The Many Charms of Charleston (Video)

Our author heads to Charleston, South Carolina—her first visit to the “Palmetto City”—and discovers that a trip of just five days isn’t enough. Determined to return soon, she takes the
time here to share with Quest some highlights of her tour.

Early spring was the ideal time for me to leave New York and take the 80-minute flight south to Charleston. This charming city is now one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations, and for good reason: not only is it South Carolina’s oldest and second-largest city, but it has a rich historical and cultural heritage, exquisitely preserved architectural wonders and gardens, coastal landscapes, mild weather, and great dining.

Ideal for romantic getaways and weddings, Charleston was ranked “World’s Best City” by Travel + Leisure in 2016 and has been voted “#1 Small U.S. City” for five years in the Condé Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards.

The oldest city in South Carolina, Charleston was founded and settled in 1670 by English colonists as “Charles Town”—in honor of England’s King Charles II. By the mid-18th century, it had become a wealthy city, specializing in the cultivation of rice, cotton, and indigo.

The Civil War began in Charleston, when Confederate soldiers fired in April 1861 on the Union-occupied Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.
Charleston owes its continuing prosperity to its tourism industry and two large shipping terminals. It’s also an important art destination and a top location for information-technology jobs and corporations.

A burgeoning art and design scene, new shops, and an exploding food culture have all helped give the city a new and vibrant energy. The quality of life here is attracting new and returning residents from all over the country.

The Charleston Historic Foundation’s annual House and Garden Tour has been on my bucket list for years. Townspeople open their historical homes and gardens to visitors from around the world. It’s a must-see.

On a two-hour educational walking tour of the elegant, tree-lined streets of the Historic District, I saw at every turn evidence of the past: gas-lit lanterns, hitching posts, cobblestone streets, historic landmarks, and an impressive variety of color.

Conscious of its architectural heritage, Charleston has preserved scores of historical structures. The Old Charleston neighborhood alone has over 3,000 buildings—a mix of Georgian, Federal, Greek Revival, and Victorian styles.

Many of the grandest mansions were built by wealthy landowners as second homes. They served as centers of cultural and social life, with the second floor—above the fray of the street—often reserved for entertaining.

Established in 1947, the Historic Charleston Foundation is dedicated to preserving and protecting the architectural, historical, and cultural character of Charleston and its Lowcountry surroundings—and to educating the public about Charleston’s history and the benefits that are derived from preservation (which, according to the foundation, are threefold: economic, environmental, and educational). Buildings from Charleston’s Antebellum period stand side by side with those from the 20th century, offering a tangible link to Charleston’s past.

One afternoon, our New York entourage enjoyed a private tour of the historic 1808 Nathaniel Russell House Museum, which was purchased in 1955 by the Historic Charleston Foundation and which has served as its headquarters for 37 years.
The Nathaniel Russell House Museum, widely recognized as one of America’s most important neoclassical dwellings, was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1973.

The merchant Nathaniel Russell, a Rhode Island native, settled in Charleston in 1765 at the age of 27, when the city was a bustling seaport. The Russell House is an excellent example of the light and airy style popularized by English architect Robert Adam. In 1995, the Historic Charleston Foundation embarked on an extensive and ongoing restoration project that has included finding original paint and wallpaper samples from the house. Today, the interiors have been restored to their original 1808 grandeur, furnished with an outstanding collection of fine and decorative arts from the 18th and 19th centuries.

This entire Charleston trip was born at a cocktail party I hosted in my New York home, when two of my guests—the dynamic PR maven Lou Hammond, who divides her time between Charleston and New York, and talented interior designer Alex Papachristidis—connected.

When they discovered that Alex would be among the guest speakers at the 70th annual Charleston Antiques Show, the die was cast. We agreed to gather our friends and celebrate together in Charleston.

I signed up for the antique show’s “Collector’s Package” to get first access to the opening preview, as well as the opportunity to attend private receptions at private homes. I also signed up for the inspiring designer lectures.

“Intimate Talks with Design in Mind,” a series of discussions introduced this year, sold out quickly. We got a peek inside the lives of the New York designers who spoke—Tom Scheerer, Timothy Whealon, Alex Papachristidis, and Mark D. Sikes—plus a history of how their tastes have developed over the years. Some spoke about their own personal connections with Charleston and its influence in general on the world of design, which opened the door, so to speak, for a return visit to this vibrant city.