“In All the Ancient Circles”: Tourism and the Decline of Charleston’s Elite Families

Charleston 3

Few American cities have been so meticulously studied, admired or—for that matter—vilified as has Charleston. There are substantial reasons for this. During the Colonial period Charleston, or Charles Town as it was then, rapidly emerged as the urban center of a plantation culture that would, by the middle of the 18th century, spread across the Southern states to become a powerful but anachronistic slave-based economy standing athwart the predominant free-labor mercantilism that at that time characterized the developed economies of the Western world. During the decades prior to the American Revolution Charleston was one of America’s wealthiest cities and its busiest seaport, its harbor bristling with the masts of schooners bound for Europe, laden with rice and indigo. During the antebellum period Charleston’s economic power was eclipsed by that of the rising capitalist cities of the Northern seaboard, but it remained significant as a cultural and political nexus for an emergent Southern nationalism and was the epicenter of the secessionist movement. The combined effects of the War for Southern Independence and Reconstruction were ruinous for the city and its elite families, and though many managed to recover properties lost to confiscation, they remained, for the most part, an impoverished ruling class whose control over the city depended less upon economic clout than upon its instincts for political leadership. By the turn of the 20th century Charleston had become, in the words of Owen Wister in his novel Lady Baltimore, a “little city of oblivion”—a city barely touched by the industrial and economic “progress” of the late 19th century, and haunted by the ghosts of a glorious and tragic past. While resistant to the commercial values of the rising New South, key figures among Charleston’s elite families began, in the 1920’s, to reinvent Charleston as a unique tourist destination. This gambit, which proved astonishingly successful in transforming the city into one of the world’s preeminent urban showplaces, also proved, ironically, to be a major factor in the now almost certain disappearance of the city’s ancient elite.

In 1860, on the eve of the War, Charleston remained—despite some decline in her economic status during the antebellum period—one of the wealthiest cities in the nation. According to the 1860 federal census 48 heads of household (1% of the free population) in Charleston reported wealth of $111,000 or more (ranging as high as $500,000), nine times the national average, while 168 (3% of the free population) reported wealth amounting to $51,000 or more—at least seven times higher than the national mean. Some 216 families, then, possessed over half of the total wealth in Charleston. I would argue that these families comprised the core of the Charleston elite, families whose surnames identified most of them as descendents of the first two or three generations of Carolina settlers. The majority of the elite heads of household were planters, many were merchants (especially cotton and rice factors) and others occupied traditional professions such as law and medicine. Virtually all of them were slaveholders. When the Ordinance of Secession was passed on December 20, 1860 the Charleston elite had ruled the city for almost 200 years. A stroll through any of Charleston’s well-preserved graveyards reveals just how frequently the offspring of the old families intermarried, reinforcing their hold upon wealth and power. Financially, politically, and socially they were an American “aristocracy” of astonishing cohesiveness, quite self-consciously cultivating the traditions of the English landed gentry, and, indeed, many of them were descended from younger sons of the gentry (both English and French). They sent their children to the same boarding schools, such as Madame Talvande’s School for Young Ladies in Charleston, or Moses Waddel’s Willington Academy for boys in the Abbeville District; they socialized in highly exclusive clubs such as the St. Cecilia Society, the Huguenot Society, the St. Andrew’s Society and others; and they dominated with an iron will the politics, not only of the city but of the state well into the antebellum years. Culturally, they were sometimes described by their contemporaries (and, later, by some historians) as self-indulgent, superficial and effete. While there is some truth in such observations, I would note that they were probably the most socially refined and hospitable elite society in America, and one that produced an impressive number of distinguished statesmen, military leaders, writers, naturalists, artists and scholars.

