Walking Tour of Downtown Charleston - French Quarter

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French Quarter Walking Tour- Historic Downtown Charleston South Carolina


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French Quarter Tour starts here. Begin in front of Charleston City Hall at 80 Broad Street. This historic 1800 building is Charleston's first example of Adamesque construction, designed by famed local architect Gabriel Manigault to display elaborate detail and symmetry. The white stucco exterior is trimmed in Italian marble over a inner layer of red brick, and is highlighted by a grand entrance staircase and pediment featuring the city seal and motto - "Aedes Mores Juraque Curat" (She guards her buildings, customs and laws). Erected as the Charleston branch of the Bank of the United States, the building was conveyed to the city in 1811 and converted to City Hall in 1818. The public can view the grand two-story council chamber, which was remodeled during the Victorian period with a ceiling of polychrome paneling. Featuring a fascinating collection of historic paintings and busts that include John Trumbull's 1791 portrait of George Washington, Samuel Morse's painting of James Monroe, and Vanderlyn's portrait of Andrew Jackson.

Adjacent to City Hall is Washington Square, also known as City Hall Park. This oak-shaded green space ringed on three sides by intricate wrought iron gates is a favorite for artists and anyone seeking a quiet refuge in the heart of the city. It was here that a famous "tent city" was set up in the aftermath of the earthquake of 1886, and looming in the park's northwest corner is a reminder of Charleston's vulnerable past - the 1827 Fireproof Building. This National Historic Landmark was designed by another heralded Charleston architect, Robert Mills. The Greek Doric design is constructed entirely of nonflammable materials - iron, glass and stone - and formerly a repository for city records, today serves as headquarters for the S.C. Historical Society.

The raised entrance portico of the Fireproof Building faces Chalmers Street, longest and most famous of Charleston's remaining cobblestone streets. This bumpy surface was an idea that dates to the mid 1700's, when sailing ships loading in Charleston would dump cobble stone ballast on docks to fill their hulls with rich cargoes of rice and indigo. These piles of stones were put to use in stabilizing the sandy, rutted streets facing Charleston harbor, and only six such thoroughfares remain in the city today. Walking East along Chalmers, notice a variety of gates that feature iron-spiked "Cheveaux- de-Fries" and masonry pineapples. The spikes were set to discourage intruders after a failed slave uprising in 1822, while conversely, the pineapple was a traditional symbol of welcome. Above the roof line on the north side of Chalmers Street, stands one of the city's historic bell towers that rang out fire warnings during the 1800's.

Farther down Chalmers Street on the South side is The Pink House, built as a tavern in 1712. Constructed of Bermuda stone and featuring an unusual gambrel roof, the bright pastel structure is now home to an art gallery.

Across the street are two of Charleston's most notable buildings, the German Fire Company Engine House and Ryan's Slave Mart. The 1851 fire house was built in Roman Revival style with a grand archway to house engines and horses, while the slave market dates to 1856, when a city ordinance forbade the selling of slaves along city streets, moving such auctions inside to "marts" or "yards". In 2007, the building was renovated and reopened as the Old Slave Mart Museum, with displays of slave artifacts.

Our tour turns North on State Street, which historically housed several of Charleston's early fire companies in antebellum structures that have been remodeled as homes. At 27 State, the 1813-era stuccoed residence features an inner courtyard and buildings reminiscent of old Europe, and this part of the city was heavily-influenced by French and German immigrants during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Turning eastward again at Queen Street, our tour passes the Footlight Players Workshop Theater, an 1850-era cotton warehouse that has for many years served the city's oldest stage company. Next to the theater is Philadelphia Alley, legendary for the stories of duels that were fought there, and a favorite storytelling spot for the city's numerous ghost walks.

The intersection of Queen and Church Street provides eye-catching views and historic sites in every direction. On the southeastern corner is The Dock Street Theater, famed as the first structure built specifically for theatrical performances in America back in 1735. In those days, ships tied up at the eastern end of a thoroughfare called The Dock Street, whose name was changed in 1740 in honor of England’s Queen Anne. In 1809, the property was converted to the Planter’s Hotel, and later remodeled with the current banded brownstone columns through which visitors are now welcome to enter. Their they can relax in the same lobby were “Planter’s Punch” was first served to guests, and peruse an exact replication of the colonial theater, completed in 1937 with a reprise of the original 1735 production of The Recruiting Officer".

