Charleston’s waterfront hotel
By Peg Eastman
Dominating the tip of the peninsula is Charleston’s only waterfront hotel, the Fort Sumter. Midway between New York and Miami, the seven-story hotel was intended to accommodate tourists and businessmen in the “roarin’ twenties.” Today, this architectural icon is celebrating its 100th anniversary, and like any grande dame, it has enjoyed celebrity, changes and the inevitable facelift.
A resolution deeding city land for a hotel at the foot of King Street was passed in late 1922 under the administration of Mayor John P. Grace. The hotel was chartered in January 1923 to J. E. Beamer of Raleigh; G. Lloyd Preacher from Atlanta was the architect who used Spanish features — something original in this section of the country. Work began on March 26, 1923, when test piles were driven to determine the type and strength of the soil upon which the new hotel would be built. After piling work was completed, the fireproof building quickly began to take shape. Total cost was $850,000. Unfortunately, construction was marred when the bricklayer foreman fell down the elevator shaft in November 1923.
In an ideal location, there was a dock across the street that not only accommodated tourist excursions, but also served as a ladder for naïf youngsters who braved the polluted waters for a refreshing swim near a raw sewage outlet. Old timers still talk about it.
In May 1924, both the News and Courier and The Charleston Evening Post announced the formal opening, which was just two months after the Francis Marion Hotel opened at Marion Square. Advertisements proclaimed dining room service with special rates for families and bachelors; accommodations for traveling men cost $2.50 for a room and bath. A massive promotional campaign sent out over 17,000 booklets to residents all over the Southeast.
The first week of May local papers announced that the public was invited to visit on Tuesday and Wednesday from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 pm. The hotel manager personally conducted tours from the roof garden to the cellar as well as the terrace dining room, mezzanine lounge and sun parlor facing the Ashley River.
Opening ceremonies on Thursday, May 6, included a card party to benefit Associated Charities and a formal dinner with dancing in the evening. Considered to be one of the most brilliant events of the social season, members of the Chamber of Commerce and the officers and ladies of Fort Moultrie and the Navy Yard were among those in attendance.
The new hotel was magnificent in its heyday. The interior was furnished by decorators from John Wannamaker, New York. A large awning stretched across the sidewalk to the front entrance on King Street. The downstairs had the usual gift shop, a beauty salon and the Pink Coat Room lounge. The Flag Room restaurant on the Battery side of the building was a favorite for ladies who wore hats and gloves to pleasant luncheons. Specialties included 13 shrimp in a basket and the ubiquitous she-crab soup. On the second floor were terraces and large rooms that hosted many a wedding reception and debutant party. The Charleston Evening Post opined that it was the most attractive building in the state. The hotel had a grand run for about 60 years.
There were also some newsworthy guests, the most famous being Inga Arvad, the former Miss Denmark and Ensign John F. Kennedy before he became a hero during World War II in the Pacific theatre.
As the war ramped up, the Navy acquired rooms for its officers in downtown homes. Kennedy stayed at the Middleton home, just a few blocks away on Murray Boulevard while young Abbott was serving in the Air Force. His patriotic mother volunteered in the Army Air Forces Fighter Command Ground Observer Corps that operated on the Fort Sumter Hotel rooftop. Years later, the family was surprised to learn that Kennedy was deeply involved with a beautiful 28-year-old Danish news journalist who had connections with high-ranking Nazis — and was under scrutiny as a suspected spy. Their story was a classic: The romance of star-crossed lovers.
Before coming to Charleston, Kennedy was working for the Office of Naval Intelligence in Washington when his sister Kathleen (Kick) Kennedy introduced him to Arvad. She was a challenge to the wealthy, young bachelor and before long Jack and Inga were inseparable. It was no casual fling and Joe Kennedy was afraid that Jack might marry a non-Catholic divorcee.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover hated Joe Kennedy and wanted to curtail his ambitions to set up a political dynasty. When young Kennedy took up with Arvad, Hoover had the couple tailed and photographed — even recording their pillow talk. Jack affectionately called Arvad “Inga-Binga” and she nicknamed him “Honeysuckle.” When the assistant director of the Office of Naval Intelligence found about the FBI surveillance, he had Kennedy assigned to Charleston.
The lovers’ relationship continued in Charleston with a few weekend trysts at the Fort Sumter and Francis Marion hotels. Historians suggest that throughout his presidency Kennedy tried unsuccessfully to obtain the FBI recordings. Although the bulk of the surveillance documentation was declassified in the 1990s, some has never been released.
Supposedly, Hoover called the secretary of the Navy and suggested that young Kennedy be unceremoniously removed from the service. The secretary called Joe Kennedy and told him that Hoover had tapes of Jack having an affair with a German spy and wanted him to kick him out of the Navy. Horrified, Joe allegedly replied, “For God’s sake don’t do that — just get him as far from that damn woman as quickly as possible.”
Jack was transferred to the West Coast, and after six months training, was promoted to lieutenant and shipped out to the Pacific. Years later, using declassified FBI transcripts, Julian Wiles, the director of Charleston Stage, brought the romance back to life when he produced JFK and Inga Binga. Reminiscing with my family about the young ensign’s stay at 48 Murray Boulevard is in my book, Remembering Old Charleston.
The Fort Sumter Hotel has since been converted into condominiums, so stay tuned, there is more.
My appreciation to Bob Stockton, Edwin Breeden (S.C. Department of History and Archives), Beth Dixon, Philip Middleton, Julie Shaw and Molly Thompson for contributing to this article.
A Charlestonian by birth, Margaret (Peg) Middleton Rivers Eastman is actively involved in the preservation of Charleston’s rich cultural heritage. In addition to being a regular columnist for the Charleston Mercury she has published through McGraw Hill, The History Press, Evening Post Books, as well as in Carologue, a publication of the South Carolina Historical Society.