FIRST OPERA – While we do not have the likes of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts here in Charleston, we do have a first when it comes to Opera. The very first opera in America, Flora, premiered right here in Charleston, or Charles Town as it was called in 1735. A story about mistreated heiress desperately seeking independence from her wicked uncle was so popular the ballad opera returned the following year to the Dock Street Theatre using popular tunes at the time sweeping southerners off their feet. Dock Street was the first venue built in America to be utilized solely for the purposes of theatrical performances. Fast forward nearly 300 years later, Charleston is a hub of musical entertainment ranging from casual bar side bands to critically acclaimed shows, but little to no opera. It is the missing musical link here in the lowcountry, but I believe soon to change.
THE OLDEST MUSEUM IN THE NATION – A special committee was formed in 1173 to collect items for a museum in Charles Town, The Charleston Museum. It holds the oldest collection in the nation. It opened its door to the public in 1824, sharing with the nation the unfolding of history. Precious archeological artifacts tell the story of life going back to the prehistoric age complete with life size animals and statues. Perfect for children and adults alike. Visitors can also get a glimpse of Native American life, a day in the life of slaves, soldiers, and the elite. The museum sits just across the street from the Visitors Center on Meeting Street.
CHARLESTON TEA – Back in 1802 a French Botanist named Andre Michaux gave the first plant, a Camellia sinensis, to Henry Middleton and planted the first tea at what is now known as Middleton Plantation. For a decade he maintained a botanical garden that stretched beyond 100 acres near Charleston’s International Airport and the rightly named Michaux Parkway between Dorchester Road and International Blvd. After countless attempts to grow and sustain a tea garden in the surrounding areas, a research and development center was established by John Lipton on Wadmalaw Island close to Charleston where it operated for 25 years until a local horticulture professor, Mark Flemming, and a third generation tea tester, Bill Hall, purchased the center establishing the brand known as the American Tea Classic. Although the relationship of the two men ceased to exist after 2003, the plantation thrives selling a wide variety of flavors. The plantation is open to visitors who would like to learn how the tea is grown and processed. The only cost is a fun and inexpensive trolley ride through the fields. Just south of Johns Island, the drive to the plantation through Wadmalaw is a quiet scenic route embedded with history.
THE HUNLEY – The confederate submarine was the first to sink a ship in battle. The unlucky recipient, the USS Housatonic, exploded after the Hunley sent a torpedo just beneath her in the Charleston Harbor. Unfortunately, the disaster was two-fold as the Hunley which was not completely under water at the time of the attack, was lost along with her crew. She was too close to the Housatanic when she struck causing her own demise. The creep factor with the Hunley is that this was not the first time death fell upon her. She sunk two previous times killing all members on board including her creator, Horace Lawson Hunley, a confederate marine engineer who was famous for inventing hand powered submarines. Why she was raised twice and then put back in service is beyond the scope of my imagination. The Hunely was lost until 1995 and was raised in the year 2000. It is now on display at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center at 1250 Supply Street in North Charleston, formerly known as the Charleston Navy Yard.
MARKET STREET MARKET – Contrary to popular belief, the Market Street Market which runs perpendicular to Meeting and East Bay Street, was just that…a market. Many people are under the assumption that slaves were sold at the hubbub of activity some refer to as the old slave’s mart. Allow clarification. Slaves were first sold on the north side of the Old Exchange Building at Broad and East Bay Streets until the barbaric practice of trading human flesh became unbearable to onlookers. The Slaves Mart was then constructed around the corner on Chalmers Street where a fraction of the building of horrors still remains as a museum. Urban slaves were highly skilled, incredibly resourceful and creative. This market was a place where slaves could sell their own goods including needlecraft, fresh produce and a variety of food. Today, in addition to a crowd of various vendors, you will see remnants from the past displaying fantastic works of art in the form of women weaving one of Charleston’s oldest and dearest treasures, the sweetgrass basket. These baskets which are made of Bulrush, a sturdy yet soft marshgrass, are considered the most precious Lowcountry souvenirs.
RAINBOW ROW WASN’T ALWAYS RAINBOWS – An eye pleasing array of pastels on East Bay Street near Broad used to be a set of commercial buildings servicing the wharfs and docs of Charleston’s port. Myths surrounding the row of delight are quite interesting. It is said that the houses were painted varying shades of pastels so that drunk sailors coming in from port could remember which homes they were to sleep in. Comical since the row of buildings, some built as early as 1740, did not acquire their pastels until the 1930’s and sailors generally came in at night and would be unable to actually see the different pastels. For the sake of clarity, Dorothy Porcher Legge chose to paint her properties pink based on the colonial Caribbean color scheme to which Charleston had close ties. Other owners followed her lead creating the pleasant look Rainbow Row has today.
WHY GEORGE WASHINTON REALLY LOVED THE LADIES OF CHARLESTON – The fiery red headed president arrive in Charleston in May of 1971, chauffeured by rowboat across the harbor landing just below the Exhange Building. At the time, the Exchange Building served as City Hall as the building was turned over to the city in 1783. To honor George Washington, a great ball and concert took place during his stay. He loved the women in Charleston, stating that they were “among the most elegant to be found anywhere.” The women, who seemed to be in quite a tizzy over Washington’s presence, wore hair Bandeaux with pictures of the smitten president and letters spelling out “Long Live the President.” Who wouldn’t love that?
CHARLESTON’S HOLLYWOOD – Love romantic movies? You’ve come to the right place. Charleston is known to have filmed well over 20 movies and shows in the Lowcountry. With everything from swamps to picturesque revolutionary and civil war homes, Hollywood might as well call the Lowcountry its second home. The most recent, of course, are Army Wives and Southern Charm. Some others you may recognize are The Notebook, North and South, The Patriot, The Prince of Tides, Dear John, For the Boys, Cold Mountain, Glory, The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Jackal, Scarlett, and The Lords of Discipline. Even parts of Ace Ventura were filmed here.
THE DAY THE ROPER HOUSE RECEIVED A FOREVER GIFT – There is a story often told about a cannon ball explosion that took place during the civil war near White Point Garden toward the Battery. One day while cannons were being dismantled in the area, one was intentionally blown up to avoid any possibility of the Union getting their hands on it. Sitting closet to the battery on South Battery were the Louis DeSaussure House, owned by the wealthy ship and slave merchant, and the home of Huguenot planter, John Ravenel. The shrapnel flew over the first two homes and landed in the attic of the third home known as the Roper House located at 9 East Battery where the 500lb piece remains today. It cannot be removed for fear of more structural damage. A solarium was built to cover the shrapnel. Now when the owners have guests, they can open a bottle of Cristal and toast to their magnificent historical gem frozen in time.
EARTHQUAKE BOLTS AREN’T ALWAYS WHAT THEY SEEM – Most people think of California when they think of an earthquake, but Charleston sits on one of the most active fault lines located along the Ashley River. While there has been a bit of small tremors over the years, the last big quake centered in Middleton Plantation in 1886 measured 7.3 on today’s Richter scale. To help reinforce buildings, wall to wall rods were placed between floors secured by bolts to add stability. You will see them all over historic Charleston. What is interesting is that some homeowners put the bolts on as a decoration. When you see them in an area that is not in between floors, they are likely just decoration. Since Charleston hasn’t experienced another large quake in all these years, there is no guarantee that the rods are effective. We shall see!