Several years ago, the South Carolina Historical Society had an inspired idea to open the Fireproof Building as a museum.
It was the solution to several problems.
The Society was quickly running out of room for its vast archives, its longtime home needed renovations and few people beyond researchers got the chance to see the interior of the 1826 Charleston landmark.
So, the Historical Society moved its collection to the College of Charleston’s Addlestone Library, spent $6 million renovating the Robert Mills-designed National Historic Landmark and used its own holdings to create a museum that told the story of South Carolina through the diaries, letters and artifacts of its inhabitants.
When it opened to the public in late 2018, Architectural Digest had already declared the South Carolina Historical Society Museum one of the most important new museums in the country. The authors were right — it ties together all the history in the city’s other museums.
But then came a problem without an apparent solution. Little more than a year after its grand opening, the pandemic hit. Charleston’s newest museum was shut down for months, and the private, nonprofit Historical Society couldn’t generate revenue expected from rentals and events because, well, there were none.
And tourists have been scarce.
“All arts and cultural organizations are suffering,” says Faye Jensen, chief executive officer of the Historical Society, “and I worry that some won’t survive. We never picked up the visitors we expected, and we can’t do our fall tours around the state for the first time since 1980. That’s always been a major fundraiser for us.”
The Fireproof Building is, in itself, a marvel. Not only was it the most fire-protected building in the country when it opened, it was designed by Robert Mills, the Charleston native and first trained architect born in America.
You may have seen some of Mills’ other work, which includes the Washington Monument.
The Fireproof Building is a treasure that, for a long time, has housed the treasures of the Historical Society. The museum shows that the collection is not only rich, diverse and important, it is history.
On one wall, there’s an original land grant from the Lords Proprietors dated 1680. On another is Francis Marion’s powder horn and Christopher Gadsden’s hatpin. In the next room, you’ll find James Louis Petrigru’s snuff box and an 1863 photograph of Fort Sumter — before the bombardment that forever altered its profile.
Most importantly, the museum tells the story of South Carolina from the ground level: an insurance policy on a young enslaved woman; a woman’s letter describing the burning of Columbia; a man’s diary with entries written in real time during the 1886 Charleston earthquake ... complete with shaky handwriting.
“For more than 150 years the South Carolina Historical Society has been collecting and making available to the public historical information about South Carolina’s past,” says Walter Edgar, the state’s preeminent historian. “One of the Society’s earliest presidents, James Louis Petigru, stated that in order to be a good citizen of South Carolina, a person had to support the Society.”
That’s what we need to do right now. Some people assume that since the Historical Society has been around since 1855, it will survive. But there are no guarantees. Most of its revenue comes from annual memberships, which start at $55 for individuals or $65 for couples (it’s less for students). Find more information at www.schistory.org.
“In today’s difficult times, when there is so much noise and chatter, the South Carolina Historical Society continues to collect and present through a variety of media the story of our state not just for those of us now living here, but for future generations,” Edgar says.
Charleston knows the value of preserving history. But anyone who needs a reminder should try a little tourism-in-your-own-town and visit the museum at Chalmers and Meeting streets.
It’s impossible to walk out without learning something new about this state’s amazing history. And you might have a hand in saving some of it.