Candlelight, carriages, centuries-old churches and she-crab soup: Charming Charleston is a feast of images of the Old South.
In a regional sense, it's the crown jewel of the mysterious, gracious Lowcountry of South Carolina.
Charleston dates from the 1670s, making it one of the oldest European-African settlements in the United States. The Colonial port's lengthy and turbulent history is marked by patriots, secessionists, pirates, wars, fires, economic booms and busts, earthquakes and hurricanes; even so, there are almost 3,000 historic buildings left in Charleston.
There are no fewer than 73 pre-Revolutionary War buildings, 136 more from the late 1700s and 600 others that predate the 1840s.
Every tourist's first stop should be the Charleston Visitor Center, 375 Meeting St., the meeting point for private van and carriage tours, the DASH (Downtown Area Shuttle; an unlimited one-day pass is $2.) system, guided walking tours and other visitor services.
Lovers of architecture won't get over Charleston. The historic district is a banquet of the single- and double-house styles used by the urban population. Charleston's most-photographed scene is Rainbow Row, a strip of 14 private multihued houses along East Bay that date from 1740, when the area was Charleston's waterfront district.
The stately Edmondston-Alston House (21 E. Battery) is the subject of many picture postcards, with its spectacular view of Charleston Harbor. It was built in 1825, but Col. Charles Alston bought it in 1838 and remodeled it in its current Greek Revival style.
Famous for its spiraling "flying staircase," the Nathaniel Russell House (51 Meeting St.) was built in 1808. Its elliptical "south rooms" are equally remarkable.
George Washington really did sleep in the Heyward-Washington House (87 Church St.) during a tour of the South in 1791. Thomas Heyward, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, built the house in 1772.
Gabriel Manigault designed the stately house (350 Meeting St.) for his brother Joseph in 1803. Guarded by a quaint gatehouse, the grounds are laid out to illustrate the locations of outbuildings. Inside, a curved staircase presides over a magnificent entrance hall.
A columned double staircase welcomes visitors to the Aiken-Rhett House (48 Elizabeth St.). South Carolina Gov. William Aiken Jr. called the 1817-era structure home from 1833 to 1887. During the Civil War, Confederate Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard used the house as a command center.
Houses of worship
The French Huguenot Church (at Church and Queen streets) dates from 1844 and is the only Huguenot church in America that adheres exactly to the liturgy of the French Protestant Church. The present building is the third one on the site.
Circular Congregational Church (138 Meeting St.) is also the third one built on its site. It dates from 1891. St. Michael's Protestant Episcopal Church (Broad and Meeting streets) had its cornerstone laid in 1752.
First (Scots) Presbyterian Church (Meeting and Tradd streets) was organized in 1731, and the present building dates from 1814.
The Unitarian Church (4 Archdale St.) was completed in 1787 and is better known for its interior than its exterior. St. Mary's Church (89 Hasell St.) was built in 1838. Beth Elohim Synagogue (72 Hasell St.) also dates from 1838.
Lodgings in Charleston can be as historic as the museums. Check with Historic Charleston Bed & Breakfast, (800) 743-3583.
The newly opened Embassy Suites Hotel at Marion Square is actually a restoration of the Old Citadel Building on Hutson Street, dating from 1822.
Just north, at 345 Meeting St., is the Hampton Inn-Historic District, situated in an early 19th-century building that was once a burlap bag factory.
Military history buffs can spend days soaking up Charleston's past.
Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island is the logical first stop. In 1776, Col. William Moultrie and his men repelled British warships at the Battle of Sullivan's Island.
Next up: Fort Sumter, site of the first shots of the Civil War in 1861. Boat tours depart from two locations several times a day for the National Historic Site.
Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum on U.S. 17 North is a must for World War II buffs. The aircraft carrier Yorktown is the museum there. The destroyer Laffey, the submarine Clamagore and the Coast Guard cutter Ingham are also open for tours.
The Citadel Museum (171 Moultrie St.) provides a fascinating look at military-academy life dating from The Citadel's founding in 1842.
Charleston is a city of museums great and small. Two of the best are right downtown.
Founded in 1773 by no less than four future signers of the Declaration of Independence, the Charleston Museum (now at 360 Meeting St.) is said to be the nation's oldest museum. Permanent exhibits range from the suspended spine of a whale to a replica of a Civil War submarine.
The Gibbes Museum of Art (135 Meeting St.) celebrates American art as well as Charleston-born artists. Miniature room interiors and a miniature portrait collection are among the highlights.
Outside the city, two intact Charleston-area plantations, Drayton Hall and Middleton Place, are designated National Historic Landmarks. There are other plantations as well.
Drayton Hall (3380 Ashley River Road) was begun in 1738, and stands today in almost original condition. The Georgian Palladian-style house was the only one along the Ashley River to be spared by Union troops in 1865.
In 1741, Henry Middleton laid out sculpted terraces, butterfly lakes and geometric designs of camellias, crape myrtles, roses and azaleas at Middleton Place (also on Ashley River Road), and today his plantation stands as the oldest landscaped gardens in America.
Besides the stately plantation house, the Stableyards animal and craftsmen exhibits show visitors how plantations operated.
Adjoining Drayton Hall along Ashley River Road is Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, dating from 1671. It includes the country's oldest Colonial estate garden, a swamp garden, tropical garden, 18th-century herb garden, biblical garden, topiary garden, petting zoo and waterfowl refuge. The current house dates from Reconstruction.
Boone Hall (U.S. 17) is one of the most-photographed plantations in America, with its long span of live oaks. Though the plantation dates from 1681, the present house was built in 1935.
On the water
Outside Charleston are some of the oldest resort islands in the United States, once the refuges of wealthy Charlestonians fleeing heat and pestilence, and still popular.
If the exclusive, private resorts aren't your thing, there are plenty of public beaches and islands.
Sullivan's Island is a rustic village surrounding Fort Moultrie; Kiawah Island offers Beachwalker County Park; Folly Beach County Park and Fishing Pier on Folly Beach make for a fun day; and James Island County Park on James Island is a nice getaway. Edisto Beach State Park on Edisto Island offers camping facilities.
If you go
Events: If you want to visit Charleston in the spring, book early. The Spoleto Festival USA is in town this year from May 23 to June 8. This celebration of the arts includes performances of opera, jazz, theater and dance. Every year, the Historic Charleston Foundation is host to the Festival of Houses & Gardens in the spring. This year, the 50th festival runs from March 20 to April 19.
Resources: "The Insiders' Guide to Greater Charleston" ($17.95) is a useful resource. On the Web, Charleston information is at http: //-aesir-.com/-welcome-.html.
For more information: Call the Charleston Visitor Center at (800) 868-8118.
Pub Date: 2/23/97