English Colonists first settled Charleston, S.C., in 1670. Shortly thereafter, no doubt, the first tour brochure was printed. Centuries passed. Charleston endured slavery, the American Revolution and the Civil War. Hurricanes raged, prostitutes beckoned, murderers lurked, restaurants opened. They all became fodder for tours, tours and more tours.
Enter Charleston's visitors center and you're greeted by racks of seductive brochures: walking tours, van tours, water tours, carriage tours, religious tours, nature tours, war tours, plantation tours. How to choose, when there are 13 ghost tours alone?
The Gullah Tour visits the remnants of an African American graveyard.
(Photos Gayle Keck)
I decided on a three-pronged approach that would cover as many of Charleston's residents as possible: the white, the black and the dead.
Tea Party Tour
The Charleston Tea Party Walking Tour sounded about as genteel as it gets. The pink brochure featured a photo of guide Laura Wichmann Hipp ("married to G. Preston Hipp of Charleston") in a broad-brimmed hat, looking ready to snatch Rhett Butler away from an unsuspecting Scarlett O'Hara. It promised to emphasize architecture and preservation in the city's historic district, with a grand finale of tea served in the guide's private garden.
I was a bit disappointed when Hipp's mother, Marianne Wichmann -- who shares guide duties -- showed up at the rendezvous point in the garden of the Kings Courtyard Inn. Instead of a honeyed southern accent, she had the crisp tone of a proper British matron. I soon cheered up. Wichmann was a breezy eccentric who scolded latecomers, sailed into private gardens and poked through fusty alleys. And she reminded us, of course, that the English were Charleston's first citizens.
On Church Street, Wichmann pointed out "Barbadian houses" much better suited to the climate. Barbados was Charleston's "mother colony," she said; wealthy colonials fled here after a slave uprising. They brought with them the concept of tiered porches, called piazzas, stretching the length of the house, and an orientation that captured cool ocean breezes. As a result, many Charleston homes seem oddly situated, with their narrow ends facing the street and gardens to the side.
When Wichmann halted at one point and announced, "From now on, this is going to be a tour of trees," her handful of charges exchanged uneasy glances. For all we knew, she was going to introduce us to every tree in town. It turned out she was just planning to avoid the morning's rising heat by parking us under shade trees when she talked.
We rambled on through the historic district, where "90 percent of the roofs were destroyed by Hurricane Hugo" in 1989. Wichmann harrumphed at the many tin replacement roofs: "Tin wasn't allowed pre-Hugo!" We visited the French Quarter ("a New Orleans wannabe"), St. Philip's Episcopal Church ("built from a tax on rum, brandy, slaves"), clambered up to the balcony of the historic Dock Street Theatre and ducked into Pirates Courtyard, where buccaneers came to trade goods.
Wichmann was clearly scandalized by the run-up of Charleston's housing prices. She pointed out a tiny, leaning house, saying it recently sold for $500,000 -- she seemed to see it as an invasion by rich barbarians. At a gracious old home, she tartly noted that "the cypress walls were oiled and waxed since 1751, but the new owners from Chicago painted them white!"
Along Chalmers Street, the former red-light district, we visited the 1690s-era Pink House. Wichmann showed us the first-floor "coffin door" for removing the dead, and explained that the building's original use was as a tavern on the ground floor, brothel on the second floor and family quarters on the third floor. Guess kids grew up fast back then.