The combined effects of the War, Reconstruction and years of economic stagnation were devastating for Charleston and her first families. The Union blockade and constant shelling by enemy gunships had reduced the city to a shambles. Due to the blockade, exports of cotton and rice had been almost completely curtailed, basic necessities were scarce, and refugee planters returned to their plantations to find them often ransacked and burned, or simply confiscated and occupied by federally appointed overseers. Even family burial vaults were, in some cases, desecrated by marauding Union troops. The Alston and Pringle families, closely tied by marital alliances, may serve to illustrate the nature of the losses experienced by most of the Lowcountry elite. Prior to the War their properties included five plantations situated along the Waccamaw River and another, Runimede, on the Ashley River, as well as one of the finest houses in the city, a King Street residence known today as the Miles Brewton House. By shortly after the War’s end, they had been forced to sell off one of their estates to survive, three others had been confiscated by the Freedman’s Bureau, Runimede had been burnt to the ground, and their magnificent townhouse was occupied by Union officers. William Bull Pringle and his wife, Mary, were eventually able to reclaim the townhouse and one plantation, but, like most ex-Confederate landowners William was forced to take the Oath of Allegiance and to pay confiscatory taxes before his property was restored. While many of the Charleston elite were able eventually to recover their properties, their attempts to make the old plantations profitable once again were hampered by numerous difficulties—not the least of which was finding and paying for help under the free labor system. Many ex-slaves were reluctant to return to work, especially in the harsh conditions of the rice fields, and most of the Charleston landowners had invested heavily in Confederate currency, and thus were left effectively bankrupt by War’s end. Even those plantations which managed to show a profit faced drastic reductions in production levels. Aside from the abovementioned factors, repeated flooding of the fields by hurricane-driven tides between 1885 and 1911 and competition from rice growers in Louisiana and Texas ensured that, by the second decade of the 20th century the cultivation of rice, which had been the key component in the rise of the Lowcountry planters to social and political dominance of the region, was no longer a viable concern.

Nevertheless, the old families, for several reasons, managed to retain their social position and much of their traditional control of the city during the post-war era. They were well-educated, resourceful and long-accustomed to the maintenance of power. After the departure of occupation forces and the failure of Reconstruction, there was, moreover, no significant force in position to challenge their longstanding claim to rule. Charleston had never had a substantial middle class, and virtually all of the prominent merchants and lawyers were themselves tied by birth or marriage to the old families. Moreover, the resistance of the old guard to the unbridled capitalist ethos that reigned triumphant across America in the latter decades of the 19th century ensured that few new manufacturing interests gained a foothold in the old city. Historian John P. Radford has argued with reference to antebellum Charleston that “Forces regarded as potentially disruptive of the status quo were tenaciously opposed, including the powerful modernizing force of industrialization ….” This same tenacious opposition persisted in the post-war era, and this “refusal to make concessions toward the American norm …” ensured that post-bellum Charleston remained a city less interested in reconstruction (whether social or economic) than in restoration of the old order. While the New South movement was embraced in cities like Atlanta and Nashville, its unfettered optimism for industrialization on the northern model was regarded with a good deal of suspicion by Charlestonians. While Radford notes that the Charleston which emerged from the ruins of the War was a “morphological anachronism,” it is more than a little ironic, as we shall see, that this steadfast refusal of the modern became the foundation for the heritage industry that would transform Charleston almost a century later.

To be sure, there were prominent figures in the Charleston community who campaigned for modernization, and some who saw as early as the 1880s that Charleston was ideally situated to take financial advantage of the growing numbers of Northern tourists who, during the Gilded Age, began streaming south in search of winter retreats and nostalgic locales. Several of the more progressive business leaders in the city, including George W. Williams and Frederick W. Wagener, began a campaign in 1888 to raise capital for a state-of-the-art hotel that would cater to the tourist trade. Such accommodations were sorely needed, since at that time the city could boast only one hotel of any size, the Charleston Hotel, which was built in the antebellum era and had not been refurbished for decades. The campaign initially generated some enthusiasm, especially among younger businessmen, but fund raising efforts brought in only a quarter of the $1 million targeted sum. Promoters of the new hotel had also hoped to build the facility in the vicinity of the Battery (with its waterfront park, known traditionally as White Point Gardens), but local residents—almost exclusively old families—resisted any commercialization of the area. At the turn of the new century, another scheme for promoting trade, attracting investment and bringing in tourists was floated and, eventually, realized. The South Carolina Interstate and West-Indian Exposition was backed, once again, by Frederick Wagener, a German-born businessman, and a cohort of young men associated with the Young Men’s Business League. Few of the old elite supported the scheme, but Wagener’s deep pockets and credit with local banks, as well as a $50,000 allocation by the South Carolina General Assembly, resulted in the opening of the Exposition in 1901 on a site in the north end of the city along the Ashley River, an area which for many years had been the location of one of the premier horse racing tracks in the nation, the Washington Race Course, and which today is occupied by Hampton Park and The Citadel military college. Although the Exposition managed to attract some 500,000 visitors over the course of several months, it was, in the words of historian Walter J. Fraser, Jr., a “picturesque disaster.”

