Among the most skillfully preserved sites in Charleston has been the Dock Street Theater on Church Street. The building dates to the turn of the 19th century, where the Planters Hotel was built as a replacement for the old theater building that had faced Queen Street, formerly Dock Street. Refitted with a façade of brownstone columns and cast iron balcony in the 1850’s, the hotel became the most posh accommodation in the city, but closed after the Civil War. Fortunes of the area suffered and the old structure looked drab and run-down until the city got Federal money during the New Deal to refurbish it. Commissioning architects to use historic drawings and plans, the city reestablished a colonial-era theater inside the old hotel that was renamed the Dock Street Theater and reopened for performances in 1937. Part of the project included salvaging hand-carved woodwork from the 1799 Radcliffe-King mansion on Meeting Street, which was torn down to build a college gymnasium. A new renovation on the theater was just completed by the city in April, 2010, restoring its fabled brownstones, terra cotta courtyard tiling, and the outstanding details of the old Radcliffe-King House featured in theater lobbies and ancillary rooms. Visitors can enjoy entering the theater for free on weekdays to marvel at the stunning theater that displays the emblem of the English kings above its intimate stage and charming balconies. The old building is much like entering a colonial mansion as well, as the ornate woodwork, fashioned by hand in the 1790’s, is as lustrous today as ever.
Charleston’s old district jail on Magazine Street is just north of the famed South of Broad district, but a million miles from the consciousness of the daily city visitor. Built in 1803 in a section that was then on the marshy border of city, the towering old fortress construction was never meant to be a tourism showcase. Instead it was a place of punishment and misery for the next 137 years, closing in 1939 and used sparingly by the city as a police station and housing authority maintenance shop since. But time has mellowed the terror of the old place, and made its massive crenelated walls and turrets of much more interest to architectural historians. Since 2000, it has been home to the American College of the Building Arts, where classes are taught in sculpting, woodcarving, and iron work. The old lock-up was fortunate to get tenants who knew something about structural changes, as the jail was quickly crumbling from decades of neglect and damage. The old cells and halls provide a fascinating look into this very mundane aspect of Charleston history, and old walls still bear the graffiti of those locked up more than a century ago. The construction itself is unique in its Romanesque bulk, including attic cisterns and a roofing system that fed the water supply, as well as reverse-arch foundations that have kept the huge half-acre structure from sinking into the soft ground below. The old district jail, which is mistakenly called a city jail by too many who should know better, is in need of considerable repair, but is low on the totem pole of projects in Charleston today, so its future is not guaranteed.