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Historic Buildings in Charleston

When the Civil War ended in 1865, Charleston was left battered and bruised—both physically and economically. And because locals had little money for building new homes and businesses in the coming decades, they made do with those they had, effectively saving from destruction the grand structures seen today. As development in the city began to pick up in the early 1900s, many of these historic buildings could have been lost were it not for the spirit of community activism that sprang into being in the 1920s.

According to Jonathan Poston, author of Buildings of Charleston, the preservation movement took off when an Esso gas station was slated to take the place of the Joseph Manigault House. Irate citizens formed the Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings (the first such group in the nation), whose efforts managed to save what is now a vastly popular house museum. By 1931, Charleston's City Council had created the Board of Architectural Review and placed a designated historic district under its protection as a means of controlling unrestrained development—two more national firsts. The Historic Charleston Foundation was established in 1947, and preservation is now second nature (by law).

As you explore, look for Charleston single houses: one room wide, they were built with the narrow end street-side with multistory Southern porches (called piazzas) to catch prevailing breezes. Wide-open windows allow the cool air that drifts across these shaded porches to enter the homes.

You'll see numerous architectural vestiges of the past on homes situated along Charleston's preserved streets. Many houses have plaques detailing their history; some exhibit Carolopolis Awards, which were received for responsible stewardship of historic architecture. Old fire insurance plaques are rarer; they denote the company that insured the home and that would extinguish the flames if a fire broke out. Notice the "earthquake bolts"—some in the shape of circles or stars and others capped with lion heads—that dot house facades along the Battery. These are attached to iron rods installed in the house to reinforce it after the great earthquake of 1886. Note also the iron spikes along the top of residential gates, doors, walls, and windows. Serving the same purpose as razor wire seen today atop prison fences, most of these chevaux de frises (French for "Frisian horses") were added to deter break-ins—or escapes—after a thwarted 1822 slave rebellion.

Updated: 03-2013

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