Steel magnolia: Historic Charleston has survived disaster

April 19, 1992|By Mary Leigh Furrh | Mary Leigh Furrh,Contributing Writer

Three centuries of earthquakes, fires, Union attacks and hurricanes would knock most cities down for the count, but Charleston, S.C., keeps bouncing back.

After each disaster, the genteel town hangs up her hoop skirts, pulls on her jeans and goes to work. Individual efforts and the help of restoration and preservation groups have allowed the southern seaport to remain eternally Charleston -- the ultimate survivor.

English settlers established the first permanent colony in 1670, across the Ashley River from the present site, and named it Charles Town; they were soon joined by immigrants from Barbados. The area proved too marshy, so the group moved to the peninsula between the Ashley and Cooper rivers, where the current Historic District is located.

Although settlers from other countries arrived, the town remained essentially British, with strong cultural and trading ties to England. Before and after the Revolutionary War, Charleston flourished. Planters from surrounding plantations shipped rice, indigo and cotton from Charleston harbor and built elegant town houses, where they moved their families during the sultry summers. Sophisticated and European in flavor, the city was a cultural oasis in the agricultural South.

Natural disasters have plagued the aristocratic seaport for centuries, but Charlestonians have always rallied and rebuilt. In 1740, a fire incinerated 300 homes, and in 1752, a hurricane leveled 500 more.

Despite these calamities, Charleston remained prosperous until the Civil War and Reconstruction periods. It was bombarded throughout much of the war, and occupied by Union troops for a long time afterward. Tragically, in 1886, an earthquake jolted the city; damage was estimated at $6 million.

Even in the worst of times, however, proud Charlestonians were said to keep their brass door knockers polished although they could not afford to paint their doors. Architecturally, this bleak period worked to Charleston's advantage because the magnificent homes and public buildings were repaired but not replaced. When the economy improved, preservation societies such as the Historic Charleston Foundation and the Preservation Society of Charleston realized the buildings' historic value, urged restoration and preserved the venerable city. Neither damage from the early disasters nor destruction from Hurricane Hugo in 1989 is obvious to most observers.

Charleston is easy to explore, but your first stop should be the Charleston Visitors' Reception and Transportation Center at 375 Meeting St. to collect brochures, arrange tours and see an informative film. There is ample parking, and an inexpensive shuttle bus will take you down King Street to Waterfront Park and back to the Visitors' Center via Meeting Street. You may get off anywhere by pulling the cord to alert the driver.

The compact Historic District may be covered on foot, but an orientation tour to spot the places you want to visit helps. You may board a horse-drawn carriage in the market area or see the sights from a bus, trolley or with a private driver. Any tour you choose will show you basically the same points of interest: Dock Street Theater, Old Market, Four Corners of Law, mansions along the Battery, Old Exchange, Rainbow Row, historic churches, pi

azza-trimmed houses and elegant gardens.

Although it boasts numerous architectural styles, Charleston is famous for its piazzas -- the tiered, columned porches designed to catch cool breezes.

Homes that are open year-round include: Nathaniel Russell House with its flying or floating staircase; Edmondston-Alston House with its panoramic waterfront view; Joseph Manigault House, one of America's premier examples of Adam-style architecture; Aiken-Rhett House, graced with magnificent Greek Revival rooms; Heyward-Washington House, George

Washington's headquarters during his 1791 visit; and the ornate, 24,000-square-foot Calhoun Mansion.

Nicknamed "the Holy City," church spires are the tallest structures in town. Noteworthy are: St. Philip's, whose steeple light guided ships to port; St. Michael's, whose tolling bells have been revered by Charlestonians since 1791; the Huguenot Church, the only congregation in America using the original French Huguenot liturgy; and First (Scots) Presbyterian with its window displaying the seal of the Church of Scotland.

Early Charlestonians gossiped while selecting produce at Old City Market. Today, souvenirs by local craftsmen are sold in the ancient sheds. At the entrance, the famous "basket ladies" weave low-country palmetto and pine needles into attractive baskets, an art passed down from African ancestors.

The College of Charleston, America's first municipal college, and The Citadel, South Carolina's state military college, are short cab rides from the Historic District. The Citadel's Corps of Cadets perform their popular dress parade almost every Friday at 3:45 p.m. during the academic year.

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