It’s about time we recognized some of Charleston’s remarkable 20th century history.
This past weekend, the state unveiled its latest historical marker on Meeting Street, a plaque that notes the Dewberry Hotel overlooking Marion Square was originally the L. Mendel Rivers Federal Building.
That building, which sat dormant for decades, was the state’s first significant post-World War II pork. A lot of folks are too young to remember that.
Since we’re well into the 21st century, and the pandemic derailed plans to commemorate Charleston’s 350th anniversary, it’s more important than ever that we acknowledge there’s more to the city’s history than war — civil or otherwise.
In recent years, locals have revived Charleston’s important role in the civil rights movement, with new historical markers and monuments to Septima Clark and Judge J. Waties Waring. But other places and events important to the city’s recent history are in danger of being forgotten.
So here are a few suggestions, with plaque verbiage helpfully provided, for future Charleston historical markers that reflect what the 20th century here was all about.
- Charleston Place: This hotel/convention center/shopping mall — envisioned by former Mayor Joe Riley — is widely credited with the city’s urban renaissance, a public-private partnership that single-handedly revitalized downtown Charleston. Many locals complained, even though it made their property infinitely more valuable.
Before Charleston Place opened in the mid-1980s, the area was best known for a department store, a strip club and a billboard that said, “If you like Charleston, you’ll love Savannah.”
- Kitty’s Fine Foods: Neeley Katherine “Miss Kitty” Proctor opened this famous Morrison Drive diner and meeting spot in 1963. The meat-and-three catered to lawyers, politicians, car salesmen and truck drivers … and more than a few journalists. It was the kind of place that brought people together.
Sadly, the business closed in 2009. It's probably for the best. Today’s food snobs would either faint the moment they walked into Miss Kitty's … or try to have the ultimate greasy spoon declared a Superfund site.
- State Ports Authority: In 1919, Charleston Mayor John P. Grace consolidated the city’s burgeoning shipping industry by buying most downtown docks and waterfront land on the Cooper River for $1.5 million. Eventually, all that real estate was turned over to the state, and became the South Carolina Ports Authority.
Seeing as how more than $75 billion in cargo goes through the port annually, and the SPA doesn’t listen to a thing the city says, Charleston officials widely consider giving away the port the most-boneheaded business decision since Native Americans sold Manhattan for $24.
- Old Charleston County Public Library: On this site overlooking Marion Square, the former main branch of the Charleston County Library once offered county residents a wide variety of books and periodicals. It also unwittingly provided free accommodations to a significant number of the city’s homeless residents.
Folks are still invited to sleep on the site, now the Hotel Bennett, at rates starting this week at just $619 per night.
- Horse carriage tours: Here on Market Street, locals and visitors alike have boarded horse carriage tours of the peninsula’s famous historic district since 1945. For 75 years, the tours have been one of the city’s most famous attractions.
Also on this site, some city residents have staged intermittent protests of the horse carriage tours, a tradition that dates back to roughly 1946.
- Bathrooms on The Battery: Tourists visiting Charleston’s famous White Point Garden are often spotted sprinting off to public restrooms at City Hall or nearby Hazel Parker Playground. Most people don’t realize that, for much of the 20th century, there actually was a restroom in the park.
It was located beneath the formerly raised bandstand. Alas, police kept the restroom locked for decades because some people just couldn’t, ahem, behave.
- Actual downtown Charleston parking: Here on Gillon Street, in the shadow of the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon, once stood the last city parking lot undiscovered by tourists. For years, locals could count on finding a last-minute spot on this small, shaded side street.
Unfortunately, the word got out. The last known available surface parking on the peninsula was last seen sometime around 2005.
- Upper King Street: Until the early 21st century, this stretch of Charleston’s most historic street was home to soul food restaurants, a bank and A.C.’s bar.
At night, the street was blissfully deserted, much like the former L. Mendel Rivers Federal Building.
And boy, do old Charlestonians miss those days.