Charlestonians find it easy to romanticize landmarks. Exaggerating the stories and lore behind museums, parks, statues, and mansions comes naturally. Even with short-term history, popular places of business that survive more than a few decades can become nearly legendary in some circles.
In Charleston's music scene, any venue that makes it past 10 years or so in business can earn certain credibility and high status. East of the Cooper, such is the case with the Windjammer, the Isle of Palms bar and grill with the ocean-view deck. These days, it's also one of the longest-running music clubs in the Lowcountry.
Every September, the anniversary of Hurricane Hugo reminds many in town of the club and its remarkable story of survival and perseverance. When Hugo hit the Charleston area on Sept. 21, 1989, the Windjammer suffered a near-fatal blow. The Jammer was down, but not out.
Literally half of the Isle of Palms was devastated — blown or washed away completely by strong winds and a larger-than-expected storm surge of over 12 feet. The storm ripped up much of the old Pavilion area along the Ocean Boulevard strip (between 10th and 14th avenues) — including the much beloved Windjammer.
"When I came to work there in 1980, the Windjammer was the original damn sports bar in Charleston," says manager and co-owner Bobby Ross. "It was a hangout, along the block."
The club officially opened in 1972 under the management of Malcolm Burgis and his brother James. Ross, a "young hippie surfer," started bartending at the club in 1980. He became a manager in 1982, when it was still a roomy, sand-filled, drop-in tavern with old pinball machines, pool tables, and an out-back volleyball court.
The Jammer's rise to prominence as a music venue came very gradually, with local rock, blues, and country bands playing on weekends. By the late '80s, however, Ross was able to attract big-name touring acts and some of South Carolina's most popular up-and-comers.
"When I started putting music in there, I didn't know how bad I might screw the business up," he says. "We were more of a walk-in bar. It did take it to the next level, but at the time, I worried about it. People bar-hopped more in those days, and the neighboring bars did some live music here and there."
The Windjammer's survival story is pretty remarkable by itself — even without a hurricane involved — but the way the club embraced the role as a major music venue for local and touring acts, especially in the last 25 years, is a big part of the ongoing story.
But Hugo inevitably changed the club and the community around it. By the day of the storm, Ross and his staff knew to expect some extensive damage. They knew it was going to be bad, but they didn't know just how bad. Ross and Burgis were among the last people to leave the island after police ordered a mandatory evacuation.
"There was so much stuff to secure here, and so much stuff to prepare," Ross says. "I remember locking the doors with Malcolm for the last time. We looked at each other like, 'Well ... is this going to be here?' It's a feeling I won't forget. And that was the last time those doors were open."
Ross ended the night in a hotel room in Statesboro, Ga., with a small cooler of beer, watching former Charleston meteorologist Karen McGinnis report Hugo's grim progression on CNN.
"When we looked at the news [on the night of the storm], I thought, 'Well, damn, what did we do all of that for? It's not going to do any good," Ross remembers.
A week and half later, he finally came back to an indefatigable mess. For Sullivan's Island and the Isle of Palms, the weeks of Hurricane Hugo's aftermath offered no electricity, water, or telephone service. Boats, cars, water heaters, furniture, and debris were scattered everywhere. Entire blocks of houses were gone. The Ben Sawyer Bridge, the only link from the mainland to both Sullivan's Island and the Isle of Palms at that time, tilted into the water, totally unusable. Landmarks such as the long fishing pier and the oldest buildings in the Pavilion area were completely wrecked.
Then-Mayor Carmen Bunch made the tough decision to keep folks off the barrier island until roadways were clear and safe enough for residents to return. There was martial law, and the South Carolina National Guard struggled to maintain order.
"They finally brought people over a few at a time," says Ross. "I remember walking from the marina to my house ... the whole place looked like a damn nuclear bomb had gone off. I rode my bicycle to the Windjammer. The National Guard was there, and I had to prove to them that I had a reason to be there. The front of the place was still intact, but there was no back end to it. The floor was blasted out from the wave action below."
Ross and the club execs went back and forth for several months, debating whether to renovate or bulldoze and rebuild. "That was a really tough decision," Ross says. "It was something we never thought we had to deal with. We were just about the only building left on the beach side — from the Sea Cabins to the Windjammer. We decided to rebuild, and it was a pretty quick rebuild. Every day we weren't open, we were losing money, so there was a lot of pressure."
Within nine months of Hugo's blast, they were back in business with beer, burgers, bikini contests, and live rock music in a brand new facility.
The newly-built version reopened on June 21, 1990. But the staff and facilities were barely ready for the onslaught of customers and well-wishers. They were one of the very first businesses to reopen after Hugo, so islanders and visitors flocked there.
"It was a big deal when we reopened — we had TV, newspapers, and radio out there — but we got slaughtered on opening night," Ross remembers. "It took us two weeks to catch our breath. The first night the kitchen opened, we were overwhelmed in two minutes. I burned the first cheeseburger we tried to make [laughs]. We finally took a step back, took a breath, got organized, and started getting a feel for the place."
After the storm, the Isle of Palms experienced big-money development — due in large part to the construction of the IOP Connector. The cozy neighborhood feel of the island gradually turned into tightly-packed blocks of modern beach mansions. The Pavilion area was refurbished with fancy sea cabins and hotels, surf shops, and restaurants.
The Windjammer retained its personality, however. Ross credits his staff, the support of local radio and bands, and the guidance and perseverance of the main club owner as well.
"Without him, the Windjammer would not exist the way it is," says Ross. "He's taught me over the years. The reason the club is so successful is because he's put so much back into it. He always reinvested. It was his baby. I would have screwed it up by now if I didn't have him helping me and looking over my shoulder."
If Burgis remains the backbone of the venue, Ross is the heart of the place, determined to keep things cool, casual, and on course. Twenty years after the big storm, the Windjammer is still a unique hangout where bands of almost any musical slant can jam, and locals can have a "jam good time."