Through words, melodies, pictures, and even a dance step, the idea of Charleston was broadcast across the nation.
(ca. 1915–1940). The Charleston Renaissance was a multifaceted cultural renewal that took place in the years between World Wars I and II. Artists, musicians, writers, historians, and preservationists, individually and in groups, fueled a revival that reshaped the city’s destiny. Such organizations as the Charleston Sketch Club and the Charleston Etchers’ Club, the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals, the Jenkins Orphanage Band, the Poetry Society of South Carolina, and the Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings provided opportunities for groups to foster artistic expression deeply rooted in Charleston’s past. Many individuals, largely natives, were responsible for shepherding these organizations: Alice Ravenel Huger Smith and Elizabeth O’Neill Verner; Augustine T. Smythe and Herbert Ravenel Sass; DuBose Heyward, John Bennett, Josephine Pinckney, and Julia Peterkin; Susan Pringle Frost, Alston Deas, and Albert Simons.
The Charleston Renaissance benefited from a large number of books, many illustrated with paintings and prints by local artists, as well as documentary photographs. A seminal volume was The Dwelling Houses of Charleston, South Carolina, published in 1917 and consisting of house histories by D. E. H. Smith accompanied by picturesque drawings by his daughter, Alice Smith. Ten years later Albert Simons and his partner Samuel Lapham issued the lavishly illustrated volume The Early Architecture of Charleston. Both books instilled a sense of pride in Charleston’s architectural past and stimulated the historic preservation movement. Spurred by these individuals, Susan Frost, and others active in the preservation society, the municipal government in 1931 passed the nation’s first preservation ordinance and established the Board of Architectural Review to oversee all demolitions and changes to structures in the historic district.
That same year the spiritual society issued The Carolina Low-Country, a compendium of essays on plantation life, with an emphasis on spirituals. These and the many other books published at this time served to document Charleston’s cultural heritage, and because they were accessible and easily transported they served to disseminate the charms of the lowcountry to a broad audience. One story, more than any other, brought national attention to Charleston: the tale of Porgy, by DuBose Heyward. It appeared in 1925, first as a novel, then as a play on Broadway in 1928, and finally in its best known form, as the folk opera Porgy and Bess in 1935.
Although an art colony per se never emerged, artists created images that served to attract visitors to the area. Initially, the artwork of Alice Smith, Elizabeth O’Neill Verner, Anna Heyward Taylor, other local aspirants, and Alfred Hutty (a transplanted northerner) emphasized picturesque views that veiled the reality of a city that had seen brighter times. These paintings and prints were exhibited in such places as Chicago, Washington, and Philadelphia, broadening the appreciation for the lowcountry. Because the watercolors were often small-scale and the prints accessibly priced, many tourists purchased them as souvenirs of their visits. Ultimately, other artists were enticed to the area, converting Charleston into a mecca of sorts for painters and printmakers.
The country gradually became Charleston-conscious, and as a result tourists began to come, especially in the spring, to “America’s Most Historic City.” Tourism was enhanced by improved transportation, not least of which was the opening of the Cooper River Bridge in 1929, which facilitated automobile traffic with the north and provided makers of sweet-grass baskets direct access to passing motorists. Hotels such as the Francis Marion and the Fort Sumter were built in the early 1920s to accommodate the influx of visitors. Azalea festivals, musicals, and house and garden tours were offered as entertainment but also served as fund-raisers. Former plantations, such as Magnolia Gardens and Middleton Place, welcomed tourists to their newly restored gardens. Most of the visitors were northerners, and many of the wealthier ones purchased derelict area plantations, which they restored and transformed into hunting preserves. Among the more notable figures who came to coastal Carolina in the 1930s were Solomon R. Guggenheim, who loaned to the Gibbes Museum of Art his collection of nonobjective painting for its inaugural exhibition; Archer M. and Anna Hyatt Huntington, who acquired various Allston family plantations to form Brookgreen Gardens; and Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Kittredge, who transformed the old rice fields at Dean Hall plantation into Cypress Gardens.
Through words, melodies, pictures, and even a dance step, the idea of Charleston was broadcast across the nation. Although local residents realized that Charleston was undergoing a dramatic revitalization, the phrase “The Charleston Renaissance” did not get widespread usage until the 1980s, although the word “renaissance” occurred occasionally in newspaper accounts. The designation coalesced in 1985 when the Catfish Row Company sponsored a production of Porgy and Bess on the folk opera’s fiftieth anniversary and the Gibbes Museum of Art mounted an exhibition, Charleston in the Era of Porgy and Bess.
Hutchisson, James M., and Harlan Greene, eds. Renaissance in Charleston: Art and Life in the Carolina Low Country, 1900–1940. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2003.
Severens, Martha R. The Charleston Renaissance. Spartanburg, S.C.: Saraland, 1998.
Worthington, Curtis. Literary Charleston: A Lowcountry Reader. Charleston, S.C.: Wyrick, 1996.