Diane Siskin: All Things Columbia

South Carolina’s Capital City Is Building A New Path

Thursday, May 7, 2015 - by Diane Siskin

In Columbia, South Carolina former seedy streetscapes and blighted neighborhoods have blossomed with the revitalization of historic homes, enticing museums and new entertainment and dining districts.

One of the prime new visions is the melding of town and gown with the University of South Carolina campus not only surrounding the state house but also now including the state’s capitol district within its environs.

Although Columbia may not be as post-card pretty as some others in South Carolina, this formerly languid city offers hidden gems which accent the city’s progressive path.

Gateway development on a Congaree River tract in West Columbia featuring showplaces of residences, shops and offices is currently off the starting block.

This project will also be located across the Gervais Street Bridge from EdVenture (Children’s Museum) and the State Museum.


Not only is Columbia growing and adding new development, Capital City Lake Murray, a regional tourism district which includes Columbia, Lexington, Newberry, Richland and Saluda counties is promoting itself as the “Jewel of South Carolina”

“The Capital City/Lake Murray Country region is home to Lake Murray,”” explained Cherie Had, of the tourism council, “this is where both residents and tourists go to unwind, dine and enjoy the outdoors.”

Visitors looking for adventure, wildlife, nature preserves and other recreational opportunities head for this region where they are explore the Broad, Saluda and Congaree Rivers and visit local, state and national parks.

An up-close look at the Lake Murray’s Dam Walkway, the Irmo Town Park, and The Visitors Center and offices which are located in the Lorick Plantation House on North Lake Drive in Irmo reaffirmed these offerings.

The Vista is Columbia’s historic commercial district and home to a vibrant area for shopping, dining and nightlife. Its location close to the University of South Carolina, the State Museum, Riverfront Park, Metropolitan Convention Center and the city’s newest technology epicenter, InnoVista makes this area high on any visitor’s list

The top of my recommended “must see” list is the South Carolina State Museum which is housed in one of the city’s greatest artifacts, an 1894 textile mill.

And on the top of list for what to see inside is the Boeing Observatory on the fourth floor. In fact, you can get a glimpse of this or attraction from the outside of the museum.

The observatory, equipped with a computer controlled 1926 Alvan Clark 12 3/8-inch refracting telescope, is the star of the museum’s distance learning initiatives.

“For the first time in the nation, remote access of a vintage telescope is being provided free-of-charge to classrooms across the state of South Carolina,’’ explained Matthew Whitehouse, as he showed us the facility.

“More than 35,000 people have visited the observatory since our opening in August, 2014. School groups are  constant visitors and membership in the museum has skyrocketed by 200 percent since its installation. And we can send by computer real time images to school smart boards and do night programming to them,” added Mr. Whitehouse with great enthusiasm.

This unique telescope, the only one of its kind in the world, was obtained from another Columbia, that one being Columbia University in New York, who offered the telescope to the museum if they transported it to South Carolina and made the necessary repairs.

The Clark telescope is just one of many antique and astronomical instruments dating back to 1730 in the Robert B. Ariail Collection also at the museum. “This incredibly rare collection is considered as the best public collection of early American telescopes in the world,’’ according to Anna Kate Twitty of the museum staff.

During the recent 25th anniversary celebration of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson (of New York’s Hayden Planetarium) said,  “The Hubble Space Telescope turned the sky’s galaxy into our backyard.’’

For that celebration, the South Carolina State Museum hosted an International Astronomy Day dedicated to building awareness and excitement of astronomy.

Middle-schooler, Cheril Sorci, visiting the museum on the same day as this writer, had already become fascinated with space and telescopes. “I like everything about this part of the museum,” she said. “It is so pretty and I keep coming back to see what‘s new,’’ she said.

Space isn’t the only frontier being explored at the museum.

The 4D Dr. Rev. Solomon Jackson Theater is the only permanent theater of its kind in South Carolina and it couples high definition 3D digital projection movies with physical features to provide multi-sensory, interactive experiences for its viewers.

These features include water sprayers, leg ticklers, air blasters, scents, snow, bubble and smoke effects all programmed with strobe lights, vibrating seats synchronized to images on the screen.

Running now through February 7, 2016 at the State Museum is still another new exhibit. This one celebrates local makers of instruments, furniture, metal and clothing from South Carolina who are producing handmade objects for people all over the world. 

