If anybody asked me what Southern cities of the United States I wanted to revisit, Charleston in South Carolina would be my first choice. This past Christmas was our third visit to Charleston in the past four years and the best one by far. We wanted to be surprised and walked to places off the beaten path. Exploring some of Charleston’s Historic District on foot is an excellent idea if you visit Charleston for the first time. Rich in history and architecture, with an unique cuisine, and wonderful Southern hospitality, Charleston deserves its name, The City of Charm. Charleston has survived disease, great fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, Indian and pirate attacks, the Revolutionary War and the Civil War and been rebuilt through the efforts of many dedicated people. We went with an experienced guide on an approximately two-hour tour to Charleston’s famous alleys and passages. At the end of the tour, we felt that we missed on information and a lot of the pictures. So, we did some research, found some more hidden places, and created a new itinerary for the following day that fell on Christmas Day. This time, we drove to some of the alleys that happened to be within 1 – 1.5 miles apart from each other in the quiet neighborhoods of the historic district.
We were able to walk to the next alley and admire the architecture of many homes on the nearby streets. I compiled some of my “discoveries” in photo collages, slideshows, and short videos along with interesting stories and some curious historical facts that can be easily remembered if you choose to follow the same plan or create your own to get the most of your one day visit in Charleston.
The dominant residential buildings in the Charleston Historic District are the English row houses that were called single houses. They date back to the 18th and 19th centuries. They are detached two stories houses with one room wide and two rooms deep. Thousands of historic buildings in Charleston were designed in many different styles that include Colonial, Classical Revival, Greek Revival, Italianate, and Gothic Revival. It took us the whole day to completely tour these parts of Charleston. We didn’t mind doing it again. It was worth it. It was a pleasant sunny day. We accomplished a lot the second time because of a wiser planning. We took pictures and imagined how life used to be hundreds of years ago in Charleston. Driving in between places was a very good idea because it saved us valuable time. Here there are some architectural elements we found attractive.
- Beautifully crafted wrought iron gates – it is certain that the first 4 images represent gates made by Philip Simmons (another gate can also be seen in the video below about Stoll’s Alley). He was a blacksmith that lived most of his life in Charleston. Over 500 practical everyday iron objects were turned into art and can be seen throughout the city. Some of his work is displayed at the Smithsonian Museum and other places.
*** The very well known Cross and Egret Gate at 2 St Michael’s Alley
- Behind the wrought iron gates – A quick peek through some of the gates
- Window boxes with beautiful plants arrangements that can be found hanging at almost every house in the historic district.
- Old and new front doors with a variety of finishes and designs
- Walls covered with Creeping Fig
- Elegant wrought iron balconies
- Piazzas or large open-air side porches that usually run the length of a home and have multiple doorways leading indoors. Piazzas were protecting the home’s interior from rain, heat, and humidity by allowing doors and windows to remain open so cool breezes from the water could flow throughout the house. Interestingly, the street-facing door leads to the piazza, not into the house. The actual front door is located at the center of the first level of the piazza. Because of the crowded houses the side of the neighbor’s house that overlooks the piazza has typically fewer and smaller windows than the rest of the house to offer privacy.
- Earthquake bolts are long iron tie rods that were inserted into the walls to stabilize many buildings that were rebuilt as a result of the devastating 1886 earthquake. Many owners chose to decorate the plain look of the outside disc-shaped plates with crosses, scrolls, and lion heads.
- Homes with a special story
- Haint blue is a soft shade of blue that Gullah people used to block evil spirits from entering their homes. The shade of blue that resembles the color of the water refrains the spirits from crossing over. For this reason, they were still wondering in the physical world. The only way to send the spirits away was towards the sky. That was why, ceilings of porches were painted in haint blue to resemble the color of the sky. Modern homes use this color for aesthetic reasons on other structural elements such as window frames and door frames. It is also believed that the color haint blue repels bugs that can become a nuisance during the hot summer days.
- Unexpected things and other architectural elements – The gate of the restaurant Four Ninety Two is an artistic representation of the 1884 map of Charleston used by the Fire Department. The red shape shows the lot for address 492 King St. where the restaurant is located today.
