Incorporating the nineteenth-century facade of the Planters’ Hotel, the Dock Street Theatre at 135 Meeting Street in Charleston is a fine example of New Deal construction. Whether viewed from Church Street or Queen Street, it illustrates a key tenet of historic preservation: retaining streetscapes.
(Charleston). Incorporating the nineteenth-century facade of the Planters’ Hotel, the Dock Street Theatre at 135 Meeting Street in Charleston is a fine example of New Deal construction. Whether viewed from Church Street or Queen Street, it illustrates a key tenet of historic preservation: retaining streetscapes.
By 1736 Charleston boasted a theater, one of the earliest in the colonies. Fronting on Queen Street (then called Dock Street), the theater had been lost by the turn of the nineteenth century. In 1809 the proprietor of the Planters’ Hotel informed her patrons that she had purchased the “large and commodious house at the corner of Church and Queen” and furnished it “in a genteel manner.”
The hotel remained a favorite downtown residence of plantation families until after the Civil War, but in the early 1930s it was vacant and in ruinous condition. When Charleston was admitted to the Federal Emergency Relief Administration’s “historical program,” this was the building chosen for restoration. In 1935 the city bought the property; FERA provided funding and an architect, Douglas D. Ellington.
Working with the local architects Albert Simons and Samuel Lapham, Ellington designed a new theater behind the brownstone facade. Adjoining support buildings were remodeled while the main site was cleared. Historic brick was reused for exterior walls, and woodwork from the ca. 1806 Radcliffe-King Mansion was installed in reception rooms, but the interior details of the theater were frankly copied from area landmarks.
Despite delays with the transition from FERA to the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the project never lapsed entirely, and Ellington, Simons, and Lapham remained involved until completion. Although most laborers were federal program enrollees, one craftsman, John Smith, “a negro artisan not on the relief rolls,” received recognition for his “painstaking and expert work on plaster cornices and medallions.”
At the grand opening in November 1937, WPA chief Harry Hopkins joined hundreds of white Charlestonians for a revival of The Recruiting Officer, the first play performed at the original Dock Street Theatre. Under the management of the city of Charleston, Dock Street Theatre has expanded its audience to become a fixture in the cultural affairs of the lowcountry. The building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
“Formal Opening Begins Tonight at Dock St. Theater.” Charleson News and Courier, November 26, 1937, pp. 1, 2.
Simons, Albert. “Dock St. Theater, Planters Hotel Add to City’s Architectural Wealth.” Charleson News and Courier, November 21, 1937, p. C2.
Stockton, Robert. “Former Planter’s Hotel Wins National Acclaim.” Charles- ton News and Courier, July 16, 1973, p. B1.