Tennessee Williams, JFK and a Suspected Nazi Spy: The History Behind Charleston’s Fort Sumter House
preservation-admin , January 13, 2023
Fort Sumter House is a former luxury hotel—now a condominium building—in the South of Broad neighborhood in Charleston, S.C. KATIE CHARLOTTE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Even at 100 years old, Fort Sumter House is a relative newcomer to Charleston, S.C., where many of the homes date to the 1700s. Nonetheless, this former luxury hotel—now a condominium—touts a rich history.
In the 1940s, visitors to the hotel included playwright Tennessee Williams and a young John F. Kennedy, who used it for a tryst with the Danish journalist Inga Arvad.
But the building is also iconic for its appearance, according to Erin Minnigan of the Preservation Society of Charleston. A rare example of Spanish colonial-revival architecture, Fort Sumter House is the only high-rise building in the South of Broad neighborhood, and will remain so because of height restrictions in the city’s historic districts, she says.
Historical photos of the Fort Sumter Hotel, which was built in the 1920s.
THE CHARLESTON MUSEUM, CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA (3)
The Fort Sumter House homeowners association recently completed an extensive restoration of the exterior facade, including the stucco and ironwork, working with the preservation society to ensure the building’s historic look remained intact.
“It has become well loved by the citizens of Charleston,” Ms. Minnigan says.
Construction on the Fort Sumter Hotel began in 1923, with the first guests checking in the following year, according to a history maintained by the homeowners association. A centennial celebration is in the works, residents say.
The unusual design of the Fort Sumter Hotel riled some of the locals when construction on the building began, according to some accounts that Ms. Minnigan has read. “At the time preservationists really felt that it was inappropriate—the scale and its modern design. I can certainly see that being the case,” she says. “But that was 100 years ago, and buildings gain significance over time.”
Playwright Tennessee Williams, left, visited Fort Sumter House in 1947. In 1942, Danish journalist Inga Arvad, center, stayed there with John F. Kennedy, then a young Navy officer.
GETTY IMAGES (2); BETTMANN ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES (ARVAD)
Kennedy, at the time a young Navy officer, stayed at the hotel in 1942 with the charming and beautiful Arvad, says Scott Farris, a presidential scholar and author of “Inga: Kennedy’s Great Love, Hitler’s Perfect Beauty, and J. Edgar Hoover’s Prime Suspect.” The FBI under Hoover also suspected that Arvad was a Nazi spy, Mr. Farris says, and the agency bugged their hotel room.
The Fort Sumter Hotel “was a beautiful place and perfect for a weekend tryst,” says Mr. Farris, who studied former Hoover’s voluminous trove of papers after they were declassified. Arvad’s FBI file is well over 1,000 pages, Mr. Farris says, and eventually the agency decided that she probably wasn’t a spy. “They realized that there was no there there,” he says.
For residents interested in the topic, “JFK and Inga Binga,” a farcical retelling of the Kennedy affair, takes the stage in February at Charleston’s Dock Street Theatre.
The lobby of Fort Sumter House.
PHOTO: KATIE CHARLOTTE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
In 1947, playwright Tennessee Williams and his literary agent met with theater producer Irene Selznick at the Fort Sumter Hotel to discuss Williams’ latest play, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” according to theater critic and author John Lahr, author of “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh.”
Sheraton Hotels purchased the building in 1967 for $435,000 and spent another $500,000 on renovations, according to the homeowners association. In 1973, real-estate investors purchased the hotel and started a $2 million project to convert its 225 rooms into 67 condo units, according to the HOA. Since then, a number of the units have been combined.
Today, what makes this building noteworthy, homeowners say, are its sweeping water views and proximity to the boutique shops and restaurants on the southern end of the city’s peninsula. White Point Garden, a public park, is just steps away from the main entrance of Fort Sumter House.
“We’re in the prime location,” says Katherine Wilkinson, who in 2020 paid $425,000 for a one-bedroom, one-bath condo in Fort Sumter House with her husband, Mark Wilkinson.
Katherine and Mark Wilkinson paid $425,000 for a one-bedroom, one-bath condo at Fort Sumter House in 2020.
PHOTO: Katie Charlotte for The Wall Street Journal
“The battery is just outside, and the historic, iconic mansions are breathtaking,” says Ms. Wilkinson, 61, who works in an interior-design showroom. “We pinch ourselves every day. It’s just magic.”
Since 2020, at least 12 units have sold at Fort Sumter House, according to public records. Sale prices range from $387,000 for a roughly 585-square-foot unit to $1.225 million for a two-bedroom, two-bath unit measuring about 1,500 square feet.
In 2021, Josh Nass paid $770,000 for a roughly 1,200-square-foot unit at Fort Sumter House that dwarfed his studio apartment in Manhattan. During the pandemic, “I realized that I didn’t have to be in New York City to work—I could be anywhere,” says Mr. Nass, a 31-year-old crisis-communications specialist.
Josh Nass in his home at Fort Sumter House.
PHOTO: KATIE CHARLOTTE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
In 2021, Josh Nass paid $770,000 for a roughly 1,200-square-foot unit at Fort Sumter House.KATIE CHARLOTTE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL (3)
A friend from Charleston encouraged Mr. Nass to consider the Holy City. After renting briefly, Mr. Nass contacted Douglas Berlinsky at the firm Disher, Hamrick & Myers Real Estate, describing himself as a fervent foodie who loved European architecture and cobblestone streets. Mr. Berlinsky showed him Fort Sumter House because of its historic feel. “Its presence from the street is of an elegant residence,” Mr. Berlinsky says. “It also has amenities that many complexes in the city do not—a pool, a fitness room and [designated] parking.”
Currently, only one apartment at Fort Sumter House is listed for sale: a two-bedroom, two-bath unit on the fourth floor asking $1.19 million. Lee Williams of Oyster Point Realty Group has the listing. At nearly 1,200 square feet, the apartment is one of the more spacious units in the building.
LEE WILLIAMS (3)
Overall, the inventory of condos in downtown Charleston remains tight, according to an analysis by real-estate website Zillow. In November, 45 condos were on the market, a decrease of 41.6% from the same month in 2021. The median list price for downtown condos on Nov. 30 was $975,000, up 34.5% from a year earlier, Zillow found.
The batter and White Point Garden are located in the city’s historic South of Broad neighborhood.
Katie Charlotte for The Wall Street Journal
Under Construction in Charleston
Several condo projects are in the works in Charleston. A former Masonic Lodge on Wentworth Street is undergoing a condo conversion, and all 12 units have been presold, according to the developer, East West Partners.
New developments currently under construction include City House Charleston, located in the French Quarter. Carriage Properties is handling presales of 21 condos there, including a three-bedroom, three-bath unit asking $4.2 million. Handsome Properties is marketing four luxury townhomes being built at 122 Beaufain Street in the Harleston Village neighborhood. Currently on the market are two three-bedroom, three-bath units measuring roughly 3,000 square feet and asking $2.55 million each.
A rendering of City House Charleston, a condo project under construction in the French Quarter.
PHOTO: CITY HOUSE CHARLESTON (RENDERING)
New buildings must complement the character of the neighborhood, says Ms. Minnigan of the Preservation Society of Charleston. “The design must blend in with its surroundings,” she says. “At the same time, we don’t want to give a false sense of it being a historic building.”
Corrections & Amplifications
A condo conversion project on Wentworth Street in Charleston has 12 units. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said it has 11 units. (Corrected on Jan. 23)