As mentioned in a previous post, we had driven through Charleston on several prior occasions but had never spent any significant time there. We had talked to another couple who raved about the general city tour that they had taken at the Visitor’s Center, so on Thursday after a quick breakfast in the coach, we headed into town. Luckily this time, although traffic was a little heavy, there were no major traffic jams caused by an open bascule bridge.
We arrived at the Visitor Center around 10:30 a.m. and parked in their parking lot. Just as a note, you can park here all day for a minimal cost – we didn’t return back to the car until 4:00 p.m. and it only cost us $8. Located in the old Deans Warehouse at 375 Meeting Street in an area designated as a National Historic Landmark District, the Visitor’s Center has it’s own interesting history. It was constructed in stages from 1840 to 1856 and was at one time a train station. It is one of five railroad buildings known collectively as the William Aiken House and Associated Railroad Structures. It was renovated with much of the original materials and opened as the Visitor Center in 1991.
Once inside the huge building where you could spend quite a bit of time perusing the numerous displays about Charleston, we immediately got in line to buy tickets for the “General” 1-1/2 hour city history tour. There are a number of tours available, including walking tours, evening ghost tours, carriage tours, a Fort Sumpter tour, a Gullah tour, a Gone with the Wind tour and numerous plantation tours to name a few. Plus there are several combination tour packages available.
Prices weren’t posted for all of the tours but tickets for the general history tour are $20 per person. Without even asking the young man at the desk gave us a $2 senior discount per ticket. I guess when you are in your twenties, anyone over the age of 40 must look like a senior 😐 !
An 11:00 a.m. tour was available so we were directed outside to the transportation area and instructed to look for an Adventure Tours van and a tour guide named Paulette. We quickly found the van and met Paulette. With only 3 other couples taking the tour, it would be a small and intimate group. How nice – without a full house, photo ops are better since you can switch from one side of the van to the other.
Before the tour started, Paulette introduced herself, explaining that she used to be a social studies teacher and found being a tour guide much easier – at least the people on the tour were there because they wanted to be and usually no one talked back to her. In addition to the city tour, she is a guide on the evening ghost tour. Combining both historical fact with her great sense of humor, Paulette was excellent, pretty much talking non stop for the entire 1-1/2 hours.
The tour route took us all around the city, showing us all the important places. The good thing is that there is a free trolley route so if we wanted to go back to any one place, we could hop on the trolley later in the day (we didn’t so we can’t give any opinion on the free transportation).
So many tidbits of information can be acquired taking these types of tours, answering burning questions like “what’s the difference between a graveyard and a cemetery?” A graveyard adjoins the church while a cemetery is located somewhere nearby. Who knew??? Besides that little piece of trivia we learned all sorts of historical details along the way, most of which I can’t remember (ah, yes it is tough being more mature)!
Homes in Charleston
If you are interested in architecture, Charleston is a wonderful place to visit as we quickly learned. As we rode around, Paulette pointed out examples of Colonial, Victorian, Georgian, Gothic Revival and many others. The one though that stuck in my head, probably because we saw so many of them is a style known as the Charleston single house. These houses are only one-room-wide with the narrow end of the house facing the street and typically have two-story verandas (called “piazzas”) which stretch down the long side. Not only do these piazzas increase the outdoor living space, they also provide much needed cross-ventilation to help the cool air from the prevailing winds of the water to circulate through the house. The piazzas also help to shade the windows of the house from the afternoon sun, again keeping temperatures inside more livable especially during the hot, humid summers. Many of the veranda ceilings are painted blue because many people used to think that it would keep the “haints” or restless spirits of the dead away.
At the street level, there typically is a door but surprisingly that door does not open directly into the house – it only leads into the veranda. Not sure if this holds true today but back in the early days, if this door was open, it meant the family was accepting visitors, if closed they were not. Once on the veranda, there is another door which leads into the house. Another reason for the street level door is the veranda could be closed off to help block the odor of the horse manure emanating from the street making it more pleasant for the family to sit out on the veranda in the late afternoons and evenings.
