The Holy City’s hotels of yesteryear

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villa margherita
Villa Margherita | Photo by Brandon Coffey, shared via the S.C. Picture Project

WiFi not included.

We hear a lot about new hotels going up around Charleston– but today, we’re pouring one out for those landmark hotels that have come + gone.

In fact, though many cite the overgrowth of hotels as a threat to our historic charm, it was actually the demolition of a hotel that spurred expanded preservation + protections surrounding Charleston’s Historic District.

charleston hotel
The Charleston Hotel once stood at 200 Meeting Street | Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Civil War Photographs

That’s right: the Charleston Hotel, when built in the 1830s under the design of Prussian architect Charles Reichardt, was considered one of the most iconic hotels in the country. Located at 200 Meeting Street (where the Bank of America Financial Center now stands), it was demolished in 1960 to make way for a motor lodge (a.k.a. a hotel designed for people with cars).

The people of Charleston were so saddened to see the antebellum building go, they successfully petitioned to expand the city’s historic district + update the preservation zoning ordinance to prevent such a loss from occurring again.

 

The Fort Sumter Hotel

fort sumter hotel
Once the Fort Sumter Hotel, the building at 1 King Street is now used as condos + office space | Photo by @samuelhodgesphotography

📍 1 King St.
Built: 1923
Closed: 1974. The building is now used as office space + condos.

The Fort Sumter Hotel’s construction, like that of many hotels today, was protested at first by those who felt it would change the Holy City skyline for the worse. What it is really remembered for, though, is that it served as the setting for an affair between a young JFK + a suspected Nazi spy.

In short, here’s what happened: In 1942, a young Jack Kennedy met a woman named Inga Arvad through his sister, Kathleen. The beauty queen/journalist had previously been described by Adolf Hitler as the “perfect Nordic beauty.” Because of her documented connections with Adolf Hitler, the FBI suspected she was a Nazi spy, and began to surveil her.

How does that all tie into the Fort Sumter Hotel, you ask? JFK’s father transferred his son, a Navy ensign, to Charleston, to distance him from Arvad– but she visited him here several times, and the two spent the night together in the Fort Sumter Hotel (room 132, to be exact). But they weren’t exactly alone together: the room had been bugged by the FBI, and an agent covertly followed them around town the following day.

 

The Jones Hotel

four corners of law
The Jones Hotel once stood at 71 Broad St., next to St. Michael’s Church | Photo by @charlestonspired

📍71 Broad St.
Opened: 1816
Closed: 1959. The building’s drawing room remains on display at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware.

After purchasing his own freedom, former slave Jehu Jones established a successful tailoring business and used the profits to buy a 3.5-story wooden mansion at 71 Broad Street. It was there that Jones operated the Jones Hotel, a swanky inn that catered to high-profile visitors– including Samuel Morse (the painter/inventor who helped develop the Morse Code).

In 1847, years after Jones had died, the Jones Hotel began to experience financial problems. Eliza Seymour Lee (the daughter of Sally Seymour, a former slave) + her husband John began renting the property and, up until the Civil War, continued to operate it as a hotel.

 

The Planter’s Hotel 

dock street theatre
Before it became the Dock Street Theatre, the adjoined buildings on the corner of Church + Queen Streets were the Planter’s Hotel | Photo by @larry_watkins_photography

📍135 Church St.
Built: 1809
Closed: Post Civil War

The buildings along the corner of Church + Queen Streets are well known for their history as the Dock Street Theatre, but before that, 135 Church Street actually operated as a hotel.

The owner, Alexander Calder (not to be confused with his son, who bears the same name + is regarded as one of the most famous sculptors in American history), catered to planters who were visiting the city for big events. Among the guests of the hotel: actor Junius Brutus Boothwhose son John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Some say his ghost continues to haunt the building today.

Speaking of ghosts: popular lore also claims one guest never checked out. Legend has it that Nettie Dickerson, a prostitute who frequented the hotel, was struck by lightning while standing on the the second-floor balcony. Some say her apparition can still be seen from time to time.

Many also credit the Planter’s Hotel as the place of origin for the Planter’s Punch cocktail. Despite the similar title, there isn’t much evidence to back up this claim. Others may tell you the drink originated at the Planter’s Hotel in St. Louis, M.O. We’ll let you decide.

 

Villa Margherita

villa margherita postcard
Villa Margherita | Postcard from F.J. Marschink Co., shared via S.C. Picture Project

📍4 South Battery
Built: 1892-3
Closed: Last served as a hotel in 1953. It is now a private residence.

Around the turn of the 20th century, the owners of what was then a newly-constructed mansion at 4 South Battery began operating the building as a hotel called the Villa Margherita. The luxury dig hosted a slew of celeb guests, including: four U.S. presidents (William Howard Taft, Grover Cleveland, and both Theodore + F.D. Roosevelt), Alexander Graham Bell, and Henry Ford.

Guests were treated to all kinds of high-end amenities, such as an indoor swimming pool, a ballroom, and a menu so gourmet that a bowl of turtle soup alone would cost you $25 (which is quite steep for a bowl of soup, even in the modern day).

During WWII, the home was leased by the U.S. Seaman’s Service to provide boarding for seamen + their families. Afterward, it reverted to residential use. In 2012, the home sold for $3 million.

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There’s always something new to be discovered about Charleston and the way its story connects with broader American history. Who knew that the angry ghost of John Wilkes Booth’s dad might be haunting the Dock Street Theatre? Or that JFK carried out an affair with an a suspected spy right here in the Holy City?

What’s your favorite little-known fact about CHS? Share it with me in the comments below.

Jen