For a lover of architecture, a visit to Charleston is the equivalent of an expedition to the rain forest for a biologist. It is a magical world where every glance reveals something new and exciting from this cornucopia of architectural history. Condensed on this small peninsula are examples of Greek Revival, Federal, Georgian, Adamesque, Italianate and Victorian homes, the quantity and quality of which are unequaled. Rainbow Row, with its pastel colored 18th century Georgian townhouses, is world renowned, as are the waterfront mansions of Battery Row. But these are just the tip of the iceberg. The entire area, from downtown Charleston to historic Summersville, North Charleston to the aptly named Mt. Pleasant to the Sea Islands, contains spectacular specimens across a expansive spectrum of architectural motifs and styles.
One visits this quaint city today and wonders how it is so. But as Walter J. Frazier, Jr. notes in his book, Charleston! Charleston!: The History of a Southern City:
Great cities are both beautiful and ugly.
In British North America in the eighteenth century the four principal cities were Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston, and of these perhaps Charleston most abounded in glamour and sordidness. Indeed, from its beginnings to the present day the history of this fascinating city has been rich in paradoxes: slavery and freedom, kindness and cruelty, health and sickliness, enormous wealth and grinding poverty. Fragrant and colorful walled gardens have coexisted with stinking alleys, and magnificent homes with hovels. No other city in North America has experienced such dramatic cycles of boom, bust, and destruction, desperate stagnation and confident vigor.
The modern American does not consider Charleston in the same league as New York, Boston and Philadelphia. But even today Charleston is an important port city, the fourth largest container port on the east coast in 2008, the second largest as recently as 2005. The port has produced wealthy men and great homes to house them, magnificent houses for worship, and imposing public buildings to serve them in each generation, leaving an unparalleled legacy of New World architecture.