Our last full day in Charleston would be devoted purely to sightseeing, our goal to complete the two walking tours featured in our AAA Guidebook. The drive into downtown is easy from James Island, a fifteen-minute six-mile journey that takes you over Wappoo Creek and the Ashley River, dropping you onto Calhoun Street turning left onto Meeting Street in our quest to find the Tourist Office.
Parking is tough in town with off street garages the most expensive option. We drove around a bit and managed to find street parking a couple of blocks away, on Alexander Street, then walked back to the what we thought was the official tourist office, only to discover that I had steered us to a commercial outlet that specialized in booking tours. The gentleman at the counter was pleasant to deal with even though we weren’t buying and supplied us with some good information.
As is our pattern, we then went next door to the Charleston Tea Company to see about a snack and some coffee. Perusing the menu one item caught our attention, the Eggs and Veggies breakfast sandwich. Loaded with scrambled eggs, celery, tomato, sweet red bell pepper, and red onions, then toasted on the Panini grill, it proved to be a unique non-meat take on this breakfast standard.
We stopped next door at the real tourist information center, the largest and nicest one I’ve yet to visit anywhere, picked up a map of the free trolley service (which we would end up not using as they never seemed to come by when we needed one) and walked a mile or so down King Street, which has developed into the city’s main shopping zone, containing just about every imaginable retailer in existence.
We started the first of our walking tours at the corner of Meeting and Cumberland streets. A wall enclosed Charleston during most of the time the city was owned by England and the bulk of our walk would explore the area roughly bounded by where it used to stand. We passed by the Powder Museum, at one time Charleston’s main storage facility for munitions and gunpowder and turned right onto Church Street. There standing in front of us was St. Phillip’s Episcopal Church, built between 1835-38 to replace an earlier church building that had been burned. Its bells were melted for cannons during the Civil War, not replaced until 1976, and the building itself was hit 16 times during the Union’s attack on the city.
The church’s historic graveyard sits across Church Street and is home to some famous residents, including John C. Calhoun, Charles Pinckney (signer of the Constitution), and Dubose Heyward, author of the novel Porgy. Its ornate gates are said to be among the oldest wrought ironwork in the city.
We continued down Church and stopped in at the Dock Street Theater, which sits across from the Huguenot Church (built in 1845). Said to be the country’s first building specifically designed for dramatic performances, Charles II ordered the original theater built in 1736.
It was subsequently destroyed by fire, rebuilt in 1809 and had many uses, as a hotel for one, until it was restored in 1935 and after additional renovations completed in 2010, hosts many productions annually. Its name is derived from the fact that Church Street used to be called Dock Street, due to the presence of a creek and a large dock.
Moving on we stopped briefly outside of the Pink House at 17 Chalmers Street. Constructed in 1712 of Bermuda Stone (a coral limestone) it served as a tavern during colonial times. Its most interesting feature is the gambrel roof, made of clay tiles, called thigh tiles because the clay was shaped over the worker’s thighs.
We thought about stopping in at the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon, completed in 1771 to manage trade activities, but a fairly steep admission fee and much more to see that afternoon moved us along to view, next door, a section of the original wall that surrounded the city, complete with its earthquake bolts.
Fires have played a major role in reshaping Charleston, but the earthquake of 1886 with an estimated magnitude of 7.0 is referred to often throughout the day. Within the city almost all of the buildings sustained damage and most had to be torn down and rebuilt. As a result, earthquake bolts were added to existing unreinforced masonry buildings to add support to the structure without having to demolish the structure due to instability. The bolts pass through the existing masonry walls tying those on opposite sides of the structure together for stability.
We continued on, walking down Elliot Street, also known as Rainbow Row for its colorful stucco houses said to be the longest cluster of intact Georgian houses in the Unites States. Moving along to Church Street we stopped in for a tour at the Heyward-Washington House, built in 1772 for Thomas Heyward Jr., a signer of the Declaration of Independence. George Washington stayed here on his tour of the city in 1791.
As we tour houses like this regularly when we travel, we often look for some feature that sets them apart from the others, beyond just giving us a glimpse at what life would have been like for its residents during its occupancy. Sometimes it’s the exact original furniture that was used (this is rare). Sometimes its unique features not found in other houses of similar ilk. In this case it was a fine collection of beautifully constructed and maintained cabinets, cases, and tables, the most famous being the Holmes Bookcase, constructed around 1770; by whom is not certain but it is surmised that it could be the work of Martin Pfeninger who advertised in the April 13, 1773 issue of the South Carolina Gazette and Country Journal,
“Cabinetmaking in all its branches, also, inlaid-work in any taste, by martin pfeninger at his shop in New-Church-Street, adjoining the scotch-meeting and Parsonage-House, At the lowest Rates, and in the most expeditious Manner.”
We left the air conditioned comfort of the house, toured the backyard and the original kitchen (cooking during this era was almost always done away from the main structure due to the risk of fire) and exited, walking on for another forty minutes or so as we completed the last few sections of this first tour. We ended at Charleston City Market, spanning four city blocks on Market and bounded by Meeting and East Bay Streets. Established in the 1790’s, it provided a convenient place for area farms and plantations to sell beef and produce, and also acted as a place for locals to gather and socialize. Today, vendors who sell souvenirs and other items ranging from jewelry to Gullah sweetgrass baskets occupy it.
After walking the length of the market, we stopped across the street to get a cold drink before moving on to the second part of the tour. We were back in the tourist groove once again, walking long distances in an urban environment to view historically significant sights. Not a bad way to travel.
Charleston Tourism management: http://charleston-sc.gov/tourism
Charleston Tea Company: http://charlestonteaco.com/
King Street: http://www.charlestonsfinest.com/sc/exclusking.htm
Powder Museum: http://www.powdermag.org/
St. Phillip’s Episcopal Church: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Philip%27s_Episcopal_Church_(Charleston,_South_Carolina)
Dock Street Theater: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dock_Street_Theatre
Huguenot Church: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huguenot_Church
Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon: http://oldexchange.org/
Heyward-Washington House: http://www.charlestonmuseum.org/historic-houses/heyward-washington-house/
Charleston City Market: http://www.thecharlestoncitymarket.com/