Because fires were a major problem during the 1800’s in Charleston and many of those fires started in the kitchen, the kitchens for many of the single style houses were in a separate building so in the event of a fire it could be more easily contained. Today, many of those separate kitchen buildings have been connected to the main house.
Paulette pointed out a number of single style houses that are currently for sale, one has an asking price of for $4.3 million! Is anyone rushing to get out their check book?
We were curious about the stone blocks found on the curbing next to the street in front of many of the homes – we learned that back in the days of horse and carriage these were used as stepping stones for the ladies to enter and exit their carriages.
Another particularly interesting area that we drove by was Rainbow Row which is a section of 13 Georgian Row houses painted in pastel colors. According to Paulette, there are several theories as to why these houses were painted this way. One such theory is that it would help intoxicated sailors coming in from port to remember which houses they were to bunk in. In other versions, the colors of the buildings date from their use as stores; the colors were used so that owners could tell illiterate slaves which building to go to for shopping. Today it is a major tourist attraction so I doubt these homes will be repainted any time soon!
If you are into reality TV (we’re not), you might be interested to learn that we passed by the house where the filming of the Bravo TV reality show, “Southern Charm” is filmed. I’ve never watched it but it centers around six “aristocratic” single men and women living in Charleston. One of the stars of the shows is Thomas Ravenel, a former SC state treasurer who was sentenced in 2008 to 10 months in federal prison for drug charges. Guess he’s a real charmer, eh!
Paulette’s Favorite Puddle
As we approached an intersection, Paulette told us to look down the street because we were passing by her favorite puddle. Huh? She explained that this puddle wasn’t due to any recent rain but was a salt water puddle due to the seepage of the ocean through the drainage system. At only 8 feet above sea level, parts of South Carolina are known as “Low Country”, now I can understand why. I found this interesting article about Charleston’s underwater future – pretty scarey stuff!
The Military College of South Carolina, aka The Citadel
Shortly after we left the Visitor’s Center, we rode past the Embassy Suites. Not exactly a landmark you would expect to find on a tour but it turned out that the Embassy Suites is located in the original Citadel Military College building and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The original Citadel was located at this site until the campus was moved to its current location in 1922. The site was bought in the 1990’s by a real estate developer who restored the run down property and turned it into the Embassy Suites.
Today’s Citadel has an undergraduate student body of about 2300 students. Paulette explained that even though it is a military school, the graduates are not required to go into military service. Even if they choose not to, they are pretty much guaranteed a job anywhere because of the reputation of the education and training received at the college. As we approached the campus, we passed by the 10 foot tall bull dog monument , likened after Boo, the bull dog mascot of their football team. Isn’t he cute?
Then we drove by the 3000 pound, 6 foot tall, 8 foot long all brass Citadel Ring which was a gift to the Citadel from Palmetto Balfour, the South Carolina division of the national class ring manufacturer and provider of the Citadel class rings as well as other famous rings.
Once we were in the main campus area, as we drove around Summerall Field where we had the unusual opportunity to see cadets training which was pretty cool. As we drove along, Paulette mentioned the white stripe on the side of the road about 2 feet from the sidewalk commenting that people think this is a bike path. But the truth is Citadel freshmen (known as gutter rats) are not allowed to walk on the sidewalk – they have to walk in the street inside the white line. She also told us the story of how Shannon Faulkner became the first woman who was admitted to the Citadel in 1995.
Other points of interest on the tour – the Hunley Submarine which was the first successful (well, not so much if you read the entire history!) combat submarine of the Confederate States in the Civil War; the Calhoun Mansion which is the largest residence in Charleston; the Aiken Rhett Museum, built in 1820, formerly the home of Governor Aiken of South Carolina; the Charleston City Jail, used from 1802 until 1939 and is supposedly haunted and the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon.
The last stop of the tour was at the Charleston City Market which was established in the 1790’s and stretches for four blocks. We were given the option of either returning to the Visitor Center or getting off at the Market which is what we opted to do so we could walk around to see some more of the sights on foot.
What I’ve written is just a piece of everything we learned. If you want to learn more then I guess you’ll just have to take the tour! We highly recommend it especially if you can only visit Charleston for a brief time.
More about our sightseeing on foot in the next post.
Some more photos of the sights…