Three weeks, hundreds of events, one easy-to-navigate peninsula.
As the first district in the U.S. to enact historic preservation laws, Charleston’s historic urban landscape has been systematically restored in recent decades. Its consequent charm, numerous public buildings and open spaces, and its walkability, make it a great place for two major springtime arts festivals: Spoleto Festival USA and Piccolo Spoleto.
As patrons flood in from around the world to revel in Charleston’s history and architectural beauty, we’re taking a look at the physical spaces that create the experience of Spoleto, from the newest addition to the oldest stage in the city.
Dock Street is the first building in America dedicated to theater. It was also a hotel where the father of John Wilkes Booth worked and, more deliciously, Planter’s Punch was invented. The famous curtain used as the stage backdrop for this year’s Bank of America Chamber Music series was painted by Christian Thee who was the festival’s first poster artist in 1977.
Did you know this industrial-looking theater was originally built as a literal icebox in 1914 — the site of an ice company? It then became a meatpacking house. If you go, look closely to see if you can tell that the facade is made of faux-colored brick, each individually handpainted over a mid-century metallic to match the authentic color. To beef up the site for its first summer with Spoleto, a new staircase for balcony seating was added.
This 245-year-old university is home to several festival venues. Originally built to combat fires with an underground water reserve, the Cistern Yard was once the site of grazing cows kept by the college’s janitor in 1850. After students complained, the livestock were relocated. Today, it’s the site of Spoleto’s open-air performances in the center of campus.
Opened in 1927, the Sottile Theatre was the largest vaudeville house and movie theater in the state seating 2,000 people. It even hosted the South Carolina premiere of “Gone with the Wind.” The theater’s marquee, which has been redesigned three times, is now considered one of “North America’s Most Distinctive Theatre Marquees” according to The Atlantic.
The Albert Simons Center for the Arts holds two Spoleto performance halls and is currently planning to undergo a major design overhaul by Charleston’s Liollio Architecture and national architecture firm, HGA. We’re talking a new atrium lobby, box office, black box theater, theater design studio, new classrooms for art history, music and arts management, expanded storage facilities for the costume shop and more.
TD Arena is one of the college’s youngest but largest venues, seating 5,100 people. Geiger Engineers was the consulting firm that helped construct the building in 2008 with over 1,900 tons of structural steel and 400 tons of reinforcing steel. Fun fact: For decades, they have worked on projects ranging from the Carrier Dome at Syracuse University and the recent Broadway production of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.”
This 76-year-old gymnasium built by Charleston’s famous 20th century architect Albert Simons was renovated into a black box theater in 2008. Whether the space sports a club-like atmosphere or an elegant, sleek design, you wouldn’t expect such a modern stage to be inside the classic column-lined facade. Did you know that Memminger was in trouble when the Gaillard opened in 1968? Empty for quite some time, it was the home of Charleston’s pigeon population.
Known for its unparalleled acoustics, this cathedral is a popular site for choir performances during Spoleto. The building was completed in 1815 as the first of Charleston’s Episcopal churches to be consecrated by an American bishop. Eight bells hang in the cathedral’s tower that were cast over 120 years. One of the latest and most noteworthy peals of the bells was conducted in 2008 and included 5088 changes that took 2 hours and 49 minutes to ring.
The Charleston Library Society is the third-oldest subscription library in the United States. In 1914, the society moved to its current location on King Street, a beautiful, beaux arts design by Philadelphia architects McGoodwin and Hawley. After Hurricane Hugo, the library society built a fireproof storage building to project its rarest and most valuable collections.
This colonial rice plantation was once owned and operated by Charleston’s Middleton family, which included a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a Governor of South Carolina and the first person to import water buffalo to the U.S. Today, Middleton Place is a National Historic Landmark and considered to have the oldest landscaped garden in America. The site is now a top spot for naturalization ceremonies, welcoming new immigrants to the country.
Sydney Franklin is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.