South Carolina  is a pretty small state, both in area and in population. But the South Carolina State House (803/734-2430, www.discoversouthcarolina.com , grounds open daily dawn–dusk, free), whose grounds cover nearly 20 acres, is one of the grandest state capitols in the nation, steeped not only in history but also in natural and architectural beauty.
The history of the State House is a remarkable one, its construction alone spanning generations. This is not the first capitol on this, the spot of the old Taylor tract, picked in 1786. The first edifice, poorly made of wood, was built in 1794 and almost immediately proved inadequate to the task.
In 1853 Governor John Manning, a wealthy planter in his own right, pushed for the funding and construction of a much more ambitious building. After an abortive start—the state lost nearly $75,000 when it had to fire the first architect and start over from scratch—the State House took shape under Baltimore architect John R. Niernsee, whose portfolio included work on the Smithsonian.
At the outbreak of war in 1861, the State House—made of native granite quarried a few miles away—was just about ready for a roof. Niernsee promptly joined the Confederate Army, and needless to say work on the building slowed to a crawl.
Fast forward to 1865. General William Sherman and his army assailed the city, and the still-incomplete State House took several cannonballs (you can still see the spots where the shells hit). Once within Columbia , the Yankees promptly burned the old State House to the ground (along with just about everything else in town).
While legend has it that Sherman spared the new building because it wasn’t actually where the legislature approved secession, this isn’t quite right. The truth is that the Yankees did set fire to the interior of the new State House, and a good bit of damage was sustained. Still, those granite walls stood firm. A temporary roof was added after the war, but otherwise the State House was to sit idle and unfinished for years.
The election of former Confederate General Wade Hampton as governor in 1876 signaled the end of Reconstruction in South Carolina and the resurgence of the Democratic old guard to power. The State House was in focus once again, and funding began to flow its way. Niernsee was brought back to oversee its completion in 1883, but died before he could really do much. His son, Francis, was appointed chief architect in 1888. So it was left to yet another designer, the much-maligned Frank Pierce Milburn, to finish the State House. Hired in 1900, Milburn completed the building three years later, but due to graft, shoddy workmanship, and undoubtedly too many cooks spoiling the broth, his work came under fire as inadequate.
It was only in 1907—over half a century after the first steps were taken—that the State House was considered truly finished, after a series of structural repairs overseen by noted architect Charles Coker Wilson. Along the way a host of monuments and gardens were erected and planted on the surrounding grounds , a veritable cornucopia of South Carolina history. And a series of major renovations in the late 1990s brought the building up to speed for a new century of governance.
The beautiful grounds are open to the public every day during daylight hours. Free guided tours of the entire capitol are available Mondays–Saturdays and the first Sunday of the month.