What if Charleston wasn't home to Spoleto? 

Art Theft

The poorly attended 1992 Charleston One-Man Band Festival never really found its legs

Photo illustration by Scott Suchy

The poorly attended 1992 Charleston One-Man Band Festival never really found its legs

Have you ever wondered what Charleston would be like if Spoleto Festival USA hadn't made its home in here? What if it landed in Savannah, Ga., or Winston-Salem, N.C., two other cities that were in the running?

Looking back, we have to wonder whether or not Spoleto was essential to the Holy City's reemergence as one of America's great cities. After all, can an arts festival alone transform a struggling city into a world-class tourist destination and a city with a national reputation as an arts hub?

To get some answers, let's go back in time.

By most accounts, in the early 1970s downtown Charleston was far different from what it is today. Charleston Place didn't exist nor did its attached high-end retailers. The homes on Rainbow Row and along the Battery were there, of course, but often in forms not befitting today's splendor. Marion Square was a filthy, dangerous place that was home to vagrants and addicts. And Upper King was a DMZ.

But for a clear example of how Spoleto changed Charleston, look no further than 14 George St.

Built in the 1790s by Thomas Pinckney and his second wife, Frances, 14 George was once one of the largest and grandest homes on the peninsula. After the Civil War, when the city needed to rebuild its infrastructure, the mansion was transformed into a city waterworks building. The interior was gutted, and a water tower and reservoir were built in the home's garden.

By the 1970s, the City of Charleston owned 14 George Street, the future home of Spoleto Festival USA. The roof leaked, the inside had decayed, and homeless people squatted in unlocked rooms. It was in such terrible shape, no one would rent it, so the City loaned it to the fledgling arts festival. Then in 1989, Hurricane Hugo tore the building's roof clear off.

With the building in post-hurricane ruins, the City donated it to Spoleto, which then overhauled the whole space for a price tag of $3.2 million, all of it coming from fundraising efforts. As the festival's success took off, so too did the building. These days, 14 George St. is stunning, and the garden is beautiful.

And it's a fitting metaphor for what Spoleto's done for Charleston.

Talk to just about anyone working in any of the fine arts fields here in Charleston, and you'll hear Spoleto being credited with any number of great deeds. It brought classical music to Charleston, enticing some of the world's finest musicians to work with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. Visual artists flocked here for the festival, fell in love with the scenery, and never left. Dozens of theater companies have grown up in Spoleto's wake, the appetite for productions whetted by Picolo Spoleto each year.

In short, Charleston's artistic scene is Spoleto, at least at its core, and Spoleto makes up a huge piece of its history and its future.

So what would have happened had Spoleto gone elsewhere? What would Charleston look like today?

First, let's look at the actual landscape of the peninsula today, as compared to the years before Spoleto. Today's Charleston is thriving, teeming with galleries and theaters and high-end retail establishments. Much of this is anchored by the massive Charleston Place, which was built in 1986 in response to a need for a place to house the people traveling here for Spoleto Festival each year.

Building Charleston Place divided the city. To some it was a godsend; to others, an eyesore. Would the battle to build this giant anchoring hotel have been won had Spoleto not been a motivating factor? Probably not. Why build such a huge structure if you don't have the tourism business to support it?

So let's picture, for now, the peninsula sans Charleston Place. That alone alters the downtown landscape a great deal.

Now let's think about our galleries and theaters. Would they all exist if Spoleto had never come?

If we look at Savannah, a similar city to Charleston, we see a robust arts world. Savannah has galleries by the dozen, just like us, though theirs are no doubt influenced by the fact that the Hostess City is home to the Savannah College of Art and Design. Although Charleston is a beautiful place that would attract would-be painters no matter what, we probably wouldn't have so many flourishing galleries without the annual festival.

But what about our theaters? Here in Charleston we have a substantial number of community and professional theaters, the quality of which can't be denied. They're impressive. They're diverse. They're fun. And they are an integral part of Piccolo Spoleto. If we take another look at Savannah, we'll see nothing resembling our own theater scene. Nothing close.

Simply put: Without Spoleto, the rich, thriving cultural diversity that make Charleston one of America's top cities, year in and year out, wouldn't be here today.

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