Remembering the Days: Neoclassical to Midcentury Modern, the architectural history of campus

Remembering the Days podcast—Episode 16

University of South Carolina architect Derek Gruner says walking across the Carolina campus is like a visual lesson in American architecture from the past two centuries. Join us for a stroll and learn more about some of the university's most iconic buildings. 


Neoclassical to Midcentury Modern, an architectural tour of campus

As an architect you design for the present, with an awareness of the past, for a future which is essentially unknown.
- Norman Foster

Our world is shaped by architecture — the style of our houses, the design of buildings in the towns and cities where we live. If you think back to your time at the University of South Carolina, you probably recall the breadth and beauty of the architecture here, like the majestic Corinthian columns on Longstreet Theater or the classic details of McKissick on the Horseshoe.

I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and today we’re taking an architectural stroll down memory lane, pausing at several buildings that represent important threads in the overall tapestry of the university campus. University architect Derek Gruner says taking a walk across this campus is like a visual history lesson on American architecture from the past two centuries.

Let’s start our tour on the Horseshoe, the heart of the original campus. Derek says most of the buildings here, including the first two — Rutledge and DeSaussure — are best described as aligning with the federal style of architecture.

Derek Gruner: “Understand that when those buildings were built, there weren't a lot of skilled architects in the country, nor were there a lot of skilled builders, really, in South Carolina. So consequently, the design, the construction is what you would consider to be pretty austere, especially compared to what came along later.”

"The construction on the Horseshoe went from about 1805 to 1860, right up to the eve of the Civil War and the  South Carolina College Library was built in 1840, had a column and a portico that was somewhat classical and then Longstreet Theater that came along in the 1850s was really neoclassical. In fact, it's almost a direct copy of a Roman building that was built in 2 A.D. in France. So the detail on those two buildings, and particularly Longstreet, is much more significant and just more ornate than most of the Horseshoe buildings that came before those two buildings."

After the Civil War, it would be nearly 50 years before two more buildings — Davis and Barnwell (originally named LeConte) — emerged on the campus. That was around 1910, and Derek points out that their architectural style was quite different than most of the buildings that preceded them. Davis and Barnwell incorporate details pulled from ancient Greece, a style defined as neoclassical.

The Russell House and Sumwalt College, both built in 1955, represent the beginning of the next big leap in architectural style on the university campus. Big expanses of glass and sheer walls of brick panels were part of a simple design that people now refer to as Mid-century Modern.

Gruner: “They really pave the way for our mid century masterpiece on campus, which is the Thomas Cooper library in 1959. And Thomas Cooper may look a little austere to some, but it really is a masterpiece within that era and that style of design. And it is probably, I think, or almost certainly the first building on campus that was designed by an internationally renowned architect who was brought here to design that building  — Edward Durrell Stone.

In addition to the Thomas Cooper Library, Edward Durrell Stone designed the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the U.S. embassy in New Delhi, India and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

Stone also had a hand in designing the Honeycombs — also known as the Towers — on the South Carolina campus. If you remember those six dormitories or maybe even lived in one of them, I think you would agree they would not have won any prizes for architectural beauty. At any rate, they’ve long been demolished.

The campus includes several very large high-rise buildings constructed in the late 1960s and early 70s when enrollment was skyrocketing. In those years a lot of Baby Boomers reached college age, and universities across the country — including South Carolina — grew big very quickly.

Think about Capstone House, the Humanities buildings, South Tower, the Coker Life Sciences Building and Jones Physical Sciences Center. These massive buildings feature a minimalist design with a lot of exposed concrete. It’s a style of architecture often referred to as Brutalist. In the past 30 years, the university has made a supreme effort to keep new buildings on a much smaller and more humane scale.

We’ll end our tour with two recent buildings, the School of Law and the Moore School of Business, which have very different architectural styles.

Gruner:What all architects are really trying to achieve is a building that people will love for many, many decades. And it's this quality of timelessness that’s difficult to achieve. Only a few buildings can achieve it. But that's what we all aspire to do. I'll talk about a building that really does that quite well. That's the new School of Law building. There was a conscious effort on the part of the design team to construct that building in a way that paid some homage to the architecture of Robert Mills and the Horseshoe buildings from the first half of the 19th century. But it's still done in a fresher and a little bit simplified manner. 

The Moore School of Business is adjacent to the Carolina Coliseum on Assembly Street — a very visible location. Derek likens its style to a bold statement, sort of like the Russell House was when it was built 65 years ago.

Gruner: “With the School of Business there was an effort to make a very singular design that I think tried to relate more to the context of urbanism and the city of Columbia and just cities in general. It's another example of an internationally known architect coming to campus and designing that project in a way that was pretty unfettered from the standpoint of design control. It was another one of those leaps of faith, a little bit like the Russell House, where control was given over to an architect and just 'give us your best work.' And what resulted is something that is unique on campus and quite sculptural.”

Let’s close today’s show with a sampling opinions from students about their favorite buildings on campus from current students.

Student 1: I like the Thomas Cooper Library especially from the point of view facing the fountain. I think it displays really well and it’s really symmetrical and the fountain is just gorgeous.

Student 2: I like all of the buildings on the Horseshoe. I just like the old, rustic, well, not rustic but historic building styles of them. I really like the law school, I know that one is newer, and the journalism school. I like going inside — it’s really cool and they have a garden on top and everything.

Student 3: I personally like Capstone. I’m a little biased because I live on Capstone but when you’re walking anywhere on campus anywhere near it you see it rising up into the sky. And just the gold on top is really beautiful to me.

Chances are, you have your own favorite building on campus, and we’d love to hear from you about which one it is and why. Drop me an email at We might choose your favorite building and explore its history for a future episode.

Today’s episode of Remembering the Days is sponsored by the University of South Carolina Alumni Association, the home for all Gamecocks that connects students and alumni to advance their careers, their passions and their university. Learn more at

I’m Chris Horn, see you next time, and forever to thee!