I have found that on walking tours of Charleston, that visitors really enjoy wandering through some of the historic alleys. There are a number of alleys that still hold a special charm off the beaten track, such as Philadelphia Alley, Stoll’s Alley, Zig Zag Alley, Lodge Alley, Bedon’s Alley and Longitude Lane. These were back streets up until fairly recent times, and became home mostly to descendents of the formerly enslaved after the Civil War. Modern times have brought higher real estate prices, and the quiet alleys are in demand, so like most of us who can’t afford to live on the streets where we grew up in Charleston, the demographics have changed dramatically. Still, though, there are photographic reminders of the alleys’ character that transcends time.
February 22nd marks the true birthday of George Washington, and it is sad that, for all he did to help win our independence and create this great country, that the federal holiday is not in his name. Visitors to Charleston can see and hear about Washington’s exploits in several historic locations, and I always include a nod to his statue at Washington Square on my walking tours. People can visit the Old Exchange Museum where Washington attended a grand ball in his honor in 1791, or take a tour of the Hayward-Washington House where Washington stayed for his week-long visit to Charleston. There is also a wonderful painting of Washington in city council chambers at City Hall on the second floor, which is open to the public. The painting by John Trumbull shows Washington and his warhorse that he famously used to block the American retreat at the Battle of Monmouth in 1778 and spur the troops on to victory. Thank you George for your service!
We had a wonderful walking tour today in cool, crisp weather, and most of my guests were first-timers to historic Charleston, all of who were in awe of the scenic architecture throughout the city. People are surprised to learn that we even had more great buildings that were lost to development and modernization back before the city protected them. Two such buildings were commercial structures on King Street built in the grand Victorian styles of the late 19th century – the Hirsch-Israel building and the Marks building. Both were demolished in the mid 20th century to make way for ugly, box-like structures that dominated the 50’s and 60’s, and are still there today. It is sad to think that there were those who did not recognize the beauty and character of such buildings, and that for all the beautiful architecture that Charleston is blessed with today, that there could have been more.
People who visit Charleston on vacation are often surprised to find out how much of Charleston is built on former wetlands. I explain on my walking tour that the peninsula was once ringed with marshes and mud and interlaced with tidal creeks that were gradually filled in. This picture below is just to the west of the foot of King Street, along an area of the Ashley River once called South Bay, and the original western wall of White Point Garden can be seen at the right. Beginning in 1911, the city, with the generous donations of Andrew Buist Murray, began filling to the west of White Point Garden with a grand thoroughfare that would become known as Murray Boulevard. Where the boat is in the picture is now approximately the southwest corner of the Sumter House, a condominium built as a hotel in the 1920’s.
One of the many great stories in historic Charleston SC is that of the Mills House Hotel on Meeting Street. The hotel was built there in the 1850’s by wealthy merchant Otis Mills, and it survived a huge fire in 1861 when people soaked blankets and sheets to hang from the side closest to the flames. Sadly, the original structure was town down in 1968 to make a larger version and, of course, more money, and although built to look like a carbon copy, two extra floors were added. The original had 5 floors with high ceilings, the replacement has two high ceilings on the first and second floor, but 8-foot ceilings in the 5 on top. Most people who glance at the old and new don’t notice the extra floors.
Today is the anniversary of the first successful submarine attack in military history, the sinking of the USS Housatonic by the Confederate submarine CSS Hunley just outside Charleston harbor in 1864. The hand-propelled submarine was thought to have been lost for more than a century until it was found buried beneath the ocean floor in 1995, and recovered 5 years later. Today, it is preserved in the Hunley Museum, where sadly, political correctness has become so prevailing that the term “CSS” and “Confederate submarine” have been erased in describing the vessel. The simple historical fact is that it was a Confederate submarine and should be referred to as CSS Hunley.
When I take visitors around historic Charleston on my walking tours, I always explain the height districts that exist throughout the city, and cite the People’s Building on Broad Street as a good example. Finished in 1911 as an office building originally called The People’s Bank Building, the eight-story structure towered above the other buildings on the street, and built largely of yellow Stoney Landing brick, has been one of the city’s biggest eyesores. Eventually the city realized that its historic skyline should be protected in certain areas, and he height districts were created to limit out-of-place edifices. No longer will anything close to the height of the People’s Building be erected in that part of town, as it stands more than twice the 55-foot limit in that height district. The ordinance can’t make the huge building disappear, but a tornado in 1938 nearly did, so badly damaging the original protruding cornice that it was completely taken off – a shame, considering it made the building much more attractive than it is today.
We are so fortunate to have such a scenic city here in Charleston, with such a wealth of magnificent historic architecture, and visitors who join my walking tours are impressed with the photogenic locations throughout – but there could have been even more. We have lost some of our best buildings, not to fire or storms, but at the hand of short-sighted individuals who apparently had little appreciation for history or architecture. The most lamentable loss, in my opinion, was the Charleston Hotel. This magnificent classical structure was completed in 1839 with a grand two-story portico of Corinthian columns that stretched an entire block. Old pictures show that it was a showcase of the Meeting Street business district, but in 1960, it was torn down to build an ugly one-story motor court. A bank building was approved on the location years later, and at first there was hope that the grand old facade would be reborn, but instead we got a cheap-looking, scaled-down version of the original that looks almost as bad as the motor court.
One of the great scenic visuals on my walking tours of historic Charleston is the Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. This Gothic-Revival brownstone structure was begun in 1890 to replace another brownstone Gothic Revival cathedral on the same site that was finished in 1854, but burned seven years later. Although the second church was designed by the same architect, Patrick Keel, it was not completed for more than a century because of lack of funds, and the steeple finally added in 2010 was 50 feet shorter than the 216-foot spire of the original.
Because Charleston has always been such an easy place to grow tropical and subtropical plants and trees, many non-native species introduced over the years have flourished. One that catches the eye of many visitors to our scenic city is the Triadica Sebifera, commonly known as the Popcorn Tree. This Chinese native was said to have been introduced to America by Ben Franklin in the 1770’s, and is so common now to be considered invasive in coastal areas along the edge of marshes and creeks. But in the old historic city, the tree is still quit popular, and we can see it in many places along the route I take for my walking tours. It’s most distinctive feature is the budding of tallow-covered seeds that look just like popcorn, and which are often harvested to be worked into wreaths that are sometimes spray-painted red at Christmas time.