COLUMBIA — Beyond its function as South Carolina's seat of state government, the Statehouse is a historic building that attracts more than 115,000 school children and adult tourists yearly.
People can take a free, guided tour — offered six days a week, except for state holidays — to learn snippets of South Carolina's history dating to colonial times when the capital was in Charleston.
Columbia was "nothing but pine trees" in 1786, when lawmakers decided to move the capital to the state's geographic center, guide Heyward Stuckey told a recent group of tourists from California, North Carolina and Germany.
The retired Irmo High School social studies and government teacher has been sharing his knowledge of the state — and the Statehouse specifically — for 18 years. When asked to lead tours, he figured he'd stay for three years, max.
"I meet a lot of interesting people," he said about staying.
When to come
The heaviest touring months are January through mid-June, when third-graders learning about state history are most likely to take field trips here. That's also when the Legislature tends to be in session.
The slowest months are July and August, according to the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.
As Stuckey advises, if you want to see more and hear better, come when the Legislature's not in session.
Visitors may see government in action Tuesdays through Thursdays, mid-January through at least mid-May, including debates in the House and Senate, located on opposite ends of the second floor. On the first floor, they might get a glimpse of Gov. Henry McMaster and, starting in January, Lt. Gov. Pam Evette.
Seeing a press conference inside or rally on the Statehouse steps is a possibility, too. After all, the Statehouse is the people's house.
The trade-off is that it's noisy, and navigating through a lobby packed with people (think: lobbyists) can be difficult.
Tour groups can't walk into chambers when legislators are meeting — though visitors can watch, quietly, from the third-floor galleries. They also can't go into the Joint Legislative Conference Room, which features spiral staircases and the building's only original chandelier, once gas lit.
Formerly the Legislature's research library, the room that spans the back of the second floor is now mostly a quiet spot where legislators may escape the public.
When legislators aren't there, Stuckey can explain while standing in the Senate, for example, how the state's 46 senators sit by party and seniority.
"To make it to the front row takes about 30 years," he said.
The House's process is much more entertaining. As they did during the recent post-election organizational session, its 124 members pick their seats every two years after their county's name is randomly drawn from a pile.
Things to see
The dozens of portraits lining the walls of the Senate and House chambers reflect a who's who of South Carolina politics.
They include Mary Gordon Ellis of Jasper County, the first woman elected to the state Senate in 1928; and the Rev. Isaiah DeQuincey Newman, who in 1983 became the state's first black senator since Reconstruction. Charleston natives honored on the wall include former Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, who spent 32 years in the Senate before reluctantly becoming lieutenant governor in 2012, then College of Charleston president.
Portraits also include several ex-presidents, including Andrew Jackson, who was born in the Carolinas — though on which side of the state line is disputed — and Woodrow Wilson, who lived in Columbia as a teenager.
Other paintings include an 1845 depiction of the Revolutionary War's Battle of Cowpens in Upstate South Carolina. It depicts an unnamed African-American on horseback who's credited with saving the life of Lt. Col. William Washington, a relative of George Washington.
The Statehouse dates to the 1850s, when workers, including slaves, began replacing an earlier wooden structure later destroyed by fire. Unsurprisingly, the Civil War — which started with rebels firing on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor in April 1861 — brought construction to a halt.
The building itself was marred by the war. Six bronze stars mark where cannons fired by Gen. William Sherman's federal troops hit the exterior in 1865, shortly before the war's end. A close look at the stars shows the damaged stones.
After the war, the state was too poor to finish what was then mostly a granite shell. Little was done for two decades, according to the tour guide office, which is part of the state tourism agency.
The interior — completed mostly from 1885 to 1895 — features a checkered first floor of white and pink granite; walls and columns of blue granite, the state's official stone; an arched ceiling of handmade bricks; and twin, wrought iron staircases to the second floor.
In 1907, the Statehouse was declared complete, after five architects worked on it over a 52-year span.
"Make sure you check out all of the artwork throughout the tour so you really get a sense of the history and people of South Carolina," concludes a 13-minute video that tour groups watch before starting the tour. "Go see it for yourself."