Gov. Henry McMaster’s favorite aspect of living in the Governor’s Mansion, it turns out, is something everyone else is welcome to enjoy. “It’s a real thrill to live here,” he says, “because it’s a historic place that’s been beautifully furnished over the years.”
The executive residence’s public rooms are open for tours several days a week, and visitors may encounter the governor or First Lady Peggy McMaster. Both make it a point to say hello whenever they can to school groups and individuals who are visiting the house.
The state’s first family has private quarters on the second floor, and the mansion also includes offices and a large, professional kitchen for accommodating state events. The first floor is where the public is hosted. Between tours and events, the McMasters enjoy opportunities to live in the entire house, and each has a favorite first floor room.
For the governor, that room is the Large Drawing Room, to the right as a visitor comes through the front door, with its portrait of Andrew Jackson, a chair once used by a U.S. president, and framed pictures of the McMasters’ young grandchildren. The Library is a favorite spot for the first lady, who likes how cozy it is. She often has lunch there on winter days, seated by the fireplace.
And staff say it’s not unusual to hear the sounds of a guitar coming from different places around the mansion — the Library, the Large Drawing Room, or even the top of the stairs leading into the private quarters. Playing the guitar is one of the governor’s favorite pastimes and a way he keeps stress in check.
A House with History
A few houses in Columbia survived General Sherman’s assault on the city in February 1865, including the Mann-Simons house, the Hampton-Preston Mansion, and Columbia’s oldest home, the Seibels House. The Governor’s Mansion is another of those buildings left standing, though it wasn’t precisely a house at the time.
The building was the officers’ quarters for the Arsenal Military Academy, established in 1842 to train young men for the state’s militia. Citing its outstanding view of the Broad and Saluda rivers, Gov. James Orr declared in 1868 that the dilapidated dormitory would become the official home of South Carolina’s governors. After a year of repairs, Gov. Robert Scott moved in. Nearly every South Carolina governor has lived there since.
From his seat in the Large Drawing Room, Governor McMaster points out how the building still shows evidence of its origins. He indicates evidence of where a door once existed when the officers’ housing was a duplex instead of a single residence.
Over the decades, the mansion has been modernized and expanded. Electricity, porcelain bathtubs, and toilets were added in the late 1890s. In 1907, the S.C. Legislature appropriated $500 to redecorate, allowing the mansion to become a place for entertaining.
Bringing visitors to the mansion opened the doors to many historic moments. Presidents William Howard Taft, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush have all been guests. Mansion staff recall conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein as one particularly memorable visitor, playing the grand piano in the Large Drawing Room late into the night.
Some of the most extensive work to the mansion was done from 1999 through 2001, when serious repairs were needed. That work required Gov. Jim Hodges and his family to relocate to another house in Columbia. This was the first time since 1869 that South Carolina’s governor lived elsewhere.
South Carolina, Piece by Piece
The McMasters welcome visitors to an executive residence today that looks much the same as it did when those major renovations were completed 22 years ago, a place that manages to be both a well-maintained home and a museum. The governor and first lady encourage visitors to look for signs and symbols of South Carolina. Dozens are located in every room.
Silver from the USS South Carolina can be found in several places, decorated with emblems of the state. Designed and made by the Gorham Silver Company, the 66-piece silver service was presented to the battleship by Gov. Martin Frederick Ansel. Built for use in World War I, the USS South Carolina brought thousands of U.S. soldiers home from Europe. The ship was decommissioned after the war, and the silver was returned to South Carolina.
More than 20 portraits of the state’s governors hang in rooms and along the Hall of Governors at the mansion. A portrait of Gov. Robert Young Hayne in the State Dining Room was painted by Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph and Morse code. Governor McMaster has pressed for the mansion to acquire a portrait of every governor and has welcomed former first families to add portraits and hold receptions to celebrate.
Portraits aren’t the only reason to take note of the walls. In the State Dining Room, walls are covered in fabric patterned with subtle palmetto trees, custom dyed a deep blue to match the state flag. Meanwhile, a peek through the arched doors to the Palmetto Dining Room reveals a panorama that’s anything but subtle.
When visitors step inside, they’re surrounded by a mural of the American landscape produced by legendary French wallpaper factory Zuber & Cie. Entitled “Views of North America,” the wallpaper panels are a woodblock reproduction of work from French painter Jean Julien Deltil, recreated using nearly 1,700 printing blocks and more than 230 colors.