In retrospect it appears that the emergence of tourism as a major industry in Charleston was in large part the result of a compromise between the forces of modernization and preservation. One of the many ironies of this story is that the key figure in the preservation movement of the 1920s, Susan Pringle Frost, was herself a “progressive” who ran a real estate business. The granddaughter of Mary Alston Pringle, Frost grew up in the Miles Brewton House (then known as the Pringle House) and, as a young woman, served as executive secretary to Bradford Gilbert, chief architect of the West Indian Exposition. Her first practical ventures in preservation coincided with her ambitions as a realtor when she acquired and began refurbishing several properties on east Tradd Street, an area in the heart of the Charleston historic district. Frost was by no means a wealthy woman, and her efforts to restore such properties were often hampered by lack of funds, though she benefitted by a number of personal loans—most significantly by Irénée Dupont, who for many years employed Frost’s sister Rebecca as a family governess on the Duponts’ Delaware estate. The Duponts were also instrumental in enabling the Frost sisters to establish sole ownership of the Miles Brewton House, a splendid example of the Charleston “double-house” in the Palladian style. There is no doubt that without Frost’s efforts, the pioneering Society for the Preservation of Ancient Dwellings (today known simply as the Charleston Preservation Society), would never have been established. Founded in 1920, initially to raise funds for the restoration of the Joseph Manigault House on Meeting Street, the Society included many prominent members of old Charleston families, including Alston Deas and Thomas Stoney, who would become mayor of the city in 1923, serving two terms and actively promoting Charleston as “America’s Most Historic City.”

Outside the small circle of preservationists, Charlestonians were generally slow to recognize the long-term potential of preservation efforts. Many shared the view of former mayor and pro-development advocate John Patrick Grace, who somewhat ungenerously labeled the preservation movement as a “mania for mummies.” Grace regarded the preservationists as driven primarily by personal nostalgia for a past long since dead. “Why not,” he asked, “awaken with this mercenary reverence for old things also the enterprise which made these old things?” In fact, Frost and her cadre of preservation activists were not opposed to development, but sought to restrict its encroachment upon the most historic precincts of the city, where demolition of old “dwellings” and many other buildings was, by the 1920s, advancing at an alarming rate. While the preservationists’ reverence for the past was, indeed, fraught with personal and familial associations, they also recognized that Charleston’s architectural riches were a patrimony of enduring value, not simply for a privileged elite, but for the city and the nation. Frost insisted on more than one occasion that to eradicate the physical remains of the past was to eradicate the possibility of historical memory itself.

