Charleston - elegance and irony

Date published: 02 May 19

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Their portraits face each other obliquely across the council chamber in Charleston’s handsome, neoclassical City Hall: the humourless John C. Calhoun, who ran unsuccessfully for President and regarded slavery as “instead of an evil, a good - a positive good”; and the Rev Daniel Jenkins, a former slave who started an orphanage and taught his charges to play donated musical instruments. Their proximity in posterity is just one reason Charleston is one of the United States’ most fascinating cities.

Charleston City Hall

Born in the roistering years of the Restoration and named Charles Towne after the then King of England, the womanising Charles II, the South Carolina port was laid low by the War of Independence, got up only to see its economy knocked down again by the Civil War, spent a chunk of the 20th century in the doldrums before starting the long job of restoring its historic buildings but was forced into yet another comeback following the devastation of Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

Meantime that frantic 1920s craze, the Charleston, had taken off there, though the local dance of choice is now the shag, whose moves – just to enhance the joke for British visitors - include the Belly Roll.

Today the city’s old heart, built on a peninsula between the Ashley and Cooper rivers, is delightful. Away from the covered stalls of Market Street, focus of tourist crowds including those trooping off cruise ships, it is quiet, mostly sedate and easily navigable on foot. Car drivers appear patient, perhaps lulled by the unhurried pace of the seemingly ubiquitous horse and mule drawn tourist carriages. Streets are shaded by live oaks. Some are cobbled with stones brought from England. In this so called “Low Country” there is no stone, and to bring cobbles by sea was probably easier than hauling them from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west. Gas lamps still flicker on wall brackets. Homes from the 18th and 19th centuries are typically “single houses”, the width of one room, which allowed the south wind to pass through. They have balustraded decks called piazzas. Though the entry to the piazza may face the street, the real front door is some way along it, providing extra protection in the days of wandering felons.

Among the grand historic homes open to visitors is the Aiken-Rhett house, built in 1820 and hugely expanded before the Civil War by Governor and Mrs William Aiken. Unusually, the Historic Charleston Foundation, which acquired it in 1995, decided not to renovate it but to leave it, save for its art gallery, as it was in the mid-18th century. Thus the imagination is left to roam. Joggling seatThe slave quarters, fiercely hot and humid in summer, are little changed, even down to the rusting coffee pots in the kitchen. There are circular ceiling marks where mosquito nets hung above heavy sleigh beds, a reminder that Charleston was once plagued by malaria. On the piazza are curved “joggling” seats whose shape encouraged courting couples to get closer. And in its dining room you can almost hear the chatter of wealthy planters and their ladies around the table.

Charleston is a city of ironies. Its fortune was made largely from rice, which was suited to its climate and surrounding marshes. It became the world’s biggest producer. Many of those who came to work on its production – enslaved people, as locals are now careful to call them – were brought and bought for their expertise, for rice was a staple in parts of West Africa. Yet they were denied education by their owners.

The city was founded near a great bank of oyster shells and today you may enjoy that prince of shellfish at any number of its excellent restaurants. I ate them fried at The Grocery, where Kevin Johnson’s cooking is not to be missed, with mignonettes of green tomato at Tradd’s and ginger and citrus at The Ordinary (which was anything but). I didn’t make it to Husk, though it was enthusiastically recommended.

Oysters at Tradd's

South Carolina was the first state to secede and Fort Sumter, offshore but visible from the seawall of the Battery, at the old town’s southern tip was the target of the opening shots of the Civil War. You may take a ferry to the fort, where mangled shells are still embedded in its 5ft thick brick walls. By the mainland jetty is a museum dedicated to it. 

Elsewhere the Charleston Museum, claimed to be the oldest in America provides a fine overview of the city’s history. The exhibit that stuck most firmly was a photograph of the son of plantation owner Louis Manigault, perhaps not much more than a year old, yet already with his own slave.

A few steps away is Marion Square, a patch of green named after Francis Marion, the “swamp fox” who waged guerrilla warfare against the British and led his troops to safety on swamp paths. On one side of the square is a monument to Calhoun, which some would like removed. At its base, showing some signs of abuse, is a plaque stating his racial philosophy. Though by then the import of Africans had been banned, and many Charlestonians were having doubts about slavery, it is signed off with the defiant words “Proud Enslaver, 1837”.

Catfish Row todayAs for the Rev Jenkins, he tried without much joy to fund his orphanage by getting his young musicians to play for donations on street corners. Frustrated, he went on the road, eventually borrowing money to bring a band to try in London. But he was stopped after being arrested for causing a public disturbance. This proved a blessing in disguise, for the Times picked up the story, the band began playing to packed houses and they raised enough to get home and more. He returned to play at the 1914 Anglo-American Exposition. His musicians graduated from marches to ragtime and early jazz. Among them was a trumpeter who joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra – William “Cat” Anderson.

Which brings me to another of Charleston’s ironies: George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess stemmed from a novel and a play written by Charlestonians. The disabled Porgy was based on a local peanut seller called Sam Smalls. The novelist’s inspiration for Catfish Row was a group of houses on Church Street (then Cabbage Row), now much changed. Jenkins’ top band took part in performances of the play. Yet racial segregation meant the opera would not be seen in the city for some four decades.

More information

British Airways has launched non-stop flights between Heathrow and Charleston.

I stayed at two hotels, the recently opened, high luxury Hotel Bennett, which has a great rooftop swimming pool, and the Andrew Pinckney Inn, a lovely boutique B&B on the doorstep of the covered market.

Further information at

Silver Travel Advisor recommends Frontier America.

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