Deltil and Jean Zuber collaborated in 1830 on wallpaper they hoped would have popular appeal and thus chose stunning scenes from the United States that would be recognizable in Europe. In the Palmetto Dining Room, their depiction of North America shows Virginia’s Natural Bridge, Niagara Falls, and Boston Harbor. The same historic Zuber wallpaper was selected by Jackie Kennedy for the Diplomatic Reception Room in the White House.
Room for Women’s History
The Small Drawing Room at the front of the mansion was often referred to as the “ladies’ parlor,” so perhaps it’s fitting that South Carolina women’s history is on display here. Above the fireplace is a large portrait of the state’s first female governor, Nikki Haley.
On the opposite wall are two pastel portraits by Henrietta Johnston, the first professional female portrait artist in the English Colonies. Johnston came to Charleston from Ireland with her husband in the early 1700s. Her husband died soon after they arrived. Needing to earn a living, Johnston made pastel portraits of wealthy Charleston women, including these two portraits of Mrs. Robert Brewton and Mrs. Charles Pinckney.
To the left of the fireplace is a portrait of Ann Pamela Cunningham, founder of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Society. Cunningham was an early leader in the historic preservation movement and is credited with saving George Washington’s estate on the Potomac River. Cunningham was born and lived in Laurens and attended school in Columbia.
First Families, First Pets, and Memories for a Lifetime
Along with serving as a museum for the public, the mansion is a home for all the events that make up first family life. Many birthdays have been celebrated at the house and on the surrounding grounds, including the pool and pool house. Weddings have been held at the mansion less frequently, with the McMasters’ children among those few.
The McMasters’ son, Henry, was first, hosting his rehearsal dinner at the Lace House, part of the Mansion Complex, before marrying Virginia Roach at First Presbyterian Church. Then daughter Mary Rogers held her wedding in the spring of 2019 in the mansion’s Memorial Garden. “Those were great events,” the governor says, talking of the special times he and the first lady will always remember after they leave the mansion, “both children getting married while we’ve been here.”
Most first families also come with pets, and the mansion has been home to turtles, cats, dogs, and very briefly, some say, one baby alligator. Mac McMaster is the latest first pet, an English bulldog that’s never known another home, Mrs. McMaster says.
Mac joined the family as a puppy just a few months after the McMasters moved into the mansion. When she greets students on tours, the first lady brings Mac along to say hello. With a big smile, she says, “They’d rather see Mac than me.”
Mac might also be the secret sauce for closing economic development deals. Governor McMaster remembers a dinner at the mansion with executives from Samsung. The meeting was going well, but plans were not finalized. Then, “Peggy walked in with Mac in the crook of her arm,” the governor recalls, and things quickly went from good to great. Suddenly, Samsung’s North American CEO was on the floor with Mac, posing for pictures. “It was delightful,” says Governor McMaster, and Samsung committed to come to the state soon after. “Ever since, I’ve said, ‘Let’s get the dog when we need to close the deal.’”
Leaving Their Mark
Part of mansion tradition is that each first family leaves a gift that will commemorate their time in the house. The Steinway grand piano in the Large Drawing Room, for example, was presented by First Lady Maude Byrnes. It had been a birthday gift to her from Gov. James Byrnes while they were living in the mansion.
The legacy Governor McMaster hopes to leave is built around making the house and grounds a place in which all South Carolinians will take pride. The Governor’s Mansion is part of a 9-acre complex that includes houses, gardens, and fountains. Renovations are in progress now at the Lace House, Caldwell-Boylston House, Carriage House, and historic Caldwell-Boylston Garden, described by a Columbia historian as “one of the most important showplaces in the Southeast.”
“We still have the plans for the gardens, and we want to try as much as we can to reproduce that and bring it back up. It’s so full of potential,” Governor McMaster says of the two city block area in Columbia’s downtown.
“That’s one thing we’re trying to do in my administration, to see that public areas, beaches, and historic places are kept up and available to the public. We want the Governor’s Mansion complex to be exquisite perfection in architecture and in the gardens because it is a reflection of the people in the state.”
Celebrate Christmas at the Governor’s Mansion
Tours of the Governor’s Mansion are available to the public year round, but Christmas brings extra delights. The Columbia Garden Club decorates for the holidays each year, and the governor and first lady welcome the public for a Christmas reception.
This year’s reception is Dec. 4 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. No reservation is required, and the event is free.
December tours are also free but require an advance reservation. Tours are held Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday mornings. Reservations can be made online at SCGovernorsMansion.org.