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Monday, June 24, 2019

Charleston is Charming

We're currently on a "southern" U.S. road trip from NH to FL and posting about sites seen & foods sampled along the way. This post describes a stop in Charleston, SC.


Charleston, SC, is not only one of America's most historic cities, it's the state's oldest and largest city. This port city was founded in 1670 and is full of antebellum grandeur, historic churches, cobblestone streets, horse drawn carriages, and pastel buildings. It's home to Fort Sumter, the site where the first shots of the Civil War were fired. Charleston is known for its history, architecture, eateries, and friendly residents and has become a very popular tourist destination as we found out first-hand. (City highlights will be shared in this, be forewarned, lengthy post.)

Despite its popularly today, Charleston has its very dark side too. It's been estimated that nearly half of all Africans brought to America arrived in Charleston, which was controlled by white planters and merchants. It became the only major antebellum (pre-Civil War) American city with a majority-enslaved population. By 1770, it was the fourth largest port in the colonies, after only Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, with a population of 11,000 of which slightly more than half were slaves. Founded in 1670 as Charles Town, in honor of King Charles II of England, Charleston adopted its current spelling in 1783 when it was incorporated at the end of the Revolutionary War. In May 1788, SC was the eighth state to join the union. 


The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon (also called the Custom House) at East Bay and Broad Streets is a landmark and the site of some of the state’s most important historical events. When the Exchange was built in 1767, Charleston was the most prosperous port in the South. The Palladian style building was constructed to house the city’s growing commercial import and export trade. During the Revolutionary, confiscated tea was stored here in 1774. When British forces captured the city, the bottom floor became a military prison known as the “Provost dungeon” where American prisoners of war, British soldiers, private citizens, and enslaved people all endured harsh conditions. In 1788, it housed the SC convention to ratify the Constitution. The second floor ballroom was used for entertainment venues. 

In the 19th century, it also served as a Confederate post office. In WW I, the building served as the army headquarters of the U.S. Lighthouse Service. In WW II, it served as a USO facility and troop canteen. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1972 and is now a museum operated by the Daughters of the American Revolution. (This was the only site in this post that cost $ to tour; happily there was a senior discount.)

Charleston’s City Hall was once the site of a public market within the civic square of the Grand Model (“Grand Modell”), a 17th century plan for the city. Fire destroyed the market in 1796, and in 1800 the city transferred the property to the Federal government for the purpose of erecting “an elegant building” that would serve as a branch of The First Bank of the United States. Charleston's branch was one of eight in the country, serving as the “Office of Discount and Deposit.” The contract between the city and the government dictated that in 1818 the U.S. would convey the property back to the city, after which the building became City Hall. The former bank teller windows remain on the first floor. white marble trim is thought to have been from Italy before it was cut in Philadelphia. The original red brick walls were covered with stucco in 1882. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988 and has some of the city’s most important collections of portrait art, including John Trumbull’s 1791 painting of President George Washington (no photographs were allowed.) The walk around was FREE.

The Charleston City Market is recognized as one of the oldest in the country. (It’s even part of a permanent exhibit, “Life in Coastal South Carolina c. 1840” at the American History Museum of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C.) The Market Hall complex is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as “Market Hall and Sheds” and has been designated a National Historic Landmark.

This historic market complex in downtown Charleston, SC was established in the 1790s and stretches for four city blocks. First called the Centre Market, it was developed as a replacement for the city's beef market (now site of City Hall) which burned in 1796. Charles Pinckney (SC statesman, Revolutionary War veteran, delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and 37th governor) ceded the land to the City of Charleston for a public market; it was stipulated that the land must remain in such use for “perpetuity” (forever). Throughout the 19th century, the market was where area farms and plantations sold meat, fish and produce, and was a local gathering spot. Meat scraps thrown into the street were gobbled up by local buzzards, nicknamed “Charleston Eagles.” Coincidentally, the University of Charleston’s athletic teams are known as the Golden Eagles. The original sheds include vendors selling souvenirs, jewelry and other items. City Market is also the center of sweetgrass basketry, one of the nation's oldest handicrafts of African origin. 

The market sheds have survived fires, tornadoes, earthquakes, and hurricanes. The afternoon we visited, many vendors had left or were in the process of closing up. Heavy morning downpours had flooded the market earlier and there were concerns that the afternoon’s tides would do the same.

The U.S. Post Office and Courthouse is on the southeast corner of Meeting and Broad Streets in an area known as the "Four Corners of Law" (more info below)The building and its annexes serve the federal court for the Charleston Division of the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

This location was the site of the gallows for public executions during British rule. After the Revolutionary War, the site was a police guardhouse and armory destroyed during a 1886 earthquake. A decade later, the site was redeveloped as a new post office and courthouse. The building, completed in 1896 at a cost of $500,000, was designed in the Renaissance Revival style and clad in granite quarried from Winnsboro, SC. The design includes a square tower, balustraded balconies, large enormous double doors, and high broad steps like those of an Italian palace. 

