How McCrady's was saved from becoming a parking lot 

If Walls Could Talk

Jonathan Boncek

There is a cannonball in my closet. It is small, as cannonballs go, roughly six pounds, a compact, rusty, Revolutionary War relic, pockmarked with age. It did not kill anyone, as far as I know, though I suppose it could have inflicted harm somewhere along its trajectory in 1780 from harbor to impact. It lodged, deep beneath the soil of Unity Alley, just southeast of the building now known as McCrady's, resting comfortably for the next two centuries while the world changed above. In the early 1980s, a plumber laying new pipes unearthed it.

click to enlarge JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek

McCrady's "Long Room" (an 18th-century term for an assembly hall), from its construction in 1788 to its present use as a top-tier dining venue, adapted over time to an ever-changing procession of occupants. First came society gentlemen toasting with Bordeaux and Madeira, candlelit vocal performances and theatrical shows, elaborate dinners, festive balls, and meetings for Masonic lodges or agricultural societies. Then came billiards, cards, grog, a wax museum, and a coffeehouse. Next, it was used for tobacco drying, cigar rolling, a grocery, and wine storage. In 1891 came the heavy printing presses, challenging but not defeating the joists of the old building.

By the time Mrs. Grace Huber purchased the building in 1944, its windows were boarded up, its brick arcades filled in, its identity lost in anonymity. But in 1971, it faced its greatest opponent. The Hubers, thinking that the drab, old warehouse would make a great parking lot for their East Bay business, applied for, and were granted, a demolition permit.

If buildings have souls, I wonder if this one had any inkling it was about to be flattened. Construction crews amassed. Local preservationists, out of diligent precaution, performed a search of past deeds to make sure the brick warehouse had no importance. A researcher pored through local property record books, establishing the chain of title backwards from when the Hubers bought it in 1944 to the print company's purchase, to a series of sales and debt foreclosures in the 1800s, all the way back to handwritten deeds to Edward McCrady in 1778 and 1788 by which the Irish immigrant cobbled together five lots to form the L-shaped property that now houses McCrady's, Pearlz, and Minero. There it was, staring them in the face: an 1801 survey clearly outlining Edward McCrady's Long Room on Unity Alley, with its arcade opening onto a courtyard, a staircase and upper piazza connecting the property with Edward McCrady's three-and-a-half-story brick house and tavern fronting the Bay.

At the time, my grandfather, also named Edward McCrady, was newly retired as a university administrator and biology professor and spending a good deal of time in Charleston. His bushy eyebrows must have jumped when he got a call from a friend telling him McCrady's Long Room had been found, and did he want to come take a look? Our family had long since lost track of where the building was located.

Granddaddy put down his pipe in his small carriage house on Tradd and scurried over to Unity Alley. Flashlight in hand, making his way up an old staircase and into the main hall on the second floor, he scrambled over discarded printing equipment. I picture him, the avid spelunker that he was, shining his flashlight in the pitch black space to make out the wainscoting and perimeters of the Long Room of family lore. Surely his eyes widened and his heart picked up speed when his beam of light revealed the old stage, its baseboards still intact, and its curtain rod still waiting to be used again.

click to enlarge McCrady's chef de cuisine Daniel Heinze plates  salad of beets, strawberries, cherries, and goat cheese - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • McCrady's chef de cuisine Daniel Heinze plates salad of beets, strawberries, cherries, and goat cheese

Multiple preservation groups and 300 petitioners, including my grandfather, clamored to halt the building's demolition. They appealed directly to the city's engineer, James G. Snowden, who weighed their pleas. Snowden then marched down to 2 Unity Alley in January 1972, and ordered the wrecking crews to stand down "under threat of criminal or civil penalty." The Hubers filed suit against the city, asking to proceed with their parking lot plans. Then a developer stepped in; he convinced the Hubers to sell the building to him so that he could restore it for use as a restaurant and tavern, keeping the 18th century name of the man who built it.

Digging for Clues

A decade passed between the initial rediscovery of McCrady's Long Room and the launch of the modern-day McCrady's Tavern now under new ownership simply as McCrady's. First came applications for funding, then the death of an early investor, then years of painstakingly sensitive restoration. Members of the Charleston Museum were invited to perform an archaeological dig, completed in the winter of 1982, in which bits of 18th century bottles, vials, stemware, scallop-edged bowls, copper spoons, and forks with bone handles were rescued from an old privy. Martha Zierden, curator of historical archaeology at the Charleston Museum, and her team also unearthed 920 bone fragments from soil preserved beneath centuries of flooring. The fragments, carbon-dated to the period in which Edward McCrady operated his tavern and Long Room, revealed not only the 18th century's meats of choice, but also bore saw marks indicating the precise cuts preferred by clientele.

It bears mentioning that McCrady was my fifth-great-grandfather. In other words, he was my father's father's father's father's father's father's father. I grew up in Tennessee, occasionally hearing my elders talk about the fact that seven generations ago, my ancestor ran a tavern in Charleston. I could not have cared less. The concept was too vague and distant for my young egocentric mind, and Charleston was worlds away from my Tennessee mountains. The word "history" made me sleepy.

