PrologueWhat we are doing, and why we're doing it!
On April 10 1861, the Civil War was ignited when artillery, under the command of Confederate General Beauregard, opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. The 4+ year war of brother against brother which resulted in the tragic loss of life that we had seen evidenced at Gettysburg began in the harbor of this elegant southern city.
Charleston is different from most cities that we have visited so far. The old city fills a peninsula jutting into the harbor, leaving no room for suburbs or industrial areas. The major bridges bring you into the main peninsula passing through slums that suddenly open up to beautiful, historic southern charm. It's an odd sensation. You find yourself in a marvelous place, but you can't help but wonder why it's there because there was no gradual entry from industrial, suburb to old city.
The reason for such a charming city, of course, is based in it's history. It's been a charming place since it's construction by wealthy plantation holders. Unlike the rest of the South, where tobacco and cotton were king, it was rice that financed early Charleston. The elite of the area usually had classic mansions on their plantation grounds surrounding the city. The houses in Charleston provided an escape to civilization and the culture the city provided. It was a place to see and be seen, to make important business and social contacts. It was intended to be an exclusive area from it's inception.
The exclusivity is well earned. The houses are magnificent. They ooze of old time grace and class that you don't often find in the most expensive areas in Manhattan or Beverly Hills. Most of the residences are three stories tall. Buildings that you would think, in other places, would be apartment buildings are in fact private homes. They built tall to catch the breezes and escape the mosquitos.
Charleston hasn't always been a beautiful, elegant enclave. The city suffered terribly during and after the civil war. This time of ruin probably lends the best insight into the essence of modern Charleston. In a time of desperate need of economic activity, the local politicians refused to let rail lines extend through the city to the harbor's wharfs. It appears that they felt it would ruin the gentile nature of the town. In the long run, it is the essential nature of the city that has been it's salvation. It is a wonderful place to visit. Enough people have come to see this example of gentile South that it is enough that it exists simply for it's own sake. Tourism has become such an important business that even the original grounds of the Citadel Military College have been converted to a hotel. Yet the town doesn't feel like a tourist trap.
The restoration of Charleston is an on-going activity. The city has tight control of how buildings are maintained and modified. Features such as ornamental iron-work are prized and preserved.
The legacy of the old South extends far beyond the architecture in Charleston. Your social standing here depends on your family's history. The area 'South of Broad' is where Charleston's cultural elite reside. While their status is based on blood and breeding rather than bank accounts, the community seems to be doing quite well.
Despite it's foundation on slavery and the current insular social structure, there is an undeniable charm to Charleston. It would be a wonderful place to lose yourself for a weekend or a week. Sample the food. Walk the streets. Soak in the leisurely elegance. Just don't ever believe that you really belong there.