Blazing new paths continues through the entire museum complex with the EdVenture Children’s Museum located across the parking area.

New at this Children’s Museum on May 23, will be the opening of the new traveling exhibit, Adventures of MR. POTATO HEAD. This museum, according to EdVenture CEO Karen Coltrane, “Is one of the top five children’s museums in the country.”

Need a touring break? Head to Five Points, so named for the five-pronged intersection of Santee Avenue, Harden Street and Devine Streets which since 1915 has been a diverse shopping and commercial district. This first planned suburban neighborhood, originally versioned as a trolley hub, is now an updated, charming and pedestrian friendly village offering entertainment, shops, restaurants and bars.

Five Points, a great eclectic area, draws university students, locals and visitors.

One of Five Point‘s landmarks is the Hootie and the Blowfish Monument built in 2010, it commemorates the band and their rise to stardom from the bars and music halls of Five Points.


Thanks to the Historic Columbia organization the history of Columbia is being brought back to life in a beautiful way by nurturing, supporting and protecting the historical cultural heritage,

“As we mark the 150th anniversary of the Burning of Columbia this year,’ said Robin Waites, executive director of the organization, ‘the goal is to highlight the history, but also to establish a platform for open dialogue about the impact of the events of February 17 and 18, 1865, and the time that followed the fire which destroyed much of the city.

A unique way to see history up and close and personal now is to tour the restored homes and gardens of Visit Historic Columbia’s house museums and see how residents lived at the time.

Walking the walk and talking the talk of the Robert Mill House & Gardens and the Woodrow Wilson Family Home with Fielding Freed, the director of Historic House Museums brought past decades of life home..

“This house (Robert Mills) showcases the skill of the architect who designed the Washington Monument,’’ explained Mr. Freed, a former photographer and resident of Chattanooga.

Mr. Freed knew all to well the amount of labor which went into this house project, since he participated in much of the restoration with hands on approach.

“The Woodrow Wilson Family Home’’ was just that, a family home,’’ said Mr. Freed. “It is South Carolina’s only presidential site. But it was also where the 28th president of the United States spent his teenage years.”

Another location in Columbia provides still a different take on the history of the state. The monument in front of South Carolina State House is that of the Confederate cavalry leader Gen. Wade Hampton III. This late general was also a South Carolina governor and United States senator.

The state has come a long way in that the current 116th and second-term governor of South Carolina is Nikki Haley. Not only was Mrs. Haley born in the U.S. to immigrant parents from India, she is also the youngest current governor of any state in the union.


Where to Stay:

Hilton Garden Inn in Columbia/Harbison at 434 Columbiana Drive. (803) 407-6640.

This attractive hotel is located 15-30 minutes from downtown Columbia (depending on traffic), is in a perfect location to access any sites downtown and in the surrounding area. It is also a wonderful choice for comfort, free parking, excellent staff, on-site restaurant and pool/health club. There are a host of other amenities, especially during Masters Week in the spring. This property, like many in Columbia, is already booked heavily for next year’s Masters (golf tournament) in Augusta, Ga., which is located 65 miles away.

“Hotels around here book a year-in-advance,’’ said Miriam Atria, Executive Director of Capital City/Lake Murray Tourism. “Since most places to stay are already at more than 80 percent occupancy in the spring, there isn’t much extra room.”

Where to Dine:

Blue Marlin Steaks and Seafood. 1200 Lincoln Street in downtown Columbia. www.bluemarlincolumbia.com

Open since 1994, this popular restaurant located in the Vista offers traditional cuisines along with the inventive fare of the Low Country with wonderful Southern hospitality.

Outdoor eating area is located along what were once train tracks. The restaurant itself is on the site of the Seaboard Railroad Station.

The Oak Table. 1221 Main Street, Columbia. theoaktablesc.com.

This attractive downtown restaurant provides a fantastic view of the State House, located across the street. It offers high-end entrees from deep-fried whole lobster to great steaks. The restaurant also has a great brunch on Sundays.  Cuisine and service are good.

Alodia”s Cucina Italiana. 2736 North Lake Drive (Highway 6).www.alodias.com.

Great Italian dining with favorites and new cuisine, as well. Very friendly, family owned and run. Most recipes have been pulled from the pages of the owner’s family cookbook. And while the fare, ambiance, smells and tastes are of old Italy, the sauces and ingredients are fresh and inventive. This is a local favorite and is located in the Irmo area.


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