The Charleston Post Office is one of the oldest in the U.S. It was established by George III in 1740. Its interior has magnificent public spaces, restored in 2002. This splendor reflects the importance of public buildings at the end of the 19th century. The postal lobby on the first floor looks like it did when the building opened in 1896. Rich interior finishes include red Brazilian marble and mahogany walls at the sales and box areas. The ornate grand staircase is finished with brass newel posts. Brass designs with geometric, curvilinear patterns and rosettes are beneath the railings. Massive plaster columns are painted in a faux marble style. The effect of these high-quality finishes is distinctive to the Victorian era. (They just don't build post office like this any more, and the walk around was FREE.)

We found a bonus (not mentioned many places) inside — The Postal Museum. This room-sized (small) and FREE museum focuses on the history of the postal service in Charleston and features old stamps, post office memorabilia and newspaper clippings. The museum is open during normal P.O. business hours. (The current price of a U.S. first-class stamp is 55 cents, so free is always nice.)


The U.S. Post Office and Courthouse is at a Charleston intersection called the "Four Corners of Law.” (This phrase was coined in the 1930s by Robert Ripley, creator of Ripley's Believe it or Not! and so I believed it.) On the NW corner, a 1792 courthouse represents the role of county government in Charleston. City Hall on the NE corner, symbolized the presence of municipal government. St. Michael's Episcopal Church signifies divine law as a component in community life when the Anglican Church was the established church of the community. 


Rainbow Row is the collective name of 13 brightly-colored historic houses that represent the longest cluster of Georgian row houses in the U.S. They are located on East Bay Street near the waterfront and, while you can't tour these private residences, looking at the exteriors is FREE. The name was coined after the houses were repainted in pastel colors following 1030s and 1940s restoration. This very popular tourist attraction is one of Charleston’s most photographed areas. Visit this area any day to see photos being taken for special occasions, along with tourists, like us, trying to get an unobstructed photo of the colorful residences. Which, by the way is difficult given the street-parked cars and other sidewalk photo-takers. 

The Rainbow Row homes are privately owned, and there’s no chance of the color schemes being changed. WHY? Because city ordinances ensure that the pastel colors remain.The city wouldn’t want to lose a tourist draw that costs it no maintenance dollars.

As with most historic buildings in Charleston, the homes have a backstory and it's just as colorful. First constructed about 1740, the owners were merchants who ran a business on the ground floor and lived on the top floor. Over the years, houses were damaged or destroyed by fire and suffered damage by Union artillery during the Civil War. After the war and decades of neglect, the buildings had badly deteriorated. In 1920, the Founder of the Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings (now the Preservation Society of Charleston) purchased six of them, but lacked funds to restore them right away. In 1931, a Charleston couple purchased several more properties and began to renovate them and drawing on Charleston’s Caribbean roots, painted the first house a shade of pastel pink.


Other owners also painted their homes various pastel shades and so began Rainbow Row. Aside from the eye-appeal factor, there’s various theories as to WHY the homes were painted lighter colors — to cool them during hot summers, so drunk sailors could find their way home, or for merchants to indicate items they were selling.

Whatever the reasons, they're now a colorful city attraction and, did I mention, a FREE one as well. And, if you're patient enough, you may (finally) be able to get a photo with no one else on the sidewalk !

Thanks, as always, for virtually traveling along with us. We've been reading and appreciating all your comments, while reading your blogs has fallen somewhat behind, I'm catching up when possible.  We've been having a great time seeing more of the U.S. on this trip and meeting friends and family and hope that you're enjoying it as well.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Such a beautiful city, so much history! I love the pastel buildings and I admire your patience 😊

DeniseinVA said...

Great post with equally great photos and narrative. I found all this history very interesting. A city I have never been to, hopefully one day though.

Michelle said...

Charleston is charming!! It has been a few years since I was in this city, but I love it. Great photos.

Sandra said...

I have visited Rainbow Row and the historcic houses on The Battery and gone on the boat to the fort. that was about 50 years ago, at that time there was a place called Charles Town that had wild critters like a zoo but they were lose with big wire enclosures keeping them safe from humans, there were 3 ships there also, the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria.. excellent photos of all this history.. it is a beautiful old city

Emma Springfield said...

I have often read about Charleston but I have never been there. Thank you for the tour.

DUTA said...

Charleston - a city which has it all: history, architecture, city market, City Hall, bright sides and darker sides. I like the idea of a Post Office museum.The postal museum in your post looks lovely!

William Kendall said...

Wonderful shots! I've been quite used to Charleston through Joan's photoblog.

diane b said...

Thanks for the in depth tour of Charleston. I love the Rainbow Row. The historical buildings and their lovely colours.

Rain said...

I really enjoyed this post, I love reading about different places that I will likely never visit! :) I LOVE the Rainbow Row!!! Especially that shot with the beautiful lanterns!!

Latane Barton said...

My daughter and I are going there on a bus trip next spring. I can't wait. You made the wait even harder.

baili said...

wow this is very interesting post loaded with interesting information dear Dorothy!

story of city seems painful through the people's point of view who were enslaved and mistreated

i also enjoy the story of rainbow houses ,very interesting indeed!

how wonderful that you are exploring new unseen destinations my friend ,keep sharing your exciting tours :)
hugs!

Connie said...

We visited there a few years ago. So much history, and it is a beautiful city too.

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