What’s Doing in Charleston, South Carolina
Charleston, originally Charles Town, dates back to the late seventeenth century and was the fifth largest city in North America at that time. The original settlement lasted about ten years a few miles up the Ashley River from the city’s current location, which is at a peninsula formed by the Ashley and Cooper Rivers. Today’s Charleston was laid out in 1680 in a master plan called the Grand Modell with broad streets and boulevards as well as a Civic Square at the intersection of Meeting and Broad Streets.
Today, with a population of 120,000, it’s the second largest city in South Carolina, after Columbia, the capital.
By the mid-eighteenth century, Charleston had become a major center of trade, especially for the southern colonies. Thanks to alliances with Cherokee and Creek Indians, deerskin was at the center of the city’s economy. Rice and indigo dye also became major businesses.
The first theater to be built in America was built in Charleston in 1736. The Charleston Library Society was founded in 1748 and is the third oldest subscription library in the U.S. The College of Charleston, founded in 1770, is the oldest municipally supported college in the states.
Most importantly, Charleston was a bastion of religious freedom (although toleration for Roman Catholics only came later on), and is known as the Holy City, thanks to the steeples that dot the skyline. Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (see virtual tour on last page), the country’s fourth oldest Jewish congregation, was founded in 1749, and Brith Sholom Beth Israel, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in the South, was founded in 1862.
Because Charleston’s economy languished in the post Civil War period, there was little money for new construction. Thus the existing structures had to be preserved and many older (and now historic) buildings were simply whitewashed instead of being torn down and replaced, according to a local historian and tour guide, Linda Wohlfeil Jones, a principal at Absolutely Charleston.
All that changed when, in 1975, Joseph P. Riley was first elected mayor (he is currently serving his tenth term). “Under his leadership,” says the city’s official website, “Charleston has increased its commitment to racial harmony and progress, achieved a substantial decrease in crime, experienced a remarkable revitalization of its historic downtown business district, seen the creation and growth of Spoleto Festival U.S.A., added significantly to the City’s park system, including the highly celebrated Waterfront Park, developed nationally-acclaimed affordable housing, and experienced unprecedented growth in Charleston’s size and population.” (Another factor in Charleston’s renaissance was appearance of air conditioning in private homes and buildings, which made the hot and humid city far more livable.)
WHAT TO SEE
There are several historic forts but Fort Sumter, where the Civil War began, is not to be missed. There are numerous historic homes and buildings that are open to the public including the Middleton Place House Museum, which dates back to 1755, and the Nathaniel Russell Townhouse, ca. 1808. If you’ve never been to a real plantation, there are several open to the public including the Boone Hall Plantation, which is still in operation.
The Charleston Museum is America’s first museum, having been founded in 1773. It provides a look at the cultural and natural history of Charleston and the South Carolina Lowcountry and you can visit two National Historic Landmark houses nearby, the Joseph Manigault House and the Heyward-Washington House.
Tours of the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim synagogue and that congregation’s cemetery are available and provide insight into Charleston’s role as a pioneer in religious freedom.
One of the most photographed sections of Charleston is Rainbow Row, a series of colorfully-painted houses on East Bay Street. Finally, the Battery is a seawall and promenade along the peninsula, well-known for its stately homes.