Thursday, May 18, 2017

A Famous Early Charleston Tavern--Gone But Not Forgotten

You can bet your shrimp and grits, there is no mistaking where this famous Charleston casualty of the wrecking ball once upon a time stood. Its striking replacement, the South State Bank of Charleston, has plaques plastered all along its Church Street side documenting its significant role in the city's early history. For nearly two hundred years, it had been known by many names, but it was best known by its first, Shepheard's Tavern.

Charles Shepheard built his tavern somewhere around 1720 on Broad Street. As it turned out, the tavern was advantageously located between the city's center of government conducted at the State House, also built on Broad Street, and the city's commercial heart with its bustling wharfs on East Bay Street. It was a four-story oblong building with a long room stretching down its Church Street side.

According to one source, Shepheard's Tavern burned down in 1740 and 1796 and another source only mentions 1796. Both could be true since great fires occurred in Charleston in each of those years around Broad Street and Church Street. In 1740, it was rebuilt using as many materials as could be salvaged from the original building. At the time of its burning in 1796, the building was used as a retail and wholesale store. Again, it was rebuilt. An artist's depiction of the tavern is etched on a granite stone located at the Church Street corner of the present Southern Bank of Charleston. Swallow's Tavern, The City Tavern and The Corner Tavern were its other known names.

To comprehend the importance Shepheard's Tavern played in early Charleston society is to understand the role of the tavern to early Colonial America. In "The Tavern in Colonial America," "The Gettysburg Historical Journal": Vol. 1, Article 7, Steven Struzinski stated, "Samuel Cole in Boston opened the first tavern on March 4, 1634. It was not long before the demand and necessity for taverns in New England, and throughout the colonies, was overwhelming. In 1656, the General Court of Massachusetts held towns accountable with fines if they did not sustain an ordinary...The tavern served a multitude of purposes in colonial towns and countrysides. They were means of direction for travelers, as well as settings where they could eat, drink, be entertained, and spend the night. Along with alcoholic beverages, colonists could play games, enjoy entertainment, participate in discussion, and receive the latest news and debate of the time. Along with being popular locations of social congress, taverns were significant for their function in town culture and society. Taverns were utilized as meeting place for assemblies and courts, destinations for refreshment and entertainment, and, most importantly, democratic venues of debate and discussion. The interiors of taverns were designed with different rooms, the largest room being the taproom with furnishings such as chairs, desks, the bar, and a fireplace. Certain upper-class taverns had parlors that were attached to the taproom. The taverns located in towns usually had special rooms designated for meetings of groups or, the more likely case, assemblies and court proceedings."

Compared to all the public houses and taverns in early Charles Towne, Shepheard's Tavern stood out at showcasing all the various facets mentioned in Struzinski's article. Prior to 1738, the tavern's room stretching down Church Street was rented to the provincial government for court meetings and as a result, acquired the nickname "the courtroom." The St. Andrew's Society held their dinners and meetings in the tavern, as did the newly formed "Ancient and Honorable Society of Free and Accepted Masons." Henry Holt, a dancer turned thespian, gave a ball there in December of 1734.

In 1935, the tavern's "long room" was rented to a group of strolling players and local musicians who launched the town's first theatrical season with the presentation of Thomas Otway's "The Orphan, or the Unhappy Marriage." At a cost of 40 shillings per ticket, Charlestonians crowded into the tavern on January 24, 1935 for the plays opening performance, which was repeated on January 28th and twice in February.

On February 18th, the first advertised opera in America was performed by the same players. It was called "Flora or Hob in the Well" written by Colley Cibber. Charles Towne's first theatrical season at Shepheard's Tavern was such an impressive success, a subscription drive was undertaken to raise money to build a permanent playhouse. Not long after, enough funds were accumulated to begin construction of the theatre on Dock Street in 1736--recognized as the first theater in the English colonies, but disputed by some who say a theater built in Williamsburg predated it by two decades.

In 1743, it served as a post office. In 1773, when the establishment was known as Swallow's Tavern, the first Chamber of Commerce in America was formed on the site. During the Revolutionary period, the tavern was among those that hosted meetings of the Sons of Liberty. On August 29, 1783, when it was called The City Tavern, 43 Continental Army officers residing in South Carolina met at the calling of Major General William Moultrie to establish the South Carolina Society of the Cincinnati. After the tavern burned down in 1796 and was rebuilt, in May 31, 1801 the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry was founded. Later, in the 19th century, it became a grocery store called Klinck, Wickenburg and Company. The building was demolished in 1928 to make way for the construction of the classic style bank faced with Indiana limestone at a cost of $280,000. Salvaged bricks from the demolition were used in the construction of the outbuildings behind one of Charleston's oldest double tenements at 143 1nd 145 Church Street.

Even though Shepheard's Tavern has gone the way of other Charleston icons such as the Charleston Hotel, the Argyle Hotel, Bennett Rice Mill, and Institute Hall, to name a few, its prominence in early Charleston is forever burned into the city's historical archives. Take a walk to the corner of busy Broad and Church Street and pause for a few moments. Try to envision the four story building that strategically stood there once upon a time and recall its impressive history. If you need a little assistance in nudging your imagination, stop at the Market Pavilion Hotel and indulge in one of its Nitrotinis before embarking on your trip to the past. The patrons of the old tavern would be envious.

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