Is the Old Exchange Building a fancy architectural jewel designed to house 18th-century assemblies? Or is it the ghoulish prison of the Revolution, the place where the martyr Isaac Hayne spent his last night? Or is it the place where George Washington greeted his fellow citizens? And there is no question that slaves were sold for generations next to the very balcony from which the Declaration of Independence was read.
–Rosen, Robert. A Short History of Charleston. Charleston, South Carolina: Peninsula Press, 1992.
These are all questions which can be answered by exploring the fascinating history of the Old Exchange. Have fun!
In April of 1670 a group of colonists in two English ships, the Carolina and a nameless sloop, entered what is now Charleston harbor and proceeded up what is now the Ashley River. The English ships sailed past a large, gleaming white oyster bank to their right. It was later named Oyster Point and, still later, White Point Gardens. They proceeded up the river past marshes, trees, and creeks, past the present site of the two Ashley River bridges, and landed on the first high ground on the western bank of the Ashley River, which they named Albemarle Point, now Charles Towne Landing. They were five miles from the sea, just south of an Indian village. They named the settlement Charles Town in honor of King Charles II of England.
The character of Charleston was indelibly stamped with the character of Charles II and his reign. The aristocratic city that developed in the 18th and 19th centuries reflected Restoration England just as 18th and 19th century Boston reflected Puritan England. In fact, the early Charlestonians, like the early Bostonians, came to the New World on their own “errand into the wilderness”: to recreate the luxurious, cosmopolitan, pleasure-filled world of Restoration England. Charleston was the namesake of one of the most hedonistic of English monarchs, and its unspoken mission was to build a miniature aristocratic London in the midst of a recreated English countryside inhabited by a landed gentry.
How did the vulnerable Charles Town, the only fortified city in English America, become Charlestown, fourth largest, most beautiful, and wealthiest city in colonial America? The answer lies in the shipping trade. Rice, indigo, and slavery (“black ivory”) were the major ingredients in the original Low Country recipe, and it was on that simple but powerful economy that colonial Charlestown was built.
–Rosen, Robert. A Short History of Charleston. Charleston, South Carolina: Peninsula Press, 1992.
And it was the growth in trade that led directly to the construction of the Royal Exchange and Custom House.
Petitions and arguments before the Assembly by Charles Town’s wealthy merchants and investors prompted the government to pass an act in 1767 for the building of an “Exchange or Custom House.” Designed by [William Rigby] Naylor, the L 40,935 contract for the construction of the “Exchange” was awarded to Peter and John Adam Horlbeck, master masons and recent immigrants from Germany. This contract led to many others for the Horlbeck brothers, who invested in real estate, married well, and died leaving sizable estates.
The new Exchange was needed to accommodate the heavy export-import trade and as a place to conduct both public and private business. But the site, design, and construction of the building also symbolized the self-image of Charles Town’s elite. And it was one of the first examples of local urban planning. The site chosen for the new Exchange at the foot of Broad Street was a symbolic point in the life of the city. It was the center of the waterfront, where streams of inland and maritime traffic long had converged, and the intersection of its first import thoroughfares.
Since the city’s beginnings major civic structures had occupied the site. The Half-Moon Battery had first been built here, later the “Court of Guard,” and then the old Council chamber, which was razed between 1767 and 1768. The “siting” of the Exchange was an attempt “to harmoniously relate spaces and uses,” the basis of modern-day urban planning; even adjacent street markets were moved because they were “indecorous.” In late July 1768 the foundations of the new building were laid and construction began.
During 1771-72, the Exchange building, Palladian in its symmetrical design, went up at the foot of Broad Street. The Horlbeck brothers imported shiploads of cut, dressed, and beveled Portland stone for the Exchange’s facade. In design and construction materials it was unique. Only two notable colonial American buildings preceded it, Philadelphia’s Town Hall and Boston’s Faneuil Hall. Yet neither of these structures matched the architectural distinction of Charles Town’s new Customs House, or Exchange.
– Fraser, Walter J., Jr. Charleston! Charleston! Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina, 1989.1718–(Half Moon Bastion)
Among the ships’ captains under his [Blackbeard’s] overall command was Major Stede Bonnet, one of the oddest pirate leaders afloat. According to the all-knowing Defoe [Daniel] , the major “fitted out a Sloop with ten Guns and 70 Men, entirely at his own Expence.” No other pirate had ever bought his own ship, so it was no wonder that his acquaintances believed that Bonnet’s “Humour of going a Pyrating, proceeded from a Disorder of his Mind.”
Moreover, Major Bonnet, like Captain [William] Kidd before him, was that rarity in the pirate community, a “gentleman.” He came from a good family, was well educated, had served honorably in the recent war [Queen Anne’s War], retired from the Army with the rank of major and settled down on his estate on the Caribbean island of Barbados. Why Bonnet should have turned common pirate is a mystery. Defoe says it was because his wife was a shrew and nagged him–which seems as good a reason as any. Knowing little of nautical matters, the major bumbled about the high seas in amateur fashion until he was taken under the command of Blackbeard, with whom he remained for a number of months.
