A large part of Charleston’s economy today depends on tourism, hospitality and room nights in the region’s hotels, restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts.
That’s not surprising, or even new. More than a century ago, Charleston was a vastly wealthy city, with much of that wealth based on cotton, tobacco, imports and exports and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Large hotels were part of the economic mosaic, especially before the Civil War.
In the late 1860s, The Charleston Hotel was an enormous building at 200 Meeting St., bordered by Hayne and Pinckney streets. We have a photo taken by George N. Bernard from the Library of Congress photo archive to give us an idea of what the building’s architecture looked like in 1865.
The hotel, which was completed in 1838, burned just after construction was finished, along with 150 acres of the city’s commercial property that became known as the “burnt district,” according to The Preservation Society of Charleston.
Years later, in 1861, the hotel was threatened by fire again in what the New York Times called The Great Conflagration. In that fire, 576 buildings were destroyed, including five churches, at a loss of $7 million, the Times reported.
As of 1913, the earliest the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks inflation values, that amount would be worth nearly $170 million in 2016 dollars.
The Preservation Society said the hotel was torn down in 1960, and Michael Trouche, a seventh-generation Charlestonian and owner-operator of Charleston Footprints, wrote in the Charleston Mercury that it was replaced with a motor inn.
Trouche also wrote: “Hard times turned the Charleston Hotel into a mass of gaping emptiness. By the 1880s, rooms were being rented to local boarders and the heralded culinary mystique faded into jokes about ‘big columns outside, tough steaks inside.’ In a highly publicized incident in 1893, Gov. Ben Tillman visited the hotel incognito and found evidence of illegal whisky sales, ending one of the hotels’ few profitable enterprises.”
An ad in the 1882 Sholes’ Directory of the City of Charleston listed reduced rates of $2.50, $3 and $4 per day, “according to location of room.” $4 in 1882 would be $89.66 in 2017, according to this online inflation calculator. $2.50 would be a paltry $56.04. Hard times, indeed.
Today, there’s a building of comparable size to The Charleston Hotel on the 200 block of Meeting Street: the Bank of America building. We’ve created a slider below to compare the block where hotel existed in the late 1800s and the same block today in 2017. It’s not the same building, but it is the same corner and it’s still a bustling area.
If you have an interesting old (or new) photo you would like us to publish or check into, please contact Andy Owens at 843-849-3142 or by email.