite capitals, some 64," he said, were "being executed in a style and finish heretofore unequalled in that line."

Destruction in Columbia, February 1865 - General William T. Sherman and his Union army captured the State Capital on February 17, 1865 leaving city-wide destruction.  The old State House was destroyed by fire.  Niernsee reported it cracked five "bells of St. Michael's Church, Charleston," which had been "sent up here some time ago" and "deposited under one of the sheds."  It consumed the valuable State House library, offices and workshops, a vast quantity of finished marble and rough material, estimated by Niernsee to be worth $700,000; and, Niernsee's library of architectural and scientific books, engravings and several thousand drawings, the result of his practice of twenty-five years.  "These," said Niernsee, along with "one of the latest and best busts of Calhoun" and all the valuable detail State House drawings, contracts, and so forth, which had accumulated during Niernsee's ten years on the job, "were utterly swept away during that terrible night--an irreparable loss." 
A monument is displayed on the grounds where the old State House stood.  The inscription reads:


BUILT 1786-1790
FEBRUARY 17, 1865

Additionally, work on the new State House was suspended as it was also set afire.  The interior of the structure received the most damage.  Shells from Sherman's cannons, which were of light caliber, damaged the building only slightly, and brass markers were subsequently placed on the west and southwest walls of the building to show where the shots had landed. Ten were fired in all. Six "struck the western front," with little damage "except one which shattered the moulded windowsill and balusters of the second window (from the northern end) of the Hall of the House of Representatives."  Four struck the interior of the building.

All that remained of Niernsee's drawings were several prints of a perspective view and one full-sized detail of a Corinthian capital.  This perspective and evidence in the building itself indicate Niernsee's concept of the completed structure.  His plan did not contemplate a dome that looked anything like the dome on today's building.  His was a lofty and finely proportioned tower, which rose one hundred eighty feet from the ground through the center of the building supported by piers and arches; "a rectangular lantern," somewhat pyramidal in outline, and thirty feet square at the base; its projected cost was $200,000. 

The war left South Carolina in poverty and the General Assembly contemplating the major problems of the State.  The Governor of South Carolina at this time was Andrew G. Magrath (1864-1865).  Due to inadequate funding, completion of the State House was halted; however, a temporary roof was placed on the building.  Subsequently, South Carolina’s third State House would not be completed until 1903. 

The first efforts to begin any maintenance or improvements to the building came during the governorship of Wade Hampton III (1876-1879) in 1877.  The initial focus was landscaping the grounds.  A leaky roof soon became the first priority on the list of State House repairs.

Finally, in 1883 at the request of Governor Hugh S. Thompson (1882-1886), Niernsee was asked to return to Columbia and submit estimates to the cost of completing the State House pursuant to his original plans.  Due to his original plans being destroyed by the fire in 1865, Niernsee had to start over again.  On January 2, 1885 he was again appointed as the State House architect.  However, he died on June 7, 1885 after years of failing health.

In July 1885 Niernsee’s associate, James Crawford Neilson of Baltimore, was hired as State House architect.  Neilson remained in Baltimore and worked through an assistant he hired in Columbia.  Neilson was dismissed in January 1888 due largely to his inability to handle the daily problems, therefore leaving the State House Commissioners exposed to them.

On October 1, 1888 Francis (Frank) McHenry Niernsee, son of John R. Niernsee, was appointed State House architect.  Frank Niernsee’s design was based on fulfilling the fireproof plans that his father had begun thirty years before.  His design included a permanent slate roof. To fireproof the interior of the State House, he installed marble floors, pressed metal ceilings and used metal and ceramic tile and cast iron to complete the interior architecture.  He also introduced plumbing and electricity to the State House.  Frank Niernsee’s most notable work is the design of the State House Library, today known as the Joint Legislative Conference Room.  In October 1890 he reported to the legislature that the interior was almost complete and asked for funds to be appropriated to complete remaining interior details and to begin work on the north portico.  The legislature’s appropriation of only $4,500 was substantially less than his recommendation of $75,000.  Therefore, in 1891 Frank Niernsee ended his work on the State House even though he remained in Columbia.

Construction Completed, 1903 - In 1900, Frank P. Milburn became the architect and hired the contracting firm of McIlvain and Unkefer to complete the exterior work with $175,000 as approved by the General Assembly.  Between 1900 and 1903 the roof was replaced; and, the dome and north and south porticoes were completed.  However, the work done by Milburn was not satisfactory to all.  Senator John Q. Marshall of Richland County had been appointed to the State House commission to oversee the completion of the building.  He was a strong advocate of Niernsee’s work and protested Milburn’s drawings.  Senator Marshall was overruled and the work was ruled as satisfactory.  Senator Marshall continued his campaign against Milburn’s work that launched an investigation resulting in a suit brought by the State, The State of South Carolina vs. McIlvain, et al.  The suit ended in a mistrial.  

The State House was declared completed in 1903 after an additional estimated $40,000 was appropriated for miscellaneous interior repairs as recommended by the last architect for the State House, Charles C. Wilson of Columbia.  Although all legislative records for the building are not available, those that are show the General Assembly appropriated at least $3,540,000 for construction of the State House that continued for over 50 years.

Throughout the twentieth century, additions to the State House were proposed and many changes were made to the interior to modernize it.  These modernization projects included remodeling the Senate in 1913 and the House of Representatives in 1937; installation of air conditioning in 1959-1960; renovation of the lobby in 1962; and, redesign of the Governor’s Office in 1966.  

The Renovation, 1995-1998 - By 1992 it was recognized that the State House was a historic building and even with the modernization efforts, it did not comply with fire safety, building accessibility or earthquake protection standards.
As a result the Columbia firm of Stevens and Wilkinson, Inc. Architects and Engineers was commissioned by the legislature to analyze the entire building.  Stevens and Wilkinson reported a list of structural and functional problems that, of course, did not meet standard building code requirements.  The legislative committee authorized the renovation of 1995-1998.

Stevens and Wilkinson developed the renovation plan and Caddell Construction Co. Inc., of Montgomery, Alabama was retained as the general contractor for the project.  Construction began after the legislative session ended in June 1995.  With a cost of $51,530,000, new electrical and mechanical systems were installed to comply with fire and safety codes.  The interior was remodeled and the building was made handicap-accessible.  A seismic protection system was installed to minimize the damage in the event of an earthquake similar to the Charleston earthquake of 1886.  

Inside and out, from foundation to dome, the State House, as a result of the 1995-1998 renovation, is in better shape than ever before.  The work balanced the need to meet modern code requirements and improved efficiency against a respect for historic form and appearance.  Most visitors will never see the structural improvements, the sophisticated electrical wiring, alarm systems, or the state-of-the-art earthquake isolators that were installed.  However, everyone will notice the renewal of the House and Senate Chambers, the 19th century treatment of the lobby, the vaulted brickwork in the hallways of the lower floor, the restored marble floors and refurbished interior of the dome.

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