Throughout the 1920s and into the Depression era, tourist numbers in Charleston gradually rose. Initially, this had little to do with preservation. Tourists from the North came primarily for the warm winters and the spring Azalea Festival, and many of these were rather well-heeled visitors who not infrequently became purchasers of Frost’s restored or refurbished old dwellings in the southeastern quadrant of the city. In fact, wealthy Northerners had been buying up Lowcountry properties for some years, including numerous old plantations which had been occupied by Charleston families since the Colonial period. These now began to pass into the hands of millionaires like the Guggenheims, the Roosevelts, the Luces, the Duponts and many others who were captivated by their romantic settings and sought them out as seasonal retreats. In most cases such properties were sold off out of dire financial need, and one can discern a hint of resentment in a remark made by William Watts Ball, scion of one of the oldest families and editor of the city’s leading newspaper, the News and Courier, in 1929, “Indeed, the odor of genteel Yankee wealth, while not suffocating, is pervading Charleston.” But as City Hall stepped up its campaign to publicize Charleston, and as more and more northern and midwestern newspapers reported on the charms of the city, the tourists became increasingly middle-class and arrived in greater numbers. In 1931 the city enacted a zoning ordinance, the first of its kind in the nation, that established a clearly defined historic district and made provisions for legal action against developers or property owners who violated the provisions of the ordinance. By 1934 over a quarter of a million visitors made tourism the single largest source of income for the city. While World War II interrupted the tourist influx, the affluence of the post-war era ensured that tourism would remain a viable industry for the city, though throughout the 50s and 60s the number of visitors remained manageable and the character of the city was not notably altered by their seasonal presence.

While early preservation efforts were often piecemeal—directed at rehabilitating specific streets or restoring endangered houses—the emergence of the Historic Charleston Foundation in 1947 inaugurated a new, more comprehensive vision for the preservation of the city’s history. Like the Preservation Society, it has for more than half a century worked to preserve historic homes, but it has also developed an extensive economic, environmental and educational agenda, and has been an important force in extending the scope of the city’s zoning laws and in formulating its long-range tourism planning. The Foundation, too, was led and organized by the Charleston old guard, and flourished under the guidance of Frances Ravenel Edmunds, who remained its president until 1985. As a result of the work of the Preservation Society, the Foundation, the city’s Board of Architectural Review and a number of other private and municipal entities, Charleston has today become one of the most admired and emulated examples of urban and historical reclamation in the world, written up in countless journal and magazine articles and currently attracting over four million visitors each year while generating 3.58 billion in income (2012 figures). Today, the city is so routinely placed by Conde Nast and other travel journals at the top of the list of America’s most desirable tourist destinations, that the news is greeted by Charlestonians with a yawn and a shrug—and often enough with a sigh. For in recent years the character of the city has been transformed, and not always for the better.

This transformation was not by happenstance. The turning point was the election of Joseph P. Riley, Jr. in 1975, the mayor who has directed the city’s destiny for almost forty years now. That election was significant for a number of reasons. For over a century the city’s political leadership, and especially the mayor’s office, had been dominated—with rare exceptions—by the so-called “Broad Street Ring,” a cabal of powerful lawyers and realtors, most of them connected to or allied with the old families. The Rileys, however, were not old money, though Joseph Riley, Sr., had established a successful insurance firm on Broad St. in 1936. In the mid 70s the city faced formidable problems. Despite the ongoing progress of the preservation movement, much of the city was still dilapidated and unemployment levels were high, especially among blacks. More pressing, the city’s crime rates were dangerously high. Riley, only 32 at the time, ran a very astute campaign. The Rileys were a Catholic family and he drew heavily on the Catholic vote (just as the city’s first Catholic mayor, John Grace, had in 1911), but he also formed a coalition of politically progressive old money, pro-development realtors, and African Americans. Certainly there was stiff resistance to the Riley coalition among the more conservative traditional elite, but during his first term in office Riley moved quickly to make good on his promises: building new parks and recreation centers, especially in minority neighborhoods, appointing a highly effective black chief-of-police, Reuben Greenberg, and promoting a policy of “balanced” growth and urban reclamation. To achieve the latter goal he drew heavily on the Carter administration’s Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG) program, designed for the reclamation of deteriorating districts of American cities. Also products of his first term in office were the Spoleto Festival U.S.A., now an internationally celebrated arts festival, and the Charleston Place project. The first of these, Spoleto, has by virtually universal acclaim been an astounding success for the city. Aside from a few years in the late 70s and early 80s the Festival has been profitable and consistently draws internationally celebrated performers while maintaining an enviable balance between traditional and avant garde styles in music, theater, dance and opera.

