Looking at the Fort Sumter House
In the recent months there has been much outspoken public support against redevelopment in the city of Charleston. In 1973, a group of local investors proposed to convert the long-troubled Fort Sumter Hotel to a condominium complex. There was one major issue: The city of Charleston zoning codes did not have a classification for condominium dwellings. At the time, the 1.44 acres on which the hotel sat was zoned for “non-conforming” residential use; the hotel also housed a restaurant and several other small businesses.
At the public hearing in September 1973, 150 local residents attended in an attempt to further understand the change. Changing the classification from residential to business was recommended by the City Planning and Zoning Board, in addition to adding a couple of restrictive covenants that would limit the use of the property. The fact was that there would be no other businesses located in the building.
It was not until February 1975 that an amendment to the city of Charleston’s zoning ordinance was approved by city council. The amendment, initiated by the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission, changed the definition of a multi-unit dwelling to include residential condominiums.
At the time Mayor Gaillard said, “Today that change should have a major significance on zoning throughout the city.”
The first condominium complex in the city of Charleston was originally built as the Fort Sumter Hotel; construction began in April of 1924. The grand 225-room hotel was designed by G. Lloyd Preacher of Atlanta, who also designed other historic hotels in the South including the Briarcliff and Henry Grady, both in Atlanta, The Redmond Hotel in Birmingham and the Orange Court in Orlando.
The hotel featured broad verandas on the first and second floors and a spacious roof garden overlooking the harbor, sea and entire city. The second floor focal point was the ballroom and a mezzanine lounge, which had a 100-foot promenade. The hotel’s main attraction at the time was its originality. When built, it was the only hotel of its type in South Carolina; it was more common of hotels of the era to be in Florida. The hotel went through a series of renovations: Original pictures show the red brick exterior; in the fall of 1954 the brick was painted white with a daffodil yellow trim.
There are many tales of events at the hotel. In April of 1947, Tennessee Williams and agent Audrey Wood met with Irene Selznick there to discuss producing his latest play, “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Also a Danish journalist, who was Adolf Hitler’s companion at the 1936 Summer Olympics, frequented the hotel in 1941. The FBI followed the journalist, Inga Arvad, due to the fact that she was a resident alien and suspected to be a German spy. The facts from photographs and wiretaps show that she was actually meeting a young Navy officer — John F. Kennedy. Kennedy was reassigned and later claimed that they knew they were being followed. During World War Two, the hotel was taken over by the Navy and served as headquarters for the Sixth Naval District.
By 1973, The Fort Sumter Hotel ended its 50-year run among Charleston’s most storied hostelry on a Sunday with a breakfast for the Citadel Class of 1943. A group of local investors purchased the landmark from the Sheraton Hotel Corporation for $850,000, the same amount it originally cost to construct the building. The Sheraton Corporation bought the building in 1967 for $435,000 and spent $500,000 at the time in renovation cost.
The local investment group was actually the fifth owner of the property; they spent approximately $2 million to complete the condominium conversion. The master deed describes 60 units on floors two through seven and seven units on the first floor and also restricted any type of commercial use.
The original marketing flyer boasts that “the Fort Sumter House represents the only high-rise structure of its kind in the historic area of the city, local sentiment and strict zoning dictate that no other structures of this height can ever be constructed.” The original sales price for the units ranged from $36,000 to $74,000, with three penthouse units over $100,000.
Very few units at the Fort Sumter House sell on a yearly basis. My friend Angela Drake, a real estate broker with Limehouse Properties, has sold multiple units during the past few years, including unit number 403 in March of this year for $505,000. The unit was completely renovated, with breathtaking panoramic views of the Ashley River, with one bedroom with an exterior balcony. Current amenities for the complex include exercise area, pool and security. The above information was retrieved from the Charleston Trident Association’s Multiple Listing Service.
Many old photographs of the Fort Sumter House show a pier off the Battery across Murray Boulevard into the Ashley River. The pier was removed in 1982 because the residents of the Fort Sumter House were opposed to it at that time. In 2003, the Fort Sumter House Association applied to the state of South Carolina’s Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management seeking permission to reconstruct the pier 174 feet into the river. Many of the neighbors voiced opposition and the proposal was removed from consideration.
Whenever I pass by the iconic location, I am drawn to two distinct memories: the first being attending my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary party in the ballroom of the hotel at a very young age. The second memory was of a story my father told me. An early childhood memory was always studying the cartoons in “Homebodies” by the late Charles Addams. One of the cartoons from the book was framed and hanging on the wall in our home, with a personal note to my father from the author. My father and Mr. Addams met in the lobby of the Fort Sumter Hotel; from there, Addams agreed to allow my father to write a story about him searching for ghosts in the Sword Gate House, with one stipulation — it could not be published for six months. My father complied and sent Addams a copy of the story that ran in the News and Courier.
I still have the framed cartoon: The inscription reads, “To Dan Henderson in appreciation for a good story, Charles Addams 1954.”
Dan Tompkins Henderson, Jr., CCIM, is the broker/principal of CCBG Real Estate Group, LLC. He was awarded 2014 Commercial Realtor of the Year. He is a former board of director member of the Charleston Trident Association of Realtors; he has served the association in numerous committee and board positions, president of the commercial investment division and is an adjunct professor and director of the Carter Real Estate School at the College of Charleston; he may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.