Eventually, in the summer of 1718, Bonnet went off on his own again. But he did not last long. That autumn he was captured with 30 of his men in the Cape Fear River after a battle with two sloops dispatched by the Governor of South Carolina. He was taken to Charleston and escaped, but then was recaptured, tried and executed in November 1718. Defoe notes that he made an impassioned plea for his life to the Governor and impressed “the People of the Province, particularly the Women, ” with his “piteous Behavior under Sentence.”
–Booting, Douglas. The Seafarers
–The Pirates. Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books Inc., 1978.
Pirates were often a problem around Charles Town. They were known to lurk near the busy channel and capture merchant vessels arriving and departing the bustling harbor. Blackbeard, the most fearsome of American pirates, had done just that in May of 1718, with Stede Bonnet on board. In less than a week Blackbeard took nine vessels and kidnapped several important citizens, whom he ransomed for medicines.
As English shipping suffered, more pressure was put on the colonial government of Charles Town to deal with the pirates. It was in such an atmosphere that Governor Robert Johnson decided to take action. Colonel William Rhett, a proven military hero, was commissioned to go after a “Captain Thomas” on the basis of reports that his ship was careened at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. Colonel Rhett outfitted sloops with guns and men and departed Charles Town harbor. On October 3, 1718, he returned–with Stede Bonnet and crew under arrest.
The crew was imprisoned in the Guard House at the Half-Moon Battery [site of the Old Exchange]. Major Bonnet, being “a gentleman,” was quartered in the house of Marshall Partridge. While awaiting trial, the cunning Bonnet engineered an escape by dressing up in women’s clothing. He tried to reach Christopher Moody, another notorious pirate, off Charles Town’s bar. Once again Colonel Rhett was dispatched; once again he returned with Bonnet. This time the planter-turned-pirate was tried and sentenced to “be hanged by the neck till you are dead.” The public hanging took place on December 10, 1718, at White Point, the sandbar at the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper rivers. Clutching a bouquet of wilted flowers, manacled and “scarce sensible when he came to the place of execution,” Stede Bonnet met his Maker.
–Miller, Ruth M. and Andrus, Ann Taylor. Witness to History–Charleston’s Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon. Orangeburg, South Carolina: Sandlapper Publishing, Inc., 1986.
A meeting at the Exchange was called on December 3 because 257 chests of East India Company tea had arrived in Charlestown two days before in Captain Alexander Curling’s ship, the London. George Gabriel Powell was elected chairman of the meeting, and it became apparent in the ensuing debate that most of the citizens present favored absolute non-importation of teas subject to tax. The East India Company consignees, who were present at the meeting, received the thanks and applause of the assembly when they promised not to accept the tea.
If this had been the full extent of the meeting’s historical importance, it would be an interesting, but hardly remarkable event. Strangely enough, however, the present government of the state of South Carolina traces its lineage to this anti-tea rally. As historian David Duncan Wallace points out, the colonial Assembly was the predecessor, but not the parent of the modern legislature. The meeting of December 3 led without a break to subsequent meetings and then to the General Committee, the Provincial Congresses, and finally the state General Assembly.
December 22, 1773. Robert Dalway Haliday, the collector of customs for Charlestown, had the tea shipment seized, unloaded, and stored in the warehouse under the Exchange for non-payment of duties. Since the consignees refused to receive the tea, it became liable to seizure by the crown after twenty days in port. A second meeting of the citizens on December 17 had resolved that the tea should not be landed, and Captain Curling received several anonymous letters threatening damage to his ship unless it was moved away from the wharf. When Lieutenant Governor William Bull was informed of the threats, he called an emergency meeting of the Council at his home. The sheriff was instructed by the lieutenant governor to assist the collector of customs if necessary, and to arrest anyone who attempted to obstruct the landing of the tea. Accordingly, the customs officers began moving the chests into the Exchange warehouse at sunrise on December 22, and at noon their task was almost finished. The patriots were taken completely by surprise, but they declared themselves satisfied as long as the unpopular merchandise remained under lock and key.
The tea remained in the Exchange until the government of the province fell into the hands of the patriots, and it was sold in 1776 to provide funds for defense against the British.
South Carolina elects delegates to the First Continental Congress in the Great Hall.
Condemned to death by British authorities during the occupation of Charlestown in 1781, [Isaac] Hayne became perhaps the most prominent American to be executed during the [American Revolution] for treason against the Crown. Hayne, the son of Isaac Hayne and Sarah Williamson and grandson of John Hayne and Mary Deane, was born September 23, 1745.