The Spoleto Festival, along with the emergence of Charleston as a center of nouvelle southern cuisine, has done a great deal to enhance the city’s reputation as a cultural mecca. The Charleston Place project, has, on the other hand, been more controversial. One of the Mayor’s pet projects, Charleston Place was promoted in the late 70s as a major hotel and shopping hub that would function as an anchor for the expansion of the tourism industry. Much of the original resistance to the idea, especially from preservationists, was due to the location chosen for the project, along Market Street, just across from the old City Market and situated between Meeting and King Streets, the two main arteries running the length of the Charleston peninsula. The plan required the demolition of a number of buildings considered of historic significance, though defenders of the plan argued that the block chosen for demolition had become an eyesore and that the buildings in question were rapidly becoming derelict. After several years of squabbling, and compromise, Charleston Place was completed in 1985. Certainly, as an economic venture, the project has vindicated the Mayor’s plan. Since its completion, King Street has become once again a thriving commercial artery. However, critics note that Charleston Place, which caters exclusively to the well-to-do, has been a major catalyst in stimulating the soaring property values in the area, where many family and locally-owned businesses have been replaced by chic chain stores and upscale shops selling luxury items that that the average Charlestonian couldn’t begin to afford. In short, Charleston Place has become a bitter symbolic reminder for many that tourism and real estate now drive the city’s economy.

For over a century after 1865, the founding families and others who gained prominence during the Colonial and early antebellum eras remained largely in control of Charleston’s economy, politics and culture (though that culture was influenced by many factors, especially the presence of a large black population). Today, their control of the city is slipping away irrevocably, and in part because of the rise of the tourist industry. To be sure, some of the established families have benefitted by tourism, though not, in most cases, directly. As millions of tourists flow into the city each year, and as the city has become an increasingly attractive place to reside, a significant number of those visitors choose to invest in properties here, or to establish businesses—just as in the past, but in greater numbers. While exact figures are hard to come by, it is well-known that hundreds of residential properties in the French Quarter and the South of Broad areas are now owned by people from “off”—that is, people who have no history in the city. Many of those same properties were sold by old Charleston families, some of them for prices unheard of prior to the rise of the Riley administration. One of the sources I spoke to in the course of researching this article, let us call him “Corvo”—a gentleman whose family has been prominent in Charleston since the 1820s—noted that many of the old families who sold off their plantations in the latter part of the 19th century became exclusively city dwellers, “often going into the professions.” Some “invested their money well, others frittered it away and lost status.” For a while their “old family” connections kept them afloat socially, “but if subsequent generations did not restore their wealth they slowly faded out of the ranks.” As real estate prices began to rise in the 70s and subsequent decades, many found the offers for their Charleston properties too good to refuse. Corvo notes that “after hurricane Hugo in 1989 … [many] of the real old Charlestonians were moving to nursing homes [or] leaving downtown. Some of their children took their places, but even they in many cases could not handle the financial demands of large old houses, private school tuition, and social pressures.” So, of course, they sold off their properties: “By the time the recession of the early 1990s was over the wealthy from ‘off’ began to …. take over while my contemporaries sold out and moved to the suburbs.” Some of them did well enough to move to exclusive communities like Kiawah, one of the Sea Islands just south of the city, or to nearby Sullivan’s Island. Others remained in the city and, through prudent investment—often in real estate—managed to maintain their status. But their numbers are dwindling, and, as Corvo notes, the “real money” today is from “off.”

