Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Take a Tour of the State House

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By Judit Trunkos

Columbia hosts wonderful museums of art and history, but many local arts buffs (and armchair politicos) may not realize that our town also boasts a tour in which the museum itself is the history. The South Carolina State House hosts guided tours that are open to the public and can be arranged for visitors of all ages.

The S.C. capitol building is, in itself, a marvelous work of art that was originally designed by Austrian immigrant John M. Niernsee in the 1850s. Even though Niernsee was unable to live through the completion of the building, his son helped to finish it by completing the interior by 1890. Not surprisingly, the current building in Columbia was not our state’s first capitol building. The first building was erected in Charleston, the second one was built in Columbia, but both were destroyed by fire. Learning from previous mistakes, according to the original plans drawn by Niernsee, our current State House was built to protect important documents from possible fire.

Entering the main lobby through the public entrance, visitors proceed through a number of tall columns. Hand-carved furniture, ornate chandeliers and Victorian portraiture lend to the buildings 19th Century charm. Both the governor and the lieutenant governor’s offices are located on the main floor in the west and east wings of the capitol, respectively.

On the second floor, visitors can view portraits of previous statesmen in the House and Senate chambers. One of the most intriguing artifacts of the House Chamber is the mace. It is the oldest mace used in the United States, as it was made in London, England in 1756.  Today, it is placed in a glass box to symbolize the authority of the House and it is only moved to the front of the chambers by the Sergeant at Arms to symbolize the commencement of the session. Just like it’s state house, the Mace went through a lot during the American Revolution. It had to be hidden up north for protection, however, it was lost for over 40 years before it was found and replaced in the House Chamber again.

The Senate has its own symbol as well.  The sword of State represents the authority of the Senate. The symbolism goes back to the 18th Century when people wore swords on their sides.  When the sword is present and it is peacefully placed in brackets on the front of the desk by the Sergeant at Arms, the Senate is in session. In this side of the capitol the elected officials sit by party and by seniority, however, on the opposite side of the hall, in the House, members sit according to random selection of their names drawn from a fishbowl. Walking back towards the iron staircases, looking up, visitors will discover the beauty of the double dome.  The interior was design for aesthetic pleasure and to add to the exterior of the structure.

Both natives and visitors to the state love to take a tour inside the capitol building to learn more about the state and it’s legislative and executive branches of the government. The tour guides are happy to take smaller and larger groups around, even during sessions. Jim Melton, Sergeant at Arms of the State House, said the walking tourists and students don’t seem to bother the legislators.

“In fact, sometimes the students get to speak with the members from the balcony,” he said.

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