The Southern States: Charleston - the city that was saved by neglect

Charleston's fine stock of 19th-century buildings is leading a renaissance. Adrian Mourby finds even the seediest corners flourishing
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The Independent Travel

We are "North of Broad", my friend and I. In Gary's day, only houses South of Broad used to aspire to respectability. "That's why folks who lived down there were known as SOBs," he says. Nowadays, though, the creep of Charleston's gentrification has swept far inland. North of Broad is positively chic these days.

Twenty years ago, according to Gary, I would not have recognised the busy intersection outside our restaurant. Market Street was an old creek which the British had filled in with ships' ballast. For a hundred years after the Civil War it was a home to drunks and prostitutes and you didn't go there late at night unless you needed the company of either.

Market Street is now a hive of late-night shopping and boutique hotels, one of which has garnered the approval of the Relais & Chateaux group. The days of Porgy and Bess and Cabbage Row (immortalised by George Gershwin as "Catfish Row") are forgotten.

The resurgence of Charleston has been just as dramatic as its rise in the 17th century - and its downfall in the 19th. Once upon a time there were only four big trading cities in the American colonies and Charles Town (named after its Stuart sponsor) was right up there with Boston, New York and Philadelphia for wealth while its architecture - a curious mix of Georgian front doors, antebellum porches and dark green Spanish shutters - probably made it the best looking city in all the Americas.

That was before the ports of New Orleans and Savannah were set up in the 18th century to spread the wealth from southern trade more evenly. But what really messed up Charleston's prosperity were the years between 1861 and 1886. First there was the Civil War, whose opening shots were fired in Charleston harbour. Then a simple domestic fire incinerated half the city and after that a prolonged naval siege reduced what was left to rubble.

When the infamous Sherman finished burning his way across the South he actually spared Charleston. Even he could see it had suffered enough.

The planters and merchants of Charleston were just starting to rebuild their once fine city when, in 1886, a huge earthquake hit (during which the steeple of St Michael's sank eight inches). "My Daddy says that when the Depression came, folks here hardly noticed it," says Gary. That's why the livin' wasn't just easy in Porgy's day. It was cheap and it was loose. And yet it was the city's poverty in the 20th century that ultimately re-made its fortune. Unlike Atlanta and Nashville, Charleston never had the money to bulldoze its crumbling historic buildings and replace them with shiny skyscrapers and roaring freeways. When heritage began to count in the 1960s, Charleston discovered it had more than plenty of somethin'.

In Church Street, houses in the block called Catfish Row now sell to wealthy incomers from Detroit and New York for over $1m. Yes, the Yankee carpetbaggers are back but this time they're paying way over the odds to move in on Charleston. "We've got a great climate, great architecture and great food," says Gary, and though he is noisy he is right.

In Europe a city as well-preserved as Charleston would be remarkable. In America it is nothing short of a miracle to find a whole city, block after block, that has hardly changed since the days before the revolution. The colonial grandeur of Charleston can be found on every street, in houses that are still owned by families who settled this walled trading post soon after it was established in 1680.

Ubiquitous "Carolopolis" plaques record how long the Ravenals and Beauregards, Draytons, Rhetts and Bradfords have lived in Charleston. In the white clapboard church of St Michael there is a plaque to two local boys, Pinckney and Rutledge, who went on to be signatories to the Declaration of Independence. Charleston, locals will tell you, had been around 100 years before those Boston hotheads started mixing their tea with seawater.

In the town hall there glows a light bulb bought from the Edison Company, which has been in continuous service since 1890. This four-watt relic of a bygone age seems to sum up Charleston perfectly: so far behind the times and yet, amazingly, still going strong.

There isn't a lot to do in Charleston except wander round on foot - or by carriage - and glory in the cobblestone streets, the restored buildings and shady parks full of leafy palms and live oaks. Many people congregate on White Point to look out over the shimmering Atlantic to Fort Sumter, the artificial circular island where the Civil War began, or wander down past the cannons of East Battery where some of the finest houses interpose their shuttered balconies between sun and stucco. Coffee houses and restaurants proliferate. This is a city, like Bath or Venice, where one shops, eats and cruises history.

I did just about manage to stir myself as far as the plantations though. The remains of a few that survived General Sherman lie 10 miles or so across the Ashley river. Here history wears a very human face. Middleton, built in 1741 by the President of the First Continental Congress, had the oldest and finest gardens in the USA before "Sherman's bummers" came calling on 22 February 1865. The gardens have been restored but the family only managed to rebuild a guest wing before the earthquake of 1886 brought the rest of the ruins down.

A few miles away, Magnolia is still run by descendants of wealthy Parson Drayton, a liberal planter, but the "house" is in fact a cottage Drayton owned in North Carolina which he took apart and sent down river to replace the smouldering ruin which was all that Sherman had left him. The only plantation house that still looks like it did before the War is Drayton next door (owned by the same family), which was spared by Union troops because its slaves painted yellow cholera warning signs on the gates. This beautiful red-roofed Queen Anne-style manor house stands empty now but recalls perfectly the stunning days of Charleston's glory. A glory that is finally returning.

Give me the facts

How to get there

Continental Airlines (0845-607 6760; www.continental.com) flies to Charleston from Gatwick, via New York, from £570 return.

Where to stay

Charleston Place Hotel (001 843-722-4900; www.charlestonplace.com), has rooms from $190 (£105) per night, without breakfast.

Further information

South Carolina Tourism (020-8460 8693; www.discoversouth carolina.com). See also www.charlestoncvb.com.

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