Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Charleston Rises High Despite History's Uncontrollable Forces

Charleston, like many cities meandering in the stream of time, has both joyously celebrated and tragically suffered through changes inflicted on it by forces beyond its control. Through the upheavals, the city has licked its wounds and rebounded to become what it is today, one of the most popular destinations in the nation to visit.

Time, the most unrelenting of the forces, mercilessly moves in only one direction and either you seize the moment and prepare for the next or you end up a "decaying American city", likened to a "poisoned ecosystem", doomed to becoming a ghost town. (No pun intended, Charleston lives off of its ghosts.) Joe Riley, mayor of Charleston, unflatteringly characterized the downtown district by those words, and then seized the moment. Charleston Place rose from a huge, sandy lot where a JC Penney once stood. The Holy City celebrated its rebirth.

On various occasions, Charleston has been tried and tested by the uncontrollable forces wielded by nature in form of earth, wind, and fire. An earthquake devastated the city on August 31, 1886 damaging 2,000 of its buildings. Three-quarters of the homes in the historic district sustained damage of varying degrees when Hurricane Hugo struck the city on September of 1989 causing over $2.8 billion in losses. Five major fires have been documented throughout its history, which occurred in 1740, 1778, 1796, 1838, and 1861.

Some city icons have been systematically dismantled. In recent years, residents watched as the two aged, stately bridges traversing the Cooper River gracefully met their planned demise and the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge ascended in their place--the third longest cable-stayed bridge in the Western Hemisphere. It now stands in the Charleston skyline as a shining beacon of progressive evolution. In early spring, tens of thousands descend upon it for the Cooper River Bridge Run to tread their way into the very heart of Historic Charleston.

Other Charleston icons of the past are now only footnotes in history and few Charlestonians are around that can even recall where they once stood. They can only be learned about in places housing the city archives or photos floating around on the Internet, and only if you are specifically looking. The Charleston Hotel was one of these vanquished icons.

The 170-room Charleston Hotel proudly graced Meeting Street for over 120 years and was a cornerstone building near the Old Market area. Extending eastward 264 feet on Pinckney Street and 200 feet on Hayne Street, it was an imposing four stories high--the city's largest hotel. Made of stucco and brick, its architecture was antique with two large dining rooms and high ceilings throughout. A 75 by 80 foot open courtyard surrounded on three sides by wooden balconies was at its center.

I only happened to stumble upon it while searching through old pictures of Charleston. It carried the distinction of being counted among the first major buildings to be constructed in the Greek revival style in America by the renowned German architect, Karl Friedrich Reichert, known as the initiator and ultimately the most prolific builder of landmarks that would contribute to the character of the American South.

A compelling part of the Charleston Hotel's story revolves around a little known fact--there were two Charleston Hotels. The original Charleston Hotel went up in smoke along with a large section of the city’s Ansonborough neighborhood in the famous fire of 1838. It stood less than two years. The second rose from its ashes. It survived the Earthquake of 1886, but not unscathed. The center portion of the parapet of the hotel's block-long Corinthian colonnade had been hurdled to the sidewalk during the massive upheaval reportedly crushing two ornate gas lamps that flanked the entrance door. After surviving the earthquake, 74 years later it succumbed to time and had a date with the wrecking ball. Some of the wrought iron railings that were part of the old hotel's colonnade are rumored to be displayed at an office building three blocks south of the hotel's original sight. 200 Meeting Street was the hotel's address.

When you are downtown on Meeting Street and walking in the area of Hymans Restaurant, look across the street. The Bank of America building occupies the sacred ground where the Charleston Hotel previously stood 52 years ago. It was built in the early 1990's. After a protracted public debate, the developers were permitted to reclaim the historic height and scale but was not allowed to restore the original facade. The concrete colonnade on the modern building is a poor knockoff for the dramatic colonnade of the original hotel. It says little about its famous predecessor, which became the precursor, if not the icon, for tall, white columns in the American South.

While standing in the front of Hymans, close your eyes and do a "Somewhere in Time." Maybe, if you concentrate hard enough, upon opening your eyes you may find yourself in 1886 dressed in a hoop skirt or a gentleman's suit of the day, sipping on a mint julep and basking in the aura of Charleston's premier hotel of the day.(It certainly would help the transition--the mint julep that is.)

Pay attention to the date and the time. Check the newspaper of the day, the News and Courier. If it is August 30th, check into the Charleston Hotel--soak in the antiquity and ambience. Make sure you register for only a one night stay. If you reserve August 31st, at 9:50 pm you will be running out of a pitch-black hotel with the rest of the guests seeking to escape the toppling furniture and falling plaster. You will have just experienced the famous Great Charleston Earthquake, which jolted the Lowcountry like an alligator rolling its quarry.

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