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The history of Dock Street Theatre

While the Holy City has no shortage of history to share + stories to tell, one historic landmark in particular has a narrative that’s sure to steal the spotlight.

Recognized as “America’s first theater,” the historic Dock Street Theatre — located at 135 Church St. — was the first structure in the country constructed exclusively for theatrical performances. The theater opened on February 12, 1736, with a performance of George Farquhar’s play “The Recruiting Officer.” Dock Street was also home to the first opera performance in America, “Flora.”

Not long after the theater’s opening, chaos ensued in Charleston during the Great Fire of 1740. The fire, which lasted less than 24 hours, destroyed more than 300 buildings from 40 E. Bay St. to the corner of Broad + Church streets. It’s assumed that the original Dock Street Theatre was among those affected.

In 1809, the building was reconstructed as the Planter’s Hotel. A few years later, the wrought-iron balcony + sandstone columns that we see today were added to the structure. While it’s often said that Planters Punch cocktail was introduced at the Planter’s Hotel, there’s been quite the discussion on whether or not this actually holds true. Final verdict: this theory has been debunked.

Following the Civil War, the property fell on hard times and was slated for demolition. Things would turn around when the property was made available to the City of Charleston in 1935 by Charleston business community member Milton Pearlstine.

Pearlstine has his hand in quite a bit of Charleston history, including serving as one of the founding board members of the South Carolina Ports Authority, securing $21 million in state funding to modernize the city’s waterfront + establish port facilities at Georgetown and Port Royal, and becoming President of I.M. Pearlstine and Sons — the city’s oldest continuously operated family business.

Supported by Burnet Maybank, former Charleston Mayor, Governor of South Carolina, and US Senator, the original building would soon become a Depression Era Works Progress Administration project. DYK Maybank is one of 20 people in the country’s history to be elected mayor, governor, and senator?

During the Works Progress Administration project in 1935, the structure underwent various changes to construct the present theater, including repurposing the Plater Hotel’s grand foyer to become the grand foyer of the theater and transforming the hotel dining room into the lobby of the box office. The present theater’s new stage house + auditorium were built in the courtyard of the hotel. Fun fact: The materials were sourced from local Charleston wood.

The theater then re-opened in late 1937 following this two-year restoration — which would ultimately cost around $350,000.

Fast forward a few years. The historic theater would reopen for the third time in March of 2010 following a three-year, $18 million renovation by the City of Charleston. Notable renovations (this time around) featured state-of-the-art lighting + sound, upgraded heating and air conditioning, and additional seating and restrooms. Soundproofing and handicap accessibility were also among the improvements.

So, what’s the theater like today? Dock Street Theatre is now owned + operated by the City of Charleston and serves as a home to organizations in the Lowcountry, including Spoleto Festival USA and Charleston Stage — the resident professional theater at Dock Street since 1978.

You’re probably thinking that a building this old (with this much history) might be a bit spooky, right? Check out the story of Miss Nettie Dickerson — Dock Street Theatre’s resident ghost — if you dare.