Irish in Charleston

Preservation-Society , March 16, 2016

Saint Michael’s Church in 1861 (via loc.gov)

Article edited August 1, 2017 re: James Hoban and footnote number 12.

One reason Charleston’s history is so alluring is that it is multi-layered, complex, and flavored with the diversity of several ethnic, cultural, and religious groups. In the late-17th century, inhabitants of the nascent colony included Africans, West Indians, Sephardic Jews from Portugal and Spain, Scots, French Huguenots, Germans, Dutch, Irish, and of course English.[1] All of these groups have left their mark on the city in one way or another, but in the spirit of Saint Patrick’s Day, of particular focus here is the contribution of Irish and Irish-Americans to Charleston’s built environment.

Builders and Architects

Samuel Cardy (b. ? – d. January 24, 1774) – Though his date and place of birth are unknown, it is likely that he was from Leinster, Ireland because his will indicates that his next of kin lived in Dublin.[2] Cardy was the builder of St. Michael’s Church at 80 Meeting Street, the construction of which spanned nearly a decade from 1752-1761. A hurricane on September 15, 1752, funding issues, and labor shortages delayed the project at various times. When the church finally opened for service on February 1, 1761, Cardy’s pew was number 89.[3]

Cardy is also credited with being the architect of a lighthouse on Morris Island which no longer stands. When workers were digging brick from the lighthouse’s foundations in 1876, they uncovered a small copper plate which stated that the structure was begun on May 30, 1767. The plate also listed names, finishing with, “Samuel Cardy, arct.”[4]

Left: “Measurement of the front of Charleston Theatre,” a detail from a surveyor’s plat showing the Broad Street Theatre pre-alteration Right: The building after conversion to the Medical College of the State of South Carolina (Both images courtesy of the Waring Historical Library, MUSC, Charleston, SC)

James Hoban (b. ca. 1762 – December 8, 1831) – A Kilkennyman born in Callan, Ireland, Hoban immigrated to America by 1785 and was in Charleston by 1787.[5] He is an interesting figure not only because of the fame he gained for designing the White House in Washington, DC, but also because of the mark he left on Charleston. The 1790 Charleston city directory shows Hoban as residing at 43 Trott Street, a lot on what is now the north side of the eastern end of Wentworth Street.[6] From that property, Hoban and his business partner, Pierce Purcell, both of the City of Charleston Carpenters, advertised that they would teach an architecture class for young men in the evenings. Apparently, Robert Mills was one of their pupils.[7]

Despite living in Charleston for about a decade, there is only one building that can be attributed to Hoban with certainty.[8] While there is some evidence suggesting that he may have had a hand in designing and constructing the new statehouse from 1788-1792,[9] he definitely designed the Broad Street Theatre.[10] The theatre was an unpretentious masonry building at the corner of New and Broad Streets on a triangular plot of land known as Savage’s Green. Seating 1,200 people, it opened in February of 1793. In the late-1820s it had a Tuscan portico added to its principal façade and became the home of the Medical College of the State of South Carolina from 1832-1838. Though long believed to be a victim of the great fire of December 1861, the building was actually dismantled sometime between 1849 and 1858 to make room for a new dwelling, which still stands today.[11], [12]

Early-20th century image of the Masonic Hall

John Henry Devereux (b. July 26, 1840 – d. March 16, 1920) – One of the most prolific architects in Charleston’s past, Devereux was born in Wexford, Ireland. He came to America as a small boy and was just twenty when the US Civil War erupted. He joined the Confederacy as a cavalry captain and became a practicing builder and architect following the war.[13]

Left: St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church (courtesy of Jack Alterman) Right: Historical engraving of the Academy of Music

One of his most recognizable projects is St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church at 405 King Street (built 1867-1872), across from Marion Square. Devereux also designed the Masonic Hall (begun in December 1871), the large brick and stucco, Gothic Revival-style building on the southeast corner of Wentworth and King Streets.[14] Under the service of the treasury department he designed the Renaissance Revival-style federal courthouse and post office (built 1896-1897), which is made of granite from Winnsboro, South Carolina and stands at the southwest corner of Meeting and Broad Streets.[15] Although no longer extant, Devereux was the architect of the Academy of Music (built ca. 1869), an ornate theatre with reputedly extraordinary acoustics.[16] Located at the northwest corner of Market and King Streets, the Riviera Theatre now occupies the site.

