Charleston South Carolina is steeped in beauty and history. The best way to learn about the city is to take historic tours. This blog highlights some of Charlestown South Carolina’s historic sites that one can easily visit on foot.
Appreciating Charleston South Carolina’s Historic Landmarks
Charleston virtually oozes history on every block. Among its dozens of historic sites are:
This beautiful ultra-fashionable district at the southern end of the Charleston Peninsula was the home of many of the city’s rich and famous and the city’s largest mansions since early colonial times. It was built and situated in a way that would capture the cooling breezes off the bay.
Many of the houses and their residents played critical roles in the history of the city, and of the nation. The neighborhood’s location, however, also had its share of drawbacks. As the primary site of British shelling during the Revolutionary War, many of the buildings were reduced to rubble. And even after the protective sea wall was built in 1820, it suffered its share of hurricanes. The 135 mph winds and a 15-foot storm surge of the 1989 Hurricane Hugo not only damaged a number of buildings but also flooded the lower floors of those not elevated above the ground.
Rainbow Row is an iconic row of brightly colored multi-story homes along East Bay Street that began their long lives much more modestly than their current multi-million dollar price tags would suggest. Back before the eastern stretches of the bay had been filled in, East Bay Street (as inferred by its name), was located right next to the docks, rather than behind the pretty waterfront park that now graces the coast. These buildings used to house merchant homes in which businesses were run out of the first flow while the proprietor’s family lived on the floors above.
A number of these sit behind the mansions along Battery and East Bay Streets. They used to be dependencies or slave quarters and stables of the slave-owner homes. A number of these can be seen behind these homes, including along Atlantic, Church, and Tradd Streets.
The four-block roofed market has been operating at its current site since 1790. Originally it was a market in which purveyors of fresh fish, meat, and vegetables could rent stalls for $1 a day. It has evolved into a tourist market in which Gullah ladies weave and sell sweetwater grass baskets and decorations, with other booths selling everything from Carolina Gold rice, grits, and boiled peanuts to souvenirs and postcards.
And then there are the woman making baskets around the City Marketplace
St. Philip’s Church
Founded in 1680, it was the city’s first church and also the first church and the first south of Virginia. Originally it was built at a location that now houses St. Michael’s Church. It soon outgrew that location and built a much larger Palladian-style church in 1723 at which it also created the city’s first hospital and one of its first schools. By the time of the revolution, it had one of the largest and wealthiest congregations in the country and its flock included a number of prominent patriots and signers of the Declaration of Independence (a number of whom are buried in the churchyard).
St. Michael’s Church
This lovely Gothic Revival-style building was opened in 1761 at the site of the original St. Philip’s church. The lovely interior contains pews which cost wealthy planters and merchants about $500 per year (the equivalent of about $20,000 in current dollars). It reserved one pew for visiting dignitaries (including George Washington and Robert E. Lee, both of whom worshipped there when in Charleston). It has beautiful Tiffany windows and the oldest operating clock tower in the country. Its bells which were originally cast in England, were returned to that country after the Revolutions as “spoils of war. They were later returned but melted in a fire during the Civil War. The metal, however, was salvaged and recast in its original molds in England.
The Huguenot Church was built in 1687 by French Protestants who left their home country to avoid discrimination and persecution and settled in the religiously agnostic “Holy City”. While a 1796 fire destroyed the church, the original structure was quickly replaced. The replaced structure was replaced by the current Gothic Revival structure in 1845.
Today the Slave Mart is a fascinating and harrowing museum. It was the first of 40 indoor slave markets which opened in 1856 after Abolitionists created much furor over the traditional outdoor spectacle of slave auctions and whippings. The ground floor was originally the showroom, the jail, the kitchen, and morgue.