Facing the theater across Church Street is a vaulted Gothic Revival church that serves America’s only active French Calvinist, or Huguenot, congregation. Designed by noted Charleston architect Edward Brickell White in 1845, this is the third church built on the site by French Protestants who immigrated to the Charleston area in 1680. Because much of early the congregation lived on inland rice plantations and had to travel by boat to church, services were originally scheduled to coincide with changes in tides, and for many years the structure was known as “the tidal church”.

Looming majestically over Church Street northward is one of Charleston’s most memorable sights, St. Philip’s Episcopal Church. The towering
St. Philips Church - French Quarter church was built in 1835, but its Tuscan columns and English Renaissance steeple were not completed until the 1850’s, a reconfiguration that protruded into Church Street, creating the distinctive bend in the thoroughfare today.

Although not Charleston’s oldest church building, St. Philip’s is Charleston’s oldest congregation, dating to 1680, when the church was located
where St. Michael’s stands today. The Church Act of 1706 split the congregation into two parishes, and a new St. Philip’s was built on the site in 1710. This church caught fire in 1796, but was saved by a slave named Boney who climbed the steeple to pull away burning embers – thus winning his freedom. Ironically, the church did succumb to fire in the 1830’s.

The St. Philip’s graveyard is famous for the many historic figures buried there, as well as its unusual arrangement of gravesites. Traditionally, the
burial grounds flanking the structure on the eastern side of Church Street were known as the “Friendly” graveyard, reserved for church members born in Charleston. The cemetery across the street was called the “Strangers” graveyard, holding those parishioners born outside of Charleston. Even the heralded John C. Calhoun, twice Vice-President of the United States, but a church member born in Abbeville, lies in the “Stranger’s” side, although he briefly made a foray across the street. In 1865, Charlestonians feared that Union troops descending on the city might defile the grave of the staunch secessionist, so Calhoun was exhumed and placed in an unmarked grave on the “Friendly” side. After the war and the threat to his grave had passed, church members insisted that Calhoun be returned to his original resting place, and he was moved again, creating the legendary saying that Calhoun may have crossed Church Street more in death than in life.

Turning westward at Cumberland Street, the tour passes Charleston’s oldest municipal building, the 1713 Powder Magazine. This durable, thickly-walled structure held the city’s supply of gunpowder until the Revolution, when a British shell fired from the harbor burst so close that the powder was moved.

For a number of years during the 1800’s the cool inner sanctum was used as a wine cellar by residents in the house next door, and today, the old building is officially a museum.

Taking a left through the bank parking lot further west on Cumberland Street leads to the side entrance of the Circular Congregationalist Church and graveyard. This burial ground is considered the oldest in Charleston, with graves that date to the 1680’s. The church is located at the site of the White Meeting House, built in 1695 as a haven for those escaping religious persecution in other colonies, and from which Meeting Street derives its name. The first Circular church was built here in 1804 by Robert Mills, who designed a cylindrical apse under a 180-foot steeple. Burned in Charleston’s Great Fire of 1861, the church was rebuilt in its current circular style in 1896, but remains most famous for its historic gravestones. Etched on many of the New England slates imported during colonial times are distinctive illustrations called “soul effigies”. These markings exemplify the concepts of death and afterlife in that period, with skulls, wings and grim reapers carved on next to inscriptions written with colonial script and spelling. The Circular Church graveyard is a favorite feature on ghost tours as well, and is open to the public during daylight hours.

Proceeding through the front churchyard gate, our tour turns northward along Meeting Street. Ahead is Charleston’s legendary City Market, whose symbolic gateway is the imposing 1841 Romanesque Revival structure – Market Hall. Designed by Edward Brickell White, this classic construction bears all the architectural hallmarks of the idyllic Roman temple, including figures of bull and ram heads set in the frieze below the roof line, an ancient symbol of sacrifice to the gods.

A walk up Market Hall’s brownstone steps and through its Tuscan columns leads to the United Daughters of the Confederacy museum. Displays in the UDC museum include the original Confederate flag hoisted over Fort Sumter in 1861, as well as countless uniforms, weapons, diaries and other artifacts from the War Between the States.

Try another tour? South of Broad and Battery Walking Tour

Charleston History Overview

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