Charleston South Carolina is a must-see for any fan of American architecture — a living museum of 18th and 19th-century life, southern style with a low-country accent.
Charleston’s impressive Market Building seems to be the city’s milestone, where everything begins. It’s the first place visitors go, and locals meet for morning coffee in its cozy bakery.
It’s an architectural, as well as a social landmark, an outstanding example of Greek Revival style with an elevated colonnaded portico reached by an elegant double staircase enclosed with green iron rails. And it’s a good place to begin a tour of the city’s other outstanding architecture, after some time spent among the market stalls inside and behind its famous façade.
Head south one block, and turn east on Cumberland Street to find the Powder Magazine, all that remains of the fort that stood here in 1748, when it was built. A small, yellow, double-bay building, it stored powder through the Revolution and now houses an exhibit on early Charleston.
Turn right onto Church Street, named for the imposing St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in front of you. In the classic revival style, its unusual tower, which was once a lighthouse beacon, has a base of stunning porticos supported by Doric columns. Designed by architect E.B. White, it was built in the mid-1830s. Note the striking wrought-iron gate at its cemetery across the street, where John Calhoun, Edward Rutledge, and Charles Pinckney, among other notables, are buried.
Just beyond the church look for a group of small houses from the 18th century, typical of rental property used by merchants and craftsmen. Further on, at 136 Church stands the French Huguenot Church of the French immigrants who added so much character to the city. In a Gothic Revival style, it was built in 1845, another design by E.B. White. Don’t miss the interior.
Almost directly across the street is the Dock Street Theater, behind wrought-iron balconies on the restored façade of the former Planter’s Hotel (1809). If you can’t make a performance, be sure to tour this stunning Georgian-style theater to see its carved cypress interior. It hosts many of the city’s theatrical and musical events.
Further down Church Street look for a colorful row of small homes known as Cabbage Row, the setting for Porgy and Bess. Just beyond, the classic Georgian Heyward-Washington House, dating from 1772, stands in a moody, romantic garden behind its iron fence. Unlike most Charleston mansions, it’s formal federal façade faces the street.
At Tradd Street go east toward the Cooper River. This street looks almost as it did during the antebellum period and is a perfect place to savor small details and soak in the atmosphere. A long row of small attached houses exudes permanence and comfort. At East Bay Street cross the road to look at Rainbow Row, a brightly painted set of early-19th-century commercial buildings and tenements, now upscale homes.
South on East Bay takes you along the shore to Battery Park, a chance to see the lovingly maintained antebellum mansions that overlook the harbor. Their facades are carefully turned to preserve privacy and upper porches are positioned to catch cooling summer breezes and views of the harbor.
Take at rest at White Palm Gardens at Battery Point and enjoy its views of the harbor and Fort Sumter. Return back to your beginning point by taking Meeting Street on the opposite side of the park or wander in the neighborhood streets. Either way, don’t miss seeing the beautiful Classic Revival St Michael’s Episcopal Church at the corner of Meeting and Broad. Before leaving, be sure to explore the treasures of Broad Street.
Charleston – Low Country Style
Snuggled cozily where the Cooper and Ashley Rivers meet, Charleston made its fame and fortune from shipping crops of tobacco and rice grown on the plantations.
Southern culture began in South Carolina’s Low Country around 1670, when a small band of settlers sets up shop across the Ashley River at Charles Towne Landing, now an active archeological site. Charles Towne Landing is a good place to begin a visit to modern Charleston, not only to get a sense of the size of the original settlers’ village and the stockade that enclosed it but for the excellent museum at its visitors center.
Begin at Charles Towne Landing
Artifacts found in the ongoing excavations are not only displayed but are interpreted in the context of their time and the segment of life or commerce they illustrate. A visit there gives a new appreciation for the rigors of the voyage to the new world, the challenges of building homes and planting crops, and the way of life that evolved as this primitive outpost grew.
A few years later these first settlers picked up everything and moved to the peninsula, where Charleston was born. It soon became a major colonial city and port due to its magnificent harbor and site at the confluence of two great rivers.
Charleston’s Ethnic Traditions
Amid the modern crafts and souvenirs inside the market halls – which extend for several blocks – are traditions that run deep in the city: tender benne wafers to sample, pralines, and the basket weavers at work. Sweetgrass baskets are as much a part of Charleston as the wrought-iron fences that enclose its gardens and dooryards, a legacy of the African slaves who made up much of its early population. The carved cypress baskets are art treasures.
Africans were not the only ethnic group to influence Charleston’s civic personality – in fact, it had more different ethnicities than any other part of the Old South except Louisiana, an influence that shows in it cooking, as well as its buildings. Many foodies credit the early French influence with Charleston’s preoccupation with good food and the differences between this city’s cuisine and that of its neighboring states.
Museums and historic homes are a good place to get a sense of what life was like at various periods of Charleston’s past. The 1748 Powder Magazine, the only remnant of the fort that once stood here, now houses an exhibit about early Charleston that picks up where the Charles Towne landing museum leaves off. The Heyward-Washington House, built in 1772, paints a lively picture of the sophisticated world of the pre-Civil War gentry.