Charleston, SC: The City Everyone Hates

This week, my family travelled ten hours by car each way from Delaware to Charleston to see my sister at her military university.

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m the cultured, sensitive child in the family and she’s the tough one. 

I can be tough when I want to, and those of you who know me know I’m not a wuss. But the military is definitely not for me.

Charleston, South Carolina, is a small city of 120.000 people which sprawls over a large peninsula and the surrounding landmasses. The approach to the city would lead you to believe there is no city where there is one, since there are no high rises. The entire city is, by law, shorter than the steeple of a church in the old town.

My first impression was that the city was much smaller than it was. It is difficult to see exactly where the city begins and ends since all the buildings are, again, so short, and the whole place feels like a much smaller place than it is since all the streets are lined with trees.

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Circular congregation church

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Bar in an old armoury, Charleston

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We did a walking tour to get oriented.

This city, which I call ‘the city everyone hates’, has a long military tradition. Before the Civil War, they were engaged in conflicts with Spain, Britain, Native Americans, and pirates on multiple occasions. This city is where the Civil War began, and everyone watched it begin from the street along the harbour.

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Charleston harbour

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The old town looks very much like the Deep South, with stately buildings and old mansions. It doesn’t feel at all cramped, and there are plenty of parks and other open spaces.

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The houses are a range of styles which are not necessarily particular to the city, but which are pleasantly represented here. The typical, American-looking brick houses in the colonial style are everywhere, as well as Victorian, Georgian/Federal, and Charleston-style houses. For example, a colonial can be seen below:

The Charleston-style home is a Georgian home split in half. Georgian homes, later called Federal homes because we weren’t happy having our typical style of home named after British kings, is almost perfectly symmetrical. A major feature is that the house is split down the middle with a large corridor and is almost always two rooms deep. Because Pinterest ruins everything, I can’t find a good sketch of the floorplan on Google Images.

But in Charleston, people decided to split these homes in half and only build one side.

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Charleston "single home"

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For this reason, many of the entrances are on the side of the house rather than in the centre, where it would be had they built the whole house. The patios, called ‘piazzas’ here, always face south and west in order to let the most wind in before the advent of air conditioning.

You can imagine it must be annoying to have a whole side of your home, with large windows and piazzas, staring right into your neighbour’s house due south of you. Therefore, these houses have no windows on the north side, because they don’t want you watching them shower and such. This has created the term ‘northside manners’, which means that people would refrain from listening northwards when in their homes and looking out the one or two small windows on the north end of their homes.

Charleston is also dotted with churches, including the only French Huguenot church in America, in the Gothic revival style:

This church above lies in the French Quarter and the graveyard is the final resting place of four signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Charleston is also known for its wrought and cast iron, which is everywhere and can be seen in front of the church as in the picture above. The graveyard is reserved for members of the church and residents of Charleston. The cemetery across the street is reserved for non-members, including John C. Calhoun, Vice President under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, as well as Secretary of State and Secretary of War among other things.

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Grave of John C. Calhoun

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Charleston is a very hot and very humid place, which I could tell even though it was a nice and chilly 45F/15C that day, so the major slave market was housed in a large building across from the oldest building in the city. The market, which was originally outdoors, was one of the busiest in America and took place outdoors, but the inhumanity of the institution made the more sensitive and moral residents of the city very angry. So for all of these reasons, the market was eventually moved inside, out of sight and out of the heat.

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Former slave market

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Apparently, 45% of all slaves who came to America passed through this town.

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Stephen Colbert's childhood home

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This city is kind of strange in the sense that it seemed almost like nothing predated 1990. The tour guide mentioned at almost every point that the buildings in front of us had been destroyed during a fire, a bombardment, or an earthquake. It became a joke in our group and every time he mentioned the age of a building, one of us would say, “Built in 1745, burned down ten times, and rebuilt as it is in 2007.” It would be funnier if you were there.

Many of the largest and nicest homes were built by plantation owners, who would move into town for the social season and needed a place in which to entertain. The Colbert home, for example, was one of those. The home below happens to be a branch of my family with whom we have little contact, but now that we realise they’re loaded, we’re trying to rebuild the relationship.

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Roper house door with rope carving

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We toured inside one of these homes along the Battery and let me tell you, it is shocking how much money these people had. We weren’t allowed to take pictures, but the woodwork was phenomenal.

A kind of funny anecdote about the tour of the Smith-Middleton home: The tour guides, for some reason, guard the washroom like it holds the Ark of the Covenant. I asked where it was, and the man told me to wait on the piazza till the tour passed by. So I did. Then another announced the washroom was now available for our use, so I got up and went. It’s  only got a screen door as a cover, and has a huge sign on the front saying “OCCUPIED” when the door is closed. I was inside, and I heard a woman ask where the washroom was. The tour guide said it was occupied, but the woman didn’t listen. While the tour guide is screaming at her to desist in her charge up the stairs, I hear the door being shaken wildly. Then she says aloud, “Oh, I guess it’s occupied.” You think?

I’ll continue in another post to be published tomorrow.


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