Settling in at Charles Towne Landing
The final touches on a $19 million renovation of the Lowcountry's first permanent settlement are among its most elegant, a wraparound glass wall, bamboo floors and a walled-in stone patio with palmetto trees and a view from a wrought-iron gate.
Founders Hall held its grand opening Thursday, a meeting hall that is a centerpiece of Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site. The hall joins an interactive visitors center and a reproduction sailing ketch as the new faces of the state park in West Ashley that in the 1600s was the site of the first English settlement in South Carolina.
It's a metaphor for the park that the hall sits in almost the same site as the old meeting hall it replaced, a weirdly out-of-sync geodesic dome that had been moved from another park, whose ruins in the 1990s after Hurricane Hugo became the image of a place so badly deteriorated by the storm and budget cuts that volunteers worried it would be closed and sold.
The renovation is the largest single redevelopment of a park in the history of the state, said Patrick Cook, park history coordinator.
"The new boat and the volunteers to teach you the history, that wasn't here before," said Janie Smith, of Summerville, who biked her 15-month-old son, Landon around the park Thursday. She has come to the park regularly all her life, including field trips when she was in school. But as the years went on, the classes seemed to come out less often. Fewer people stopped even to see elk, bears or panthers in the animal forest.
"I was worried about it. There's not many places in Charleston where you can see the animals. You have to go to Columbia," she said.
The $3.5 million hall and its sweetgrass-planted grounds will be rented out for events from corporate meetings to weddings at more than $1,000 a pop, a revenue-making investment. The park charges visitors only a few dollars for a sweeping exhibit of what life was like on an Ashley River bluff, a site that Cook called "the birthplace of the Southeast, the beginnings of where we began."
Charles Towne Landing is an expanse of live oak and magnolia avenues into the marshes, palisade-walled re-creations of the colonial government seat, complete with a dirt-floored common house replica where deer skins hang, a history trail that visitors can walk with an MP3 audio tour guide and an earthen battery with six cannons that are fired on the third Saturday each month by volunteers in full re-enactment regalia.
Then there's the 22-acre animal forest habitat of historically native creatures such as the bears, panthers, bison and an elk that on Thursday went almost nose to nose with one young girl through the fence. The park also has the post-colonial Legare-Waring plantation house that is also rented for events, an African-American cemetery, archaeological digs and a "digital dig" for kids in the visitors center.
Overhead, white ibises fly in flocks to a marshside rookery.
"It's a beautiful place to bring a picnic," Smith said. "Overlooking the marsh," added Crystal Weeks, her friend.
The ketch, the Adventure, was built and sailed home from New England in 2008 to replace a feature-exhibit boat that became waterlogged and musky smelling before it sank in 2004. It's hands-on for the kids, who are encouraged to take hold of the steering rudder and work the bilge pump.
"I liked the boat so much," said Faith Weeks, 4, of Summerville, who toured the park in the shade of a pull cart behind a bike ridden by her mother, Crystal Weeks.
The park's makeover was designed to focus on its historic significance, Cook said.
"We want people thinking, 'This is where we began,' " he said. The hall, too, has its historic focus: the native plantings, wall displays of artifacts such as a tobacco pipe uncovered on the site, and a wall-sized, wood-burning fireplace modeled after cookstoves of the colonial era. It will be open to the public occasionally for lectures and special events.
The South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism won the hard-wrangled $19 million in assorted state appropriations in 2000 through 2007 to re-create Charles Towne Landing.
The appropriations became increasingly controversial as legislators tightened budgets and parks across the state were left short of funds and needing repairs.
The key was getting people to realize just how important this site was, Cook said. "I think instead of making (other park staff) jealous, we're making them hungry."