*** Pink House (above) located at 17 Chalmers St. is one of the oldest buildings in South Carolina. It was built towards the end of 17th century. Its roof is original.
- Alleys – Our first stop was at Philadelphia Alley. This is the only alley without a street sign and can be easily missed. A good point of reference is The Martschink Building at 26 Cumberland St. that is right across from the north end of this alley. On our way to the south end towards Queen St. we found a plaque on the brick wall with some if alley’s history. It mentioned that the alley was badly destroyed as a result of the 1886 fire. In recognition of the help that it received from the City of Philadelphia the alley was named after it. Further down, there is a metal house sign for the property located at 3 Philadelphia Alley. Philadelphia Alley is considered the longest and the most beautiful alley in Charleston. At one time, it was called the Dueler’s Alley because of the duels that took place here in the early days of Charleston. It is believed that the spirits of the duelers that died in this alley are still hanging around here and noises such as whistling can also be heard at night.
Singer Darius Rucker, (Hootie & the Blowfish) who is a restless promoter of the State of South Carolina, especially of Charleston that has been his home since he was a child, created a music video where he was seen walking up and down Philadelphia Alley (see Come Back Song video below).
- Lodge Alley, Price’s Alley, and Longitude Lane – Lodge Alley is a narrow cobblestone alley that connects historic East Bay Street and State Street. It is officially known that 50 duels took place here. Lodge Alley was originally built by French merchants (street sign also says “French Quarter”) to stay there while they were in Charleston and use as storage place for ships.
- Longitude Lane is the single lane alleyway that still has the original cobblestone that makes walking on it difficult. It is believed that it dates back to the 1600s. Despite its name, this alley runs east-west and is situated between Church and Meeting Street. It is also known for The Battle of Longitude Lane. It was not a real Civil War battle. It was more of a conflict over a decision whether a cannon should be placed there or not. The City moved the cannon and left this site true to its historical meaning.
- Price’s Alley is another cobblestone alley with newer private residences on both sides. It is a pretty place to stroll on and a prime real estate location in Charleston.
- Stoll’s Alley was an unexpected surprise. You may think that after visiting Philadelphia Alley there is no other alley worth visiting. There are actually a few alleys tucked away between old and new homes and buildings in places where you probably think there is nothing interesting to find. Each alley is different and has its own stories. When you first see Stoll’s Alley at the East Bay St. end you will probably agree with the comment made in New York Times (1894) that described it as “dirty, narrow, little lane in the lower part of the city” and pass it up.
This alley is about six feet wide and the narrowest alley in Charleston. Once you walked past the lamp post you see in the picture at left you would be pleasantly surprised of what you found here. It was originally called Pilot’s Alley. Its name was changed when blacksmith, Justinius Stoll settled here. We were told that other blacksmiths followed afterwards. We saw one of the four gates made by Philip Simmons.
The last alleys we walked on are: Elliott Street, Bedons Alley, St. Michael’s Alley, Unity Alley, and Hutson Alley. The last one is a commercial place with beautiful restaurants. We were able to walk on ten alleys in one day. We missed the alley that leads to the graveyard of the Unitarian Church because it started to get dark. We only took some pictures of the very old graveyard. There are other smaller alleys than the ones I am showing here that you may want to look into including in your tour.
I hope you will find this information helpful if you plan a one day visit to Charleston. Of course, there are so many sights to see and things you can do here that will require a longer stay. Keep in mind that summers are very hot. So, winter time is the best time of the year to walk the streets. I am going to leave you with a short video about the last five alleys I mentioned with the background music of the famous Charleston Dance. Some photos give you a description of important historic sights. You will also see towards its end some food we tasted in some restaurants.
See you soon!
videos: http://www.animoto.com; music:
- Christmas Day-Walking on Philadelphia Alley – song Happy Life by Evgeny Kiselevich
- Christmas Day-Walking on Stoll’s Alley – song Boomerang by Curious
- Alleys of Charleston, South Carolina – song Fly by Jason Pfaff
- Charleston’s Alleys (part 2) – song by Bop Step by Bob Bradley and Roger Roger