Towering above Broad Street is the People’s Building, Charleston’s first skyscraper. At the time of its construction, many hailed it as a sign of progress while others were afraid it would ruin the city’s iconic skyline. The controversy over the People’s Building foreshadowed the intense development fight over Charleston Place in the 1980s and the more recent battle regarding the height of the Bennett Hotel.
The project was organized by R. Goodwyn Rhett, 50th mayor of Charleston and president of the prestigious People’s National Bank of Charleston, which had opened in 1865 and was the oldest national bank in the city. While president of the bank, Rhett organized a group of 50 local leaders who amassed $150,000 in contributions and obtained a mortgage for the same amount from New York backers. An impressive undertaking, the building was designed by Swedish architect Victor Frohling of Thompson & Frohling, New York. It was built by both Simons-Mayrant of Charleston and the Hadden Construction Co.
Before construction in early December 1909, The Bank of the State of South Carolina building located at 18 Broad Street had to be demolished to clear the site. Pile driving weakened a nearby residence forcing the People’s Building and Investment Company to purchase it.
Watching construction became a popular spectacle for curious residents who followed its progress in the local paper and were delighted when an American flag was placed atop the building’s frame in late April 1910. The building opened in April 1911 and locals visited just to have an opportunity to ride the steel frame elevators just beyond the marble-walled foyer.
The People’s Building was a huge success and gave conservative Charleston a hint of the future. By comparison, the eight-story People’s Building was built when New York City was building the 60-story Woolworth Building. Done in the Renaissance Revival style, the first two exterior floors were faced with Winnsboro granite, while the upper floors were faced with buff-colored brick and terra cotta. Made of concrete and steel, it was rated as fireproof and featured the convenience of steam heat. Inside, the foyer and bank were adorned with classical details and polished marble walls. Located at the corner by State Street, the bank had a separate entrance directly from that corner. The upper portion of the bank walls was mostly glass with marble walls and ornamentation. Each of the seven floors above had 13 rooms.
Mayor Rhett was a member of the Charleston aristocracy and took full advantage of the prerogatives he inherited. The name Goodwyn was after his mother, Martha Goodwyn, but friends called him “Goody,” spelled with “y” rather than an “ie.” He was descended from Landgrave and Governor Thomas Smith and Colonel William Rhett — speaker of the Provincial House of Assembly, vice-admiral of the colonial fleet and still famous because of his capture of the notorious pirate, Stede Bonnet.
Born in 1862, Rhett spent much of his youth in Charleston where his father was a forerunner in the phosphate industry. He attended The Porter Academy (later known as Porter Military Academy) prior to enrolling at Episcopal High School in Virginia and went on to the University of Virginia where he graduated with an M.A. in 1883 then earned their law degree. He played baseball while at the University of Virginia and upon his return, was the first pitcher known to throw a curve ball in South Carolina. In 1886, he formed the partnership of Trenholm and Rhett with George M. Trenholm.
Outside of his law practice, Rhett played an active role in Charleston’s business community. In addition to the People’s National Bank, he was president of the South Carolina Loan and Trust Company and was largely responsible for the establishment of the Commercial Club of Charleston in 1902.
He entered politics in 1895 as an alderman on Charleston City Council and served in that capacity until he was elected mayor in 1903. Mayor Rhett’s administration occurred during a period of relative economic growth in Charleston due to the establishment of the Charleston Navy Yard in 1901, which brought much-needed revenue into the Lowcountry. Consequently, Mayor Rhett left a lasting imprint on the city and beyond.
Rhett was responsible for the establishment of the Board of Public Works and the construction of new police and fire stations. He also played an instrumental role in the building of Roper Hospital, Union Station and the Julian Mitchell School as well as the creation of North Charleston. Murray Boulevard was his brainchild as was Yeamans Hall Club. Rhett went on to serve as president of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States (1916-1918) and chairman of State Highway Commission (1920-1926).
Tall, handsome and urbane, Rhett had a large circle of friends. He entertained lavishly and loved to dance and sing. He and President William Howard Taft were lifelong friends. Taft visited Charleston twice and these visits are enshrined in Charleston folklore. The president was a large man, too large for a normal tub, so he came to town bringing his bathtub with him. When Taft viewed the city from the top of the People’s Building, he is quoted as saying, “I don’t believe that it did ruin the skyline, but if it did the view from up here makes it worth it.” More importantly, when preparing for a dinner party while Taft was visiting, the mayor is said to have told his butler, William Deas, to “spice up the crab soup for the president,” prompting Deas to add the roe, thus creating that Charleston delicacy still enjoyed today — she crab soup.
In 1932 the People’s Bank failed while Rhett was in Canada. According to family tradition, the unfortunate result was that Rhett was not given time to save it and the whole family lost everything because of a “triple indemnity” penalty, which meant stock holders owed three times what they held in stock. The city of Charleston’s funds were in The Peoples Bank and it, too, lost everything.
Mayor Rhett embodied the cherished Southern tradition of “honor.” A man of great integrity, he sold everything to satisfy his debts. He and his wife moved out of the gracious Rutledge Mansion on Broad Street and lived in the Pirate House on Church Street until his death. He spent his last years writing a history of Charleston entitled, Charleston: An Epic of Carolina. Rhett died in 1939. His book was published posthumously in 1940.
The People’s Bank closed in 1936 and the building was purchased by the Southeastern Securities Co. Its president, Charles L. Mullaly, installed two white Italian marble leopards at the main entrance. Carved by an unknown 18th-century artist, they came from an estate near Boston. In June 2011, the leopard on the right of the entrance was destroyed by vandalism. The remaining statue was moved indoors and replacements made by a College of Charleston art student were installed outside.
To maintain some of the character of the original use of the building, when the new owners of the People’s Building wanted to develop it as condominiums, the city of Charleston negotiated an easement specifying that the first four floors always remain commercial. During the conversion, exterior deficiencies were addressed, including cracks in the masonry, granite and grout, refinishing handrails, repairing original windows, reviving deteriorated paint and restoring the elegant marble-walled foyer to its former glory. The fifth, sixth and seventh floors were converted into two spacious condominiums per floor, while the top floor was adapted into a two-story penthouse with a rooftop terrace that showcases a panoramic view of the city and the historic harbor stretching to the horizon. In back of the building a small garage for condominium owners is equipped with a pneumatic lift that parks three cars on each level.
My appreciation to Robert Stockton and Margaret von Werssowetz for contributing to this article. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any anecdotes about Broad Street’s rich history.