Columbia  isn’t just the state capital—it’s a college town as well. The University of South Carolina (803/777-0169, www.sc.edu ) hosts nearly 30,000 students at its main campus in Columbia, though apparently only a few attend during summer, which is Deadsville compared to the busy fall and spring here.
While the University of South Carolina has seven other campuses around the state, this is the flagship, dating from its establishment in 1801 as part of a flurry of Southern public universities set up after the Revolution (Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia also established public universities during this time).
Significantly, University of South Carolina was the only one of them all to grant degrees to African Americans during Reconstruction—though admittedly this was under duress from the federal government and resulted in the temporary closing of the university in 1877 when the old guard returned to power.
Riding the changing tides of state and national history, USC—it’s still called that here despite a recent court decision giving the University of Southern California marketing rights to the acronym—went through various incarnations from its founding, from college to university to agricultural school.
In 1906, however, it acquired its current and hopefully final designation. Other key dates in USC history are 1893, when it became coed, and 1963, when the school integrated for the first time since Reconstruction.
On Sumter Street you’ll find the wrought iron gates opening onto The Horseshoe, the oldest and most beautiful part of campus. The first building here, Rutledge College, was built in 1805, and hosted nine students and two professors. It was followed in short order by the original President’s House, DeSaussure College (designed as the mirror image to Rutledge), and the remaining eight buildings of the original planned eleven. The buildings survived the Union burning of the city because they were used to house wounded soldiers of both armies.
In 1939 the grand McKissick Museum (816 Bull St., 803/777-7251, www.cas.sc.edu , Mon.–Fri. 8:30 a.m.–5 p.m., Sat. 11 a.m.–3 p.m., free), a New Deal–era public works project, replaced the President’s House, which would eventually be relocated to the Horseshoe in 1952. Since the 1970s the McKissick has housed USC’s many collections and has diverse exhibits on public life and history in the state. There are two galleries on the second floor, a natural history component on the third floor, and a small collection of Baruch silver within the Visitors Center on the first floor.
The key building to note during your walking tour of the Horseshoe is one near the Sumter Street entrance, the South Caroliniana Library (910 Sumter St., 803/777-3131, www.sc.edu , Mon.–Fri. 8:30 a.m.–5 p.m., Sat. 9 a.m.–1 p.m., free). Designed by renowned American architect Robert Mills (who also designed the Robert Mills House , Columbia’s premier house museum), the Caroliniana is the first free-standing college library in the country (two fireproof wings were added in 1927).
Adding to the slight air of eccentricity is the tomb in front of the library, that of longtime USC President J. Rion McKissick. The library has one of the most significant collections on Southern history anywhere, with a particularly distinguished reading room full of stately busts and Harry Potteresque alcoves. It’s open to the public; all you need is a photo ID. Keep in mind that it’s closed when classes are closed.
A smaller, more lush version of Harvard Yard, the Horseshoe today remains the iconic image of the University of South Carolina, a tree-lined quad intersected by narrow walkways. (Some of the bricks you will walk on come from the old Booker T. Washington High School building, the first black high school in Columbia, purchased and torn down by USC.) Despite the enormous physical expansion of USC throughout the city—sometimes in Columbia it seems like you’re never more than 20 feet away from a government office or a university facility, or both—the Horseshoe remains the spiritual center of campus and a fond memory for all alumni.
In the autumn, however, the center of campus is Williams-Brice Stadium (803/777-4274, www.gamecocksonline.com ), the 85,000 seat venue where the South Carolina Gamecocks play football. Interestingly, the bones of the stadium date back to the New Deal, when the Works Progress Administration built Carolina Stadium here in 1934. The team plays in the always-tough Southeastern Conference, generally finishing in the middle of the pack or worse. Despite this, the Gamecocks have some of the most passionate fans in the country.
Not all here is athletics, however. The USC Melton Memorial Observatory (803/777-4180, www.physics.sc.edu , free) on campus, right off Greene Street, hosts public viewing sessions of the night sky most clear Monday evenings from 9:30–11:30 p.m. during April–September and 8:30–10:30 p.m. during October–March.
To learn more about USC and campus life, visit its excellent Visitors Center (1500 Pendleton St., 803/777-0169, www.sc.edu/visitorcenter , Mon.–Fri. 8:30 a.m.–5 p.m., Sat. 11 a.m.–3 p.m.) within the McKissick Museum building. Public parking is adjacent to the building. They hold regular free walking tours of the campus, led by specially trained University Ambassadors. The tours last over two hours, so wear your walking shoes.
Notable alumni include former Entertainment Weekly host Leeza Gibbons, all members of Hootie and the Blowfish, world-renowned painter Jasper Johns, former New York Mets great Mookie Wilson, Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers, and a whole host of assorted South Carolina governors, senators, and representatives. Perhaps its most famous faculty member is poet and Deliverance author James Dickey.