The exhibits focus on the slave trade. It portrays the scale of American slavery (12 million in total crossed the ocean) and the predominance of South Carolina (where slaves accounted for 57 percent of the population) and in which 8 of the 15 largest slaveholders (each of whom owned more than 500 slaves) lived. It describes the horrendous conditions these people endured. They were packed tightly and chained into the holds of ships in which only about 75 percent even survived a typical three-month passage. Traders prepared their newly arrived cargo for sale by fattening them up, pulling and dying gray hair, exercising them to rebuild muscle tone, and oiling their skins to make them appear more vibrant.
Slaves commanded prices from about $800 for “ordinary girls” to about $1,600 for “extra men”–prices that translated into about $21,000 to $38,000 in current prices. After Congress abolished this international trade in 1808, prices were established not only by factors such as sex, age, health, and strength but also by the types and levels of skills that each possessed.
The upstairs discuss abolition and how slaves gained their freedom by running away, being freed by owners, being bought by previously freed relatives, or enlisting in the military. It also gives insight into the slaves’ family life, their churches, education, trades, and culture of newly freed slaves. Although the museum exhibits consisted mostly of text, it was very informative and extremely poignant and disturbing: the horrors inflicted by some men upon others.
Four Corners of the Law
The intersection of Broad and Meeting Streets is exemplified by the four historic corner buildings that represent the Law of God:
- St. Michael’s (1762)
- City Hall (1800)
- The Charleston City Court House was originally from 1753 and was rebuilt specifically as a courthouse in 1792. This is where Thurgood Marshall originally argued the case that would reach the Supreme Court as Brown v Board of Education. It was in the dissenting opinion of the original trial case that the dissenting justice advised Marshal to reframe the case as an argument that “Separate but Equal” was inherently discriminatory and must be struck down.
- The Federal Post Office and Courthouse from 1896.
Exchange and Provost Building
The British constructed this formal Georgian building in 1771. It was originally used to house the city’s customs collector and as a site in which to host public meetings. Before the revolution, it became a site for protesting British taxes, electing delegates to the Continental Congress, and then to publically declare independence from England.
When British forces captured and occupied the city, the building fell under British control and its basement became a prison for holding both common criminals and prominent patriots.
The tour of the building focuses on the late colonial and Revolutionary War periods. It begins with an entertaining, but too long tour of the basement dungeon, which was initially intended as a storeroom. Under the British occupation of the city, it became a prison to house everyone from common criminals to prominent patriots–including some signers of the Declaration of Independence. The first floor contains a formal meeting room and another that houses historical displays. The second floor houses the Great Hall, which housed many of the city’s most important meetings and most formal events. It was the site of the election of South Carolina’s delegates to the Constitutional Convention, of the state’s vote to ratify the Constitution and of the ball honoring the nation’s first president, George Washington.
Dock Street Theater
The Theater was originally opened in 1736 as the first permanent theater in the colonies and assumed its current location in 1809. It was destroyed and rebuilt after the 1870 fire took out about two-thirds of the center city’s buildings. It was expanded to its current state in 1935 when the theater was rebuilt in the earthquake-damaged shell of the 1809 Planters Hotel and incorporated interior details of the Rutledge Mansion.
Catfish Row is the setting of Porgy and Bess, DuBose Heyward’s novel and play, and George Gershwin’s opera. Although it was intended to represent a Charleston slum, the three-building row is actually located in one of the city’s more fashionable districts.
Exploring Charleston’s Historic Homes
Although the museums are extremely educational, one can also learn much just by walking the city to see the buildings in which free citizens (the vast majority of whom did not own slaves) lived. One can tour through many of the mansions that were owned by some of the richest families (virtually all of which owned at least domestic slaves). We toured two such mansions.
The Aikens-Rhett House, while restored, is relatively bare except for some of the furniture, portraits, art, and personal possessions of the families who had actually lived in the house. Inhabitants included the state governor who tried to keep South Carolina in the union and his Confederate officer son-in-law who married the governor’s daughter.
