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Preservation is a way of life in Charleston. From stately antebellum houses to the more utilitarian single houses that shoulder the narrow streets, this 300-year-old city is renowned for its splendid architecture. Embellished with fanciful wrought-iron work as intricate as window frost, and painted sparkling whites, pastels or whimsical rainbow hues, Charleston's houses delight the eye.

Once a cradle of Southern gentility, Charleston is now one of its last bastions. Ancestral pride runs deeper than the Ashley and Cooper rivers that shape the slender peninsula on which the city is built. A story that many locals tell illustrates the Charlestonian spirit. It concerns a wealthy matron who was asked repeatedly why she didn't spend some of her money on travel. “But my dear,” she was said to reply, “why should I travel when I'm already here?” Charleston epitomizes the gracious air of the Old South, where life moves at the leisurely pace of a stroll along The Battery.

Though easygoing and elegant, Charleston gave America its first decisive victory in the Revolutionary War and the first defiant shots of the Civil War. A pioneer in civic affairs, the city established the country's first municipal chamber of commerce, municipal college and public museum. In 1931 it passed the first historic district zoning ordinance to preserve its architectural heritage.

Named for King Charles II, Charles Towne was founded in 1670 by English settlers along the marshy shores of nearby Albemarle Point. The settlement relocated to its present site 10 years later. Despite American Indian uprisings, a threat by the French, epidemics and privateers, Charles Towne had developed into a vigorous port and a prosperous and fashionable Colonial city by the mid-1700s.

Though drawn reluctantly into the Revolution, Charles Towne stubbornly repulsed a British attack by sea in 1776 and a second offensive by land 2 years later before it finally was captured in 1780. The British left in 1782, and the city was incorporated as Charleston the following year.

In 1860 South Carolina passed the first Ordinance of Secession at Charleston, and in April 1861 the Confederates occupied Fort Sumter. For 3 years Union ships blockaded the city, battering Fort Sumter with artillery fire, but the defenders refused to yield. Submarine warfare was introduced in Charleston when the Confederate vessel Hunley sank the USS Housatonic. The Confederate Army finally abandoned the city late in the war.

Charleston's historic district encompasses more than 2,000 buildings: 73 predate the Revolutionary War, 136 date from the late 1700s and more than 600 others were built in the early 1800s. So many church spires poke at the sky that Charleston once was nicknamed The Holy City. Among the churches that offer tours by appointment are St. James United Methodist Church, 512 St. James Ave., (843) 553-3117; St. John's Lutheran Church, 5 Clifford St., (843) 723-2426; and the Unitarian Church, 8 Archdale St., (843) 723-4617.

Hurricane Hugo's assault in 1989 resulted in massive damages in Charleston as well as statewide, but 95 percent of the city's structures survived and the historic district remained intact.

The Battery, the waterfront along the edge of the historic district, offers fine views of the harbor. North of The Battery along E. Bay Street is a particularly colorful collection of houses known as Rainbow Row. A distinctive residential style is the single house, a narrow structure one room wide and two rooms deep with its gabled end, rather than its front, facing the street. Often a single house includes a piazza—the city's version of a veranda—and the pride of any Charleston home: a garden.

Nowhere does Charleston flaunt its beauty more than in its gardens. From the magnificent scale of the nearby plantation gardens to the more modest but equally enchanting walled gardens in the city, the area's lavish floral displays are known throughout the world. Charlestonians proudly show many of their private residences and gardens during the spring and fall tours of houses.

 

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