Of lesser note architecturally but an important part of the Preservation Society’s history, Devereux is responsible for the alterations performed in 1870 to the Stevens-Lathers House at 20 South Battery (built ca. 1843). He added the top story, which features the Second Empire-style mansard roof, and in which the Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings held some of its first meetings.

Other Interesting Bits

Hibernian Hall is a National Historic Landmark at 105 Meeting Street and is home to the Hibernian Society, an Irish benevolent organization formed around 1800 to aid Irish emigrants arriving in Charleston. Built in 1840 and designed by Thomas Ustick Walter, it was the first semi-public building of pure Greek style in the city. The Hibernian Society continues to meet there today.[17]

Byrnes Downs is a 1940s suburb in West Ashley with an intact housing stock composed of compact, cottage-style brick houses which are typically one-and-one-half stories in height.[18] The subdivision is named for James F. Byrnes, an Irish-American native Charlestonian who had a distinguished political career, including being the governor of South Carolina from 1951-1955.

Patrick Keely designed the striking Cathedral of St. John the Baptist at 120 Broad Street. Keely was an Irish-American architect who did most of his work in Brooklyn, NY and Providence, RI.

55 and 57 Chapel Street, two of the McCabe Tenements

Benjamin McCabe was a leading investor and captain in the Irish Volunteers, a local militia company. Around 1890, he constructed the string of five dwellings at 51-59 Chapel Street in the Queen Ann style. Four of the five houses served as tenements, while McCabe inhabited 59 Chapel Street.[19]

By Tim Condo, Manager of Preservation Initiatives at the Preservation Society

[1] http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/charleston/community.htm.

[2] Beatrice St. Julien Ravenel, Architects of Charleston (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992), p. 29.

[3] Ibid., p. 31.

[4] Ibid., p. 32.

[5] Ravenel, Architects of Charleston, p. 76.

[6] Ibid., p. 77.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Eighty-four Broad, now the Charleston County Courthouse. The Old SC State House burned in 1788.

[10] Jonathan Poston, The Buildings of Charleston: A Guide to the City’s Architecture (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997), p. 170.

[11] Ibid., p. 320-321.

[12] Via Nicholas Butler, Ph.D., who deduced an accurate chronology of the development of the property at 37 Meeting Street from three contemporary sources: Dr. John Beaufain Irving published his memories of the old Charleston Theatre in the Courier, January 26, 1858, saying “a few years since it was pulled down to give place to modern improvements;” According to the Charleston Mercury on December 13, 1861, the great fire of December 11, 1861, burned the south side of Broad Street “from M. C. Levy’s, opposite the Cathedral, to Mr. Seabrook’s extensive west end, destroying all…save the house standing on the corner of New Street, and Mr. Huguenin’s brick residence below Savage…New Street and Savage Street are left without a landmark, save the brick chimneys of the handsome dwellings which recently adorned that section;” In the Daily News of December 1, 1869, the editor mentioned that before the Civil War, the old theater was sold “at so low a price that the purchaser is said to have made a profit out of its bricks.”

[13] Ravenel, Architects of Charleston, p. 265.

[14] Ibid., p. 266.

[15] Poston, The Buildings of Charleston, p. 168.

[16] Ravenel, Architects of Charleston, p. 266.

[17] http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/charleston/hib.htm.

[18] “Byrnes Downs Area Character Appraisal,” http://www.charleston-sc.gov/DocumentCenter/View/1638, p. 15.

[19] Poston, The Buildings of Charleston, p. 594.

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