When I went to Charleston last April, I traveled with two friends who were Smithsonian staff and who were enthusiastic about a busman’s holiday going from museum to museum to museum. This time I was with my husband, who is happy to indulge my peccadillos but, truth be told, would be happier not spending every moment of every day in pursuit of history.
So we compromised. We’d wander down streets and mosey into whatever caught our eyes. I would not fill the day with 5 must-see historic sites plus meals in 3 historic restaurants plus an evening after-hours tour of a museum plus late night drinks in a historic bar. We would go into shops that were not museum shops. I can do that, I told myself. I can do it. I can do it.
I did do it. Almost. There was one place I really wanted to see, which I’ll get to it in my next post. But on our way there, we did some wandering and some moseying. And what caught our eyes was on the corner of Church and Queen.
A sign out front said that it was the historic Dock Street Theatre and that they were open for tours. As we stood out front, discussing whether we wanted to go in, a woman ran out. “Come in. We’re open for tours. And it’s free.” Cynical me is always a little suspect of people who encourage me to do something because “it’s free,” because I’ve learned that it’s often not. But it was intriguing enough that we threw caution to the wind and went in. Besides, how nefarious could an elderly woman in pearls and a twin set be?
She turned out to be a perfectly engaging and enthusiastic volunteer, who gave us a brief history, handed us a pamphlet with more details, and told us to wander around at will. Nothing sinister about it. And nothing I love more than being let loose to wander a historic building on my own.
The first recorded building on the site was a circa 1735 playhouse, the first Dock Street theatre, but the current building dates to 1809. It was built as a luxury hotel and flourished (other than a period during the Civil War, when it was a Confederate barrack and hospital) first as the Calder House Hotel, then as the Planters Hotel, until it was damaged in an earthquake in 1886 and abandoned. During the Great Depression, the WPA got hold of it and turned it into a theatre. The façade and most of the exterior of the hotel was salvaged, but the rest of the building was pretty much gutted and replaced. It opened again in 1937.
The theatre’s public space is Georgian revival. That’s the Royal Crest of George II above the stage. Something I learned there: up front, closest to the stage and a level up, are what’s called vanity boxes — the most expensive seats in the house because they were the place where a patron could best be seen, even though they weren’t the place from which to best view the stage. I always wondered why the Presidential box at Ford’s Theatre was in such an awkward place. Today, lights are set up in the boxes. It’s still a working theatre with a company called the Charleston Stage at the Dock in residence.
Above the lobby, up a rather grand staircase, is a Georgian revival tap room, where modern theatre patrons go for drinks and snacks during intermission. It features a bar with railed portcullis with counterweights. The board in the middle gives a recipe for Planters Punch, made of lemon, sugar, rum and water. The story goes that the drink was created at the Planters Hotel, but the story probably isn’t true. History points to its origins in Jamaica and there’s no evidence of it ever being served at the hotel.
Next door to the tap room is a drawing room, occupying space that was once the ballroom of the Planters Hotel. It must be where the theatre patrons go to consume their drinks and snacks. The wood and plaster work in it were salvaged from a nearby circa 1802 mansion that was razed.
I whipped out my notebook and asked the volunteer a million questions when we finished our roaming, and eventually she said: “I’m not supposed to let you do this, but just keep the guide.” She was talking about the photocopied pamphlet with “Please return this guide to the lobby desk before leaving the theatre” across the front. I collect a lot of written material that way.
And — ahah! — I was right. We didn’t get out of there completely free. They were selling Christmas ornaments as a building preservation fund raiser. So of course, we bought one. But still, $20 for free rein through the beautiful building AND a gorgeous, clean restroom was worth the price.