Charleston Alleys and Courts
- Charleston, SC, circa 1920 "Street scene with horse and wagon" 4x5 inch nitrate negative by Arnold Genthe. via shorpy.com This is Bedon's alley looking north to Elliot Street.
Charleston's Courts, Lanes, & Alleyways
Before early 19th century efforts to create some symmetry in the streets of Charleston, the city contained a haphazard collection of broad streets, narrow footpaths, private bridges and uncovered passages. Crisscrossing and zigzagging, Charleston's lanes and alleyways were forged by necessity of access or merely the convenience of shortcuts. Some ended up becoming trolley tracks or widened paved city streets, but many courts, rows, ranges, alleys and lanes still survive in Charleston, even if only in name and legend. These are just a few of our favorites.
In Claude Henry Neuffler's Names in South Carolina, alleyway terminology is defined and the differences among the names delineated. The terms "lane" and "alley" can be used interchangeably and designate a short thoroughfare varying in width. A "court" is a dead-end lane running about halfway through the block (sometimes dog-legging to come out on another street). A "row" denotes a portion of a street (like Rainbow Row) and a "range" may be a broad thoroughfare (like Vendue) or a tiny court, like Wasbee. Wasbee Range? Yes, the little court off of Ashley that provided rear access to a row of townhouses on Bull Street used to be called Bee Range. Since there was a Bee Street up the ways, in the 1950s the city renamed the lane that "Was" called "Bee" into Wasbee. Makes perfect sense, right?
Before the Civil War, there was a prosperous Free Negro community in the area of George to Calhoun, between St. Philip and King Streets. It was bordered by small brick cottages with gardens and shade trees and lots of Indian Lilac whose heady scent and heavy blooms swayed each spring. Lilac Lane ran east from St. Philip's Street near the present Albert Simon's Fine Arts Building at the College, then south to George Street near the Sotille Theatre. It was home to John Bennett's Madame Margot, the woman-of-color who by legend sold her soul to the devil so that her beautiful fair-skinned daughter could 'be white for all of eternity'. As Harlan Greene describes Bennett's work, "In Margot's world, 'the calendar seemed to have paused among the tulips, between the jessamine and June, in that paradise of the year.' Charleston, 'the languid, lovely, tired old town was then a city brave and gay, with Mediterranean manners and Caribbean ways." It's a beautifully written story, if quite macabre, and y'all should read it before the next time you're strolling down George Street at night--you might see the ghost of Madame Margot in the parking lot shadows where the lilacs used to grow.
Cleaning up Charleston's alleys
While it's true that in many cities, the term "alley" connotates a foreboding, cat-and-litter-strewn place where nothing good can happen, you'd be hard pressed to find one like that in Charleston, where lanes and alleys and courts are now some of the most delightful little treasures Charleston's visitors hope to find. Of course, that wasn't always the case. Before the Preservation Society of Charleston's founder Susan Pringle Frost took St. Michael's Alley under her wing in the early 1900s, it was a slum. So, too, were Elliott Street and Bedon's Alley (pictured above at top). Price's Alley was "an alley in the literal sense of the word, littered with dingy dwellings and fire hazardous structures," claimed one early 20th century resident. According to an early 1900s News & Courier article, in Philadelphia Alley, "Mongrel dogs yelp, scratch fleas, and investigate the source of many rich and fish-like smells. Rats lope from hole to hole." Not so much anymore!
- Do As You Choose Alley as sketched by Elizabeth O'Neil Verner circa 1930 (Smithsonian Art Museum, Renwick Gallery) on left. Right: JC Dunbar Apartments after construction in 1982 (top; Historic Charleston Foundation) and today (bottom).
While some alleyways were indeed rehabilitated, some were so bad that they were ultimately demolished. According to local journalist Jack Leland, these tended to be alleys or courts that came into being when landowners built small rental units on large lots, leaving a passageway between them down the center of the lot. Many never became part of the city street system, remaining the private property of--in many cases--slumlords. One such example is an area of Wraggborough east of Elizabeth Street called "Cedar Court". It was a cluster of small, unpainted houses that in the late 1940s housed more than 100 black citizens in deplorable conditions: there was only one water faucet and one toilet in the center of the court. The City did not consider it part of the municipal street system as it was privately owned, so it did not install sewerage or drains. One resident said he had to hold his nose when he came home, the stench was so bad, and the heavy rains of 1949 certainly did not help the situation. The mail carriers refused to service the court due to health concerns, citing that while they could overcome such hazardous natural conditions such as sleet and snow, man-made conditions dangerous to their health were not in their job description. City Council forced the slumlords to demolish the buildings and it sounds like that may not have been a bad idea. Hard to imagine such a scene in modern Charleston's Garden District, no?
Do As You Choose Alley, with its anything goes attitude, was another one that ultimately had to be destroyed--twice. In Radcliffeborough, off of Coming below Morris Street, the alley was lined with a multitude of clapboard dwellings. It was aptly named as the city's hotbed of illicit activity, the ultimate nightmare of law enforcement. In 1948, the city building inspector condemned the alley as unfit for habitation and the houses were demolished and more modern dwellings were built. Unsavory characters and shady behavior continued to be associated with Do As You Choose Alley until the Morris Street Baptist Church bought the land in 1978. After demolishing the six existing buildings, four new buildings containing 30 apartments were constructed and opened in 1982. Do As You Choose Alley no longer exists, although Charleston's easy-going attitude does!
- 19 Brewster Court, Charleston, SC
Living on a Charleston Court today
Living on a court in Charleston is one way to stay in touch with the scene but tucked away from the main thoroughfares. Ginger just listed a gorgeous fully-furnished luxury rental in Cannonborough available May 1st for month-to-month or 6-month lease. With its amazing views from the roof-top terrace, 19 Brewster Court is off of St. Philip's Street, just one block from Upper King shopping and entertainment district. Please call Ginger at 843.513.5525 to schedule a showing!
Looking for something more permanent? Ruthie just listed for sale a circa 1876 Charleston Single house on a quiet court off of Montagu Street in the heart of Harleston Village. Close to King Street, the College of Charleston, and MUSC, 3 Montagu Court is within walking distance of pretty much anywhere you need to go. Please call Ruthie at 843.729.1290 to schedule a showing!
- 3 Montagu Court, Charleston, SC