In America, as in much of the capitalist world today, power almost always follows, or is closely allied with, wealth. In Charleston over the last few decades, according to Corvo, the “big money” lies in the hands of the “newcomers, … the people who have made it in corporate America, [in] hedge funds and investments and who have given generously to the Gibbes Museum, Spoleto, etc.” Indeed, a glance at the names on the boards of directors at many of Charleston’s high profile non-profit institutions, like the Gibbes or the Historic Charleston Foundation, reveals that while there are still old Charleston names, the leadership is shifting to new money from elsewhere, to those who make the most generous contributions. In the business sector, similar changes have been occurring. Corvo recalls that up through most of the 1960s “there were three banks in Charleston,” and all were controlled by Charlestonians. But in the 1970s “the banks began slowly replacing their Charleston leadership with people from off that were more professional and could compete with [the leadership at] the new banks in the city.” Charleston’s most visible institutions of higher education have undergone comparable changes, as well. The College of Charleston was, until recent decades, largely a city and regional institution, deeply imbued with the city’s heritage and focused on providing a traditional classical education. Many of its instructors over the years, like Theodore Jervey, came from prominent local families. Today, the College has gone upscale, changed its name to the University of Charleston, recruits its student body and professoriate from a nation-wide pool of applicants, and offers a curriculum that differs very little from any college in America. Indeed, in virtually every sector of the city’s public life affluent “newcomers” are highly visible. According to the Post and Courier, Charleston is rapidly overtaking cities like Palm Beach in the “growth of households with $1 million or more in liquid, investable assets,” a development indicated by the proliferation of Fortune 500 investment firms in the city.

For the first time since the 1860 census was taken Charleston has become a wealthy city again, and while much of that wealth is in the possession of the “new moneyed class,” some of the old Charleston families have thrived: the Hamiltons, Colemans, Maybanks, Stoneys, Prioleaus, Rhetts and others, including the Manigault family, who still own the Post and Courier and a small constellation of media outlets across the country. Of the old families that have survived and who remain influential in the city, most, according to Corvo, are Republicans, but that in itself is little guarantee that they remain a genuinely conservative elite. Many still maintain memberships at St. Michael’s or St. Philip’s Episcopal churches, both of which were founded in the 1680s, or at the nearby Huguenot Church. Some of the old traditions are maintained, especially on the distaff side, yet much of the graciousness and high aristocratic breeding of the past is fading. After the catastrophic losses of 1861-65 Charleston’s impoverished elite still had some claim to the name of “aristocracy.” Their fortunes were still rooted in the land, not in the mercenary wealth of the capitalist order. “Today,” Corvo laments, “money is the real barometer by which one maintains [one’s] status. My mother used to say that Charleston was the one place [where] money could not buy social status. That is no longer the case ….” In an 1870 letter to Edward McCrady, Jr., the great Charleston novelist Gilmore Simms cautioned against “unwise, precipitate concessions “ to the claims of the Union conquerors. He spoke of those “rights which are … still inherent, still sacred, still capable to save us, if we do not fling them away in our eagerness to haste after flesh pots. Let us hold ourselves aloof; touch not, handle not, taste not anything in common with our invaders; keep up communion among ourselves, as well as we can, in all the ancient circles.” The “rights” to which Simms referred were property rights and the right of self-rule. Led by writers like McCrady, Theodore Jervey, and, later, William Watts Ball—all scions of the old families—Charleston, during the latter decades of the 19th century and well into the 20th, reasserted its rights while remaining suspicious of the capitalist “flesh pots.” Imbued with the spirit of the Lost Cause, the old families turned inward and embraced their heritage unapologetically, and did, indeed, remain “aloof” from the American way of getting and spending. But even as they did so, they remained visible leaders of their city. Today, the old families which remain, remain silent. They have no public voice. They raise no banner of resistance, however feeble, against the ever expanding power of the federal monolith. The only member of the old guard who aspires to a position of public leadership today is Thomas Ravenel, Jr., a convicted drug dealer, womanizer, reality tv star, and a barely literate boor, whose wealth was, of course, made primarily in the real estate market. This is a rather sad endnote to a long and admirable history, but as Corvo says, “just like ordinary folks, old families rise, prosper and fall.” As Mayor Joe Riley completes his last term of office, a new elite has begun to consolidate its hold on the city. Where it will lead the city one can only speculate, but they are not likely to do anything to discourage the tourist flood. For the tourism industry is for modern Charleston what the rice culture was for the old city, a cash cow that everyone milks while turning their noses the other way.

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