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Celebrating 100 years of the Francis Marion Hotel


The Francis Marion Hotel. IMAGE COURTESY OF WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
 

By Prioleau Alexander


The old saying, “They don’t build ‘em like they used to,” certainly seems to apply to Charleston’s regal Francis Marion Hotel, the stately landmark that just turned 100 years old. Although a century may not seem long within the context of the long history of our city, imagine the wear and tear that comes with over 5,000,000 guests — how many times has the grand staircase been climbed? How many millions of gallons of water have moved through its pipes? How many meals have been prepared and parties catered? It boggles the mind.

Seated at the corner of Calhoun and King streets, the hotel was opened in 1924 and boasted 12 stories, 231 rooms and a price tag of $1.5 million dollars. The property would host to distinguished guests such as John F. Kennedy, Dwight D Eisenhower, Mark Clark, Bob Hope and the only king recognized by America — Elvis Presley himself.

The hotel takes its name from famed Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion, and the dining room is named the Swamp Fox Room in honor Marion’s wartime moniker, earned due to his ability to carry out hit-and-run style raids on the British and disappear into the Lowcountry’s wetlands.

The project was the brainchild of the city’s former Mayor T.T. Hyde, who saw the success Charleston’s hospitality industry was enjoying during early 1920s and formed an ownership group called Marion Square Realty Company to finance the project. After choosing the most desirable location, the group hired famed architect William Lee Stoddart to create its beautiful Beaux-Arts style design. 

The hotel opened at just the right time:  The Roaring 20s were reaching a fever pitch and the Charleston dance craze was sweeping the nation — who wouldn’t want to dance the Charleston in Charleston’s most luxurious hotel? It seemed like the good times would never end, until they did. It speaks to the skill of the hotel’s early management that the finest hotel in the region managed to weather the Great Depression, but usiness still needed to be conducted, so visitors continued to come to the city (though one must assume many of those businessmen were opting for more frugal accommodations).

The 1950s were also an exciting time for the hotel as it became the first fully air-conditioned hotel in Charleston. One can only imagine what the city’s summer visitors were willing to pay for that luxury. It was also in the mid-50s when the Jack Tar Hotels Corporation purchased the hotel and began a major renovation of the popular destination. Part of the renovation project included the Swamp Fox Room dining facility on the ground floor, which enabled guests to enjoy gourmet meals without leaving the blessed cool air. The penthouse eventually had a permanent resident in the form of Gen. Mark Clark and his first wife; this two-bedroom suite is still named in his honor.

The hotel also became a mecca for reporters to meet sources, locals and important visitors. It was a hotspot for other citizens. As Mercury contributor Missy Izard recalls:  “What memories that place holds — so many debutant parties and wedding receptions were there. It was also the place of the Porter-Gaud Junior Senior prom when Charleston was going through the big Civil Rights riots and strikes around 1969. I remember that the city was under curfew — everyone had to be inside their houses by 7:00 p.m. and there were National guards on every corner, so the prom began at 3:00 p.m. and we all departed from the Francis Marion in time to get to Sullivan’s Island to spend the night.”

  Throughout the years, the Francis Marion Hotel has passed through a series of owners, various renovations and times good and bad. It even survived an overnight from the Bachelors Society of Charleston. The years following Hurricane Hugo were especially tough and the future of hotel looked in perilous. Fortunately, visionaries Steve Dopp and Greg Lenox purchased the property in the early 90s and invested a whopping $15 million to restore the hotel to its former glory. Chip Laurens left his architectural practice to work on the renovations and recalls the effect of the newly renovated hotel during a time when King St. looked quite different from today:  “Condon’s, the largest department store and the bedrock of King St. had closed and many of the other stores in that area were dwindling. The rehab of the Francis Marion was the key to the revitalization of all of upper King Street.”

In 1999, the Francis Marion was inducted into Historic Hotels of America, a vaunted designation that recognizes the nation’s finest historic hotels, inns and resorts. The Francis Marion remains so impressive that it recently hosted the triennial meeting of the Society of Cincinnati, arguably the nation’s most exclusive fraternal organization. Of all the hotels in Charleston, they chose the Francis Marion — the name sure didn’t hurt.

Tales of Lowcountry legend Francis Marion’s guerilla warfare conducted from the swamps surrounding the Lowcountry are the stuff of local legend and his clashes with British Redcoats were unrelenting. Given Marion’s record of not just surviving, but succeeding, it is certainly an appropriate name for what many consider the historic center of Charleston’s hospitality industry.

 

Prioleau Alexander has been a Mercury Contributor since 2006. He is the author of four books, all of which are available on Amazon.

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