By lucky coincidence we began our Charleston architectural journey not in Charleston, but in Boston. Remember that Boston and Charleston were two of the four principal cities of colonial America, Boston being the most northern and Charleston being the most southern. Both cities are similarly situated on a peninsula between two rivers jutting into a natural harbor. Both are port cities become wealthy by the merchant class. Before the chamber of commercialization of “sister cities”, Boston and Charleston were considered sister cities in the truest sense of the word, having developed similarly. Moreover, Charleston, being forty years younger, was heavily influenced by Boston culture as wealthy Northerners wintered in the warmer climes of South Carolina. It is safe to assume they took back north some of the South. John Winthrop, Massachusetts Bay Colony’s original governor, declared Boston partner to a covenant with God, a “City on a Hill”, a shining example to the rest of the world. Charleston is known as “The Holy City” for the steeples which dominate its skyline.
So why look at Boston in a column dedicated to Charleston? In case the sister city concept isn’t compelling enough, consider that a standard methodology for studying anything is compare and contrast. Take the above religious designations, for example. Charleston has so many churches because it has a heritage of religious toleration. French Huguenots found haven in Charleston. Jews were allowed to practice their faith unmolested. The Puritans, on the other hand, were intent on establishing their particular practice of Christianity. Roger Williams was infamously driven from the Massachusetts Bay Colony to found Rhode Island as a place of religious freedom.
These nuances are embodied in the architecture found in the two cities, as evidenced by the lovely Charleston Huguenot church shown in the picture. You won’t find such a church in Boston today, although Huguenots were granted permission for a Huguenot church in Boston in 1687, the same year the original church in Charleston was built. The Boston Huguenot church was converted to an Anglican Church, then a Roman Catholic Church, and the site is now a bank. Somehow this epitomizes the evolution of Boston, and is an example of how architecture reflects our identity.
It is also an example of the difference between Charleston and Boston as architectural laboratories. Historical Boston had a great modern city grow up all around it, obscuring the view. Boston grew, evolved, maintaining its history self-consciously. Charleston, on the other hand, is (almost) a natural preserve. The structures survive not for the values they once represented, but for the values they still represent.