We aren’t big dancers; David blames it on the fact that he was always playing in the band instead of out on the floor at the school dances. What we know for sure is that when he tries to cut a rug, he looks more like a circus bear balancing on a ball than Fred Astaire. But he was ready to do the Charleston, the city of Charleston that is. Yes the dance is named for it, and the town swings with history. In colonial times this was the largest city and port south of Philadelphia, and a phenomenal amount of the colonial era structures remain in the historic district.
Photo by Catandrea
Beginning at Battery Park, lying at the tip of the peninsula between the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, we could easily waltz our way through the old town. The promenade along the water overlooks the bay, with Fort Sumter guarding the harbor on the other side. Cannons aim out to sea from this side too, the battery in Battery Park, forming a crossfire that made the port nearly impenetrable.
As we moved into the neighborhoods, we noticed that many of the houses had doorways off the street that opened onto porches. These are known as hospitality doors, and were a way of communicating with friends and neighbors. Leaving the door open meant the occupants were home and ready to receive guests, a signal that it was time to offer up some good old fashioned southern hospitality. The oddly placed doors are a staple feature of the colonial style homes known as the Charleston Single, and are unique to the city. Unlike most other places, the houses are situated perpendicular to the street, with the porch facing sideways. This allowed for maximum outdoor living space, more cross ventilation and could fit more homes on longer, narrow lots.
Photo by Spencer Means
Another thing that we found interesting for a city of this size is that steeples, not skyscrapers, form the Charleston skyline. In fact it is sometimes called The Holy City, not only for all the churches, but also because it was one of the few cities in colonial America that practiced religious tolerance. In fact, it was one of the first to allow Jews to openly observe their faith and, until the 1830s, boasted the largest Jewish community in North America.
Photo by Cherry Bream
Intermingled with all of those houses of worship there is a seemingly endless array of restaurant choices. The influences on Charleston’s menus incorporate classic Lowcountry favorites, downhome southern cooking, Gullah recipes and, of course, fresh seafood. We went with the local favorite that combines all of those, shrimp and grits, a real jitterbug for the taste buds.
After lunch we bopped over to one of the city’s most photographed spots, Rainbow Row. The buildings of the row were originally on the riverfront, but over time land was filled in until they now stand two blocks off the water. The thirteen houses along East Bay Street were a commercial center for the town, with merchants living above their businesses. As for the bright colors, myths abound, a favorite being that the houses were easier for drunken sailors to identify. But the truth seems to be that the pastel paint jobs were added more recently as the buildings were restored.
Photo by Alan Romanczuk
No restorations are necessary at the campus of College of Charleston, which occupies a large swath of the historic old town. Talk about historic; this school has every right to take up the whole dance floor if it wants. If you want to stay close by, be sure to patronize the beautiful Francis Marion Hotel. The college was founded in 1770, making it the oldest municipal college, and 13th oldest college of any kind, in the United States. Three of the school’s founders signed The Declaration of Independence, and three more have their signatures on The Constitution.
Photo by Rszend
With its Spanish moss draped trees and elegant architecture, we felt like we were sashaying through a perfectly preserved Southern colonial neighborhood, a feeling we enjoyed most of the day. Guess we could call that doing the Charleston.
Have you been to Charleston? What was your favorite part of the city?