Thirteen years ago, with a little more life under my belt, I scanned the globe looking for a city in which to plant my roots. I had already tried some big cities coast to coast, and longed for something Southern, but not myopically so. Charleston's size, beauty, arts, and growing restaurant scene struck my fancy. In the back of my mind, I thought, "If Edward McCrady chose it, I'll try it, too." While 208 years had transpired between his death and my arrival here, I felt a vague connection to the man and his building. He had uprooted himself from another country and replanted here. I would test the soil myself.

click to enlarge An 1808 survey shows where McCrady's Long Room on Unity Alley stood - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • An 1808 survey shows where McCrady's Long Room on Unity Alley stood

What did I know about Edward McCrady the tavern keeper? Not much at the time. Dad keeps track of that stuff, so I don't need to, was my attitude. So when City Paper suggested I explore my family connections for our DISH roots issue, I took it as an opportunity to learn something. Sadly, all of tavern keeper Edward McCrady's papers burned in the great fire that swept the city in 1861. Yet the combination of oral histories passed from generation to generation, together with some hard facts from the archives, helps paint a picture of a very real man who, like any of us, dreamt big, worked hard, suffered some blows, had failings, triumphs, and strokes of good luck, and left us a few clues.

Shedding Light

Rather than launch into a narrative of McCrady's life, let's play 20 Questions.

Does our family have anything to do with the restaurant? No. Our ancestor built it, that's all. When I can afford it, I do love to eat there. We couldn't ask for more than to be affiliated by name alone with such a fine restaurant. We're just happy it isn't a McDonalds.

Why did Edward McCrady come to America? In short, to see about a girl. He was an educated man from County Antrim, Ireland, who took a post as a private tutor to two young sons of the Scottish gentry, then fell in love with their older sister, Miss Elizabeth ("Eliza") Campbell. Her family vehemently disapproved and shipped her off to plantation relatives in Jamaica, then on to an uncle's care in Philadelphia. McCrady hopped boats first to Jamaica then to Pennsylvania and tracked her down.

When did they settle in Charleston? Family tradition says 1773, but the first hard proof I could find of Edward and Eliza's existence in Charleston appears in 1775, in St. Philips vestry documents, just before Eliza gives birth to their son John.

How did McCrady become a tavern keeper? McCrady had his fingers in many pies and wore many hats. He shows up on civic-minded boards and education committees; various documents call him "barber," "innkeeper," "merchant," "planter," "breeder and racer of horses," and "vintner," and the more general "vestryman," "gentleman," "Patriot," and "virtuous citizen," but it is "tavern keeper" that stuck in history books. In 1778, he purchased property on Unity Alley and a lot on the Bay (what is now East Bay, but was then the wharf). There he lived with his family, ran a tavern, and took in lodgers.

What drinks did he serve? One lawsuit filed by McCrady against a certain Richard Smith seeks to collect debts incurred in 1787 for Smith's month-long consumption of punch, grog, gin, gin bitters, lager porter, and wine.

What food was served? Bones uncovered by the archaeological team at Charleston Museum show that McCrady's tavern clientele leaned towards local seafood and venison, while Long Room clientele preferred pork, beef, and chicken. Among other bones recovered were sea catfish, shark, turtle, and calf's head.

When did he build the Long Room? In late 1788-89, after purchasing multiple lots, mortgaging his East Bay property, and expanding his footprint on both East Bay and Unity Alley, he connected the two properties with a courtyard and piazza, and built the Long Room. A 1788 fire insurance company map of Charleston dated one week before McCrady's real estate buying spree shows the Long Room lot as vacant.

What were some of the Long Room's uses? In its heyday, McCrady's Long Room was the biggest hall in the city, less elegant than the grand room of the Exchange Building but with more square footage if you count the stage. It was used for receptions, banquets, dances, recitals, performances, and organizational meetings. In 1789, the following notice ran in a newspaper: "Mrs. Gardner, late of the Theatre Royal, Convent Garden, at Mr. McCrady's Long Room, a concert of vocal and instrumental music with entertainments. Admittance 5 shillings. Mrs. Gardner begs leave to assure the public that the room will be brilliantly illuminated with wax lights." A 1790 advertisement promotes a performance by "The Famous Saxon and His Wonderful Feats of Horsemanship" in the courtyard of "Mr. McCrady's on the Bay."

Did McCrady own slaves? That's hard for me to stomach, but yes, and anything that he achieved was built on their labor. Those named in surviving documents were Molly, Judy, Betty, Jenny, Flora, Nancy, Peg, Mary, Sarah, Harriott, Hagar, Scipio, Jacob, Tom, Peter, York, Belfast, Dublin, George, Antrim, Prince, Jack, Amsterdam, John, Will, young girls named Fanny and Maria, and a boy named Plenty. Surely, at one point or another, every one of them set foot in the very Long Room that still stands today, as no doubt did others whose names are lost to us.

Was McCrady still alive when George Washington dined in his Long Room? Yes. Washington's "sumptuous feast" at McCrady's took place May 4, 1791. McCrady died on August 18, 1794.

How did McCrady die? That's murky. His obituary in the City Gazette says that McCrady "endured a long and painful illness without a murmur." McCrady's great-great-grandson writes cryptically in 1903 that McCrady was "not without his faults and weaknesses (one of which caused him much trouble in later life)." Liver failure? Gout? Venereal disease? We can only guess.

What remains of Edward McCrady's possessions? Edward and Eliza's elaborate silver tea and coffee service engraved "EEMcC" was passed down seven generations from eldest son to eldest son and is now safeguarded by my cousin John Stratton McCrady in Maine. If you eat at Pearlz, or above at the newly relocated Minero, you are surrounded on three sides by his walls. The building's old rooms have long since been gutted, the narrow alleys on either side of the building filled in with staircases, and its façade replaced in the 19th century. As for other lingering proof of McCrady's existence, well, there's me. He left behind a root-system of descendants, many of whom I know and call cousin. Without him, we would not exist.

How did I get the cannonball? After the Long Room's rediscovery in the 1970s and subsequent excavation, one of the original developers held onto this cannonball for a few decades but thought it should go to someone in the family. Two Christmases ago, he gifted it to my father, who was visiting from Tennessee. Dad assumed the airline would frown upon a cannonball in his luggage and feared having it confiscated, so it remains with me. For now.

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