In Charleston, change is often a four letter word. More than any American city, Charleston guards its heritage with a passion. A few notable examples include:
1902 - the Powder Magazine (17 Magazine St) was preserved.
1911 - Susan Pringle Frost began purchasing the slums along eastern Tradd Street for renovation.
1913 - Congress authorized the transfer of the Old Exchange Building (122 East Bay St.) to the Daughters of the American Revolution.
1920 - The Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings was established.
1924 - Joseph Manigault House opened as the first house museum, and the Heyward-Washington House was purchased by the Charleston Museum.
1931 – Charleston established the Board of Architectural Review and established the Old and Historic District.
That is only a few of the official acts the city has taken to protect its buildings. But when it comes to protecting the social and cultural heritage of the Holy City it’s not as easy as just passing a city ordinance. Just witness the gradual deterioration of one of Charleston’s longest traditions – merriment!
No more street parties on St. Patrick’s Day. No smoking in ANY building in Charleston. No tailgating at afternoon Citadel football games (I guess fireworks at 11 pm after a baseball game in a park named after the current mayor is less disruptive). The only approved street “parties” these days are politically correct cultural events like the Art Walk, MOJO Arts Fesitval and various SPOLETO and Piccolo Spoleto happenings. By the 1980s all of the “adult clubs” and “massage parlors” that used to be located around the Market area were pushed to the extreme northern end of the city. During the 1990s as the price of real estate began to rise in the downtown area, a new crop of self-important elites with persimmon personalities arrived and slowly strangled the real social character of Charleston. After all, we can’t blue collar drunks on the streets of the Holy City, can we?
Well, yes we can. Charleston is called the Holy City due to its number of churches, not the behavior of the locals. Maybe if these persimmon personages would have bothered to learn the “real” heritage of their new city BEFORE they decided to purchase that million dollar home, things might be different. A quick primer on Charleston social behavior:
The city’s namesake, King Charles II was called the Merry Monarch. English historian Samuel Pepys described Charles’ court “as there being so much . . . swearing, drinking and whoring that I do not know what will be the end of it.” Charles admitted to fathering “more than 35 bastards.”
One of the most important men in the establishment of Carolina was Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper. John Dryden noted that Cooper was a man who “loves fumbling with a Wench, with all his heart.” Charles II referred to Cooper as “the greatest whoremaster in England.”
When the first settlers arrived in April 1670, the cargo included 12 tons of beer and 50 barrels of brandy. Seven months later, Captain Joseph West complained that many of the settlers “were so addicted to the Rum, that they will do little whilst the bottle is at their nose.”
In 1768, one hundred and thirty-two taverns were licensed in Charles Town - one for every five adult males. Rev. Charles Woodmason complained that each Saturday so many people in Charleston became so “drunk and stupid, as to be utterly unfit to attend Public Worship on Sunday.” When Francis Asbury preached at Old Bethel Church in 1789 he called Charleston the “Sodom and Gomorrah of the South.”
The upper floors of the Planters Hotel (present location of the Dock Street Theatre) were reserved for “gentlemen and their private guests.” Richard Hofstadter noted: “The Charleston hedonistic life put the other seaboard towns in the shade.” John C. Calhoun became one of Charleston’s most treasured citizens despite the fact that he loathed the city. He called Charleston “intemperate and full of debauchery.”
The Reverend Arthur Crain wrote in 1900: “The city is wide open. No liquor law is being enforced. Drunkenness greets us on every hand. I can meet more drunken men in a 15-minute walk in Charleston than I could in New York, Chicago or any other city.” Six years later the state of South Carolina granted 297 liquor licenses - two hundred and thirteen of them were issued in Charleston. Fifteen bars were located around City Hall and nineteen operated within a block of St. Philip’s Church. During Prohibition, more than 20,000 South Carolinians made a living as a bootlegger.
In October 1942, Charleston police raided Market Street and arrested 626 prostitutes – 346 white and 280 black. Nearly half were found to be infected with venereal disease.
So, welcome to the REAL Charleston, named after the Merry Monarch who fathered more than 35 bastards. The city’s two main rivers are named after “the greatest whoremaster in England, and until recently we were renowned to be full of debauchery and loose and idle women.
As we approach another tourism season, and another St. Patrick’s Day where most of the celebrations are taking place OUTSIDE the confines of the Sodom and Gomorrah of the South, (and on Saturday night, three days BEFORE the actual holiday – another thing I disagree with) keep in mind that Ben & Jerry’s (96 Market Street) and the Charleston Crab House (corner of Market & State Streets) used to be brothels.
One silver lining: the persimmon personages who do enjoy their certain hoity-toity social events like the French Quarter Art Walk complained so much about excess noise and drinking in downtown Charleston, they have recently lost their right to stroll Broad Street and carry a plastic cup of their favorite wine from building to building. You have to love the rule of unintended consequences.
I urge everyone to help preserve one of Charleston’s most important heritages: eat drink and be merry, as often as possible. Or, if you’re feeling particularly inspired, eat, drink and be with Mary! And for you cross-dressers – go ahead and eat, drink and BE Mary. After this is the former Sodom and Gomorrah of the South.