It showed how the original Federalist style had been remodeled to the then fashionable fusion of neo-Classical with Grecian, Gothic, and Rococo designs and objects. The tour begins with an audio-guided walk through the slave quarters (dorm-style with different size rooms depending on the slave’s skills and status), the yards, stables, and garages (with two of the families rather dilapidated carriages), and then into the main house. We saw the double parlor and the dining room where the family entertained (with fragments of original paint and wallpaper), the bedrooms and bathrooms where they lived (including beds, metal-lined tubs and washbasin, and so forth). We learned about the two stages in which the home was extended and saw some of the underlying structural elements (including some of the exposed beams and lathing). The tour ended in the family’s art gallery, which was furnished with original art and reproductions (acceptable and fashionable at the time) or classical pieces that the family actually owned. It is a very informative way to learn about the lives of one of the state’s most important families.
In sharp contrast to the Aiken-Rhett House, the Russell home was restored as closely as possible to the way it looked under the Russell Family. Twenty-two layers of paint were stripped to identify and match the original colors including down to the gold leaf details on the living room molding and the faux lapis lazuli details in the parlor music room. The furniture was duplicated as close as possible from a family inventory, and matched with period antiques of the same description. The foundation worked with the same British company that produced the original carpet to create a matching reproduction (antique carpet of the same pattern is no longer available). Although the ornamentation (especially the music room molding) is exquisite and the antique furniture is beautiful, the elegant, freestanding, self-supporting, cantilevered, three-story, circular staircase is the highlight. And then there is the view over what was, and still is, the largest private garden in downtown Charleston.
Neighborhoods in Transition
We were fortunate to be able to have a private tour by some friends we met on our Alaskan Inland Waterway cruise. Alex, an accomplished amateur travel guide, and his lovely wife Ann insisted that we needed to expand our narrow perspective of the city. They took us on a walking tour of a few important areas outside the city’s historic core—places we would probably not have visited on our own. These included:
The oldest university south of Virginia and the 13th founded in the colonies was established in 1770 as a private institution. It began as a school for white men from wealthy facilities and became a public municipal college in 1837. It went co-ed in 1918 and reverted to private in 1949 as a means of voiding integration. It finally integrated in 1967 and returned to public status in 1970. Its historic central campus remains lovely and has expanded over the years by acquiring, restoring, and repurposing a number of distressed neighboring buildings, primarily of Federal and Georgian architectural styles.
Charleston Village is just west of the College. It was born on the land of a former golf course and began to develop as a residential, commercial, and industrial area (especially lumber mills) in 1770. It is characterized largely by Charleston single homes (long porches off of which run a single row of rooms) and a smaller number of large, doubles. Many of the larger ones had dependencies that were used as external kitchens, slave quarters, and/or stables. The area was quite depressed through much of the 20th century and most of the buildings probably would have been torn down had the city and its citizens had the money to do so. But due to its proximity to the central city and the size and historic significance of its buildings, the area began to undergo renovation (i.e., gentrification) in the 1970s—a process that is now largely complete.
Just north of Charleston Village and the Calhoun Street Corridor is a neighborhood that long marked a dividing line between the city’s more and less well-off residents and crime. It was named after two 18th-century owners of adjacent marshy tracts of land subdivided, developed, and sold their properties in the early- to mid-19th century. The area attracted mills and some of the city’s dirtier and smellier industries, such as foundries and tanneries. Inexpensive housing attracted factory workers, immigrants (especially Jewish, Irish, and German), freedmen, and eventually a range of small businesses that catered to the new residents.
Like much of the south, the area fell into an economic stupor after the Civil War. It became the center of the city’s crime and violence through the first half of the 20th century. Although the area does have some Charleston single and double homes (especially on corners), most of the homes are on smaller lots (including those that held dependencies of these larger houses and extra land that was sold off by the large houses’ owners). They are typically smaller and less ornate. A number of them have become a destination for University Charleston students looking for less expensive rentals. While a number of the buildings are architecturally notable, renovation began only late in the 20th century and many buildings have still seen little reinvestment or renovation. The city and preservation organizations are now working to rebuild the area as a vibrant residential community, including by trying to retain and re-attract small, local businesses, many of whom had left the area.