On July 18, 1765, the younger Isaac married Elizabeth Hutson, the daughter of the Reverend William Hutson, pastor of Stoney Creek and later of the Independent Church of Charlestown. Isaac and Elizabeth had seven children: Isaac, born July 2, 1766; Mary, born April 11, 1768; Sarah, born August 10, 1770; John, born February 8, 1773; Elizabeth, born November 17, 1774; Mary, born August 29, 1776; and William Edward, born August 29, 1776.
As his father before him, Isaac was elected to represent St. Bartholomew’s Parish.
. . . In 1770 he was elected commissioner for stamping and issuing money to defray the expense of building courthouses and jails. In 1777 he was elected to the Second General Assembly for St. Paul’s Parish, but he declined to serve. His name appeared on the petit jury and grand jury lists for St. Bartholomew’s in 1778. He was later elected to the Third General Assembly and served in the Senate during 1779 and 1780 for the parish of St. Bartholomew.
At the time of the Revolution, Hayne was enjoying a profitable plantation life. Hayne Hall, located four miles from Jacksonborough, was an “elegant mansion house–brick barn, and stables, and every suitable building of a well settled rice plantation.” This plantation was Hayne’s residence and contained nine hundred acres. Hayne’s other two plantations called Pear Hill and Sycamore which had seven hundred and six hundred fifty acres, respectively. He owned five lots in Beaufort and two lots in Charlestown, plus an additional 6,377 acres, most of which was in the Up Country. He also owned one thousand acres in Georgia and some land in the New Acquisition. In York District he was partner with William Hill in the Aera Ironworks that manufactured ammunition for the use of the American forces. According to his cousin Robert Y. Hayne, Hayne was well-educated and highly respected in the community and was a breeder of fine horses. His efficiency is attested to in the way he meticulously recorded the births, deaths and marriages that he knew of in the Low Country and kept his own plantation notes.
The war was soon to interrupt Hayne’s comfortable plantation life. In January of 1776, Hayne, a captain in the militia, went to Charlestown with one hundred and sixty privates and thirteen officers who had last been posted at Dorchester. After his return to Hayne Hall, his brother-in-law, Richard Hutson, kept him informed of military activity in and around Charlestown.
The impact of Isaac Hayne’s death can be better understood by looking at the events of the preceding year. In May of 1780, Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander who had invested and captured Charlestown, threatened confiscation of property of all who continued to resist Royal authority and promised protection to those who would support the British. He proclaimed that prisoners on parole could return to their homes. On June 1 full pardon was promised all who would return to their allegiance, except those who had executed loyal subjects. Clinton had feared at first that he could not protect those who might want to be loyal to the king. Clinton determined that all opposition in the state had ended with the surrender of the outlying posts of Ninety-Six, Augusta and Camden, and with Lieutenant Colonel Abraham Buford’s men at the Waxhaws on May 29. Since Charlestown was secured and offered “a very defensible fortress as an asylum for the friends of government to resort to and they were sure of finding most perfect security, ” Clinton called for a return to British allegiance.
While the inhabitants of South Carolina were on parole, they could not hurt or, more important, could not support the British effort. Clinton then on June 3 released from their paroles as of June 20 all “who had surrendered or were taken prisoners before the capitulation of Charlestown (excepting such as had served in the military line [Continental Army] or were actually in confinement at the taking of that town and Fort Moultrie), ” and proclaimed as rebels all who would not take an oath of allegiance to the king. This proclamation was an ultimatum to those on parole, and many who would have happily remained neutral were forced to choose sides in the war.
Various accounts are given of Isaac Hayne’s role during and after the siege of Charlestown. Apparently he served in the Colleton County Regiment of militia behind the British lines and was not in the city at its surrender. One version said that Hayne retired two hundred miles into the backcountry where he was captured and taken to Charlestown. There he took protection rather than be put on a prison ship. Another source recounted that Hayne voluntarily surrendered with the hope that he would be paroled to his plantation. He found, however, that “He must either become a British subject, or submit to close confinement.” A third story stated that Hayne was covered under the Articles of Capitulation, and, therefore returned to his home on parole. Hayne’s neighbor, Colonel Robert Ballingall, a Royal militia officer for his district, summoned him to come to Charlestown as a prisoner or to swear allegiance to the Crown. Hayne then signed an agreement to act as a British subject as long as the British controlled the area.
All accounts agreed that Hayne ended up in Charlestown where he took an oath. At that time Hayne’s wife and children were gravely ill with smallpox. Hayne said that the “deplorable Situation of his Family, his Wife & Children then being dangerously ill, & the Country wasted, had compelled him, for saving their Lives, to come to Chas. Town, to get a Physician, & procure Necessaries for the sick.” When James Simpson, the intendant of the Board of Police, and Brigadier General James Patterson, the first commandant of Charlestown, demanded that Hayne remain in Charlestown or sign an oath of allegiance, Hayne chose the latter. Hayne later stated “that he wd. submit to their government, & take the oath, but, must openly declare, that he shd. consider it as obligatory, only as long as their Protection wd. really be of Benefit to him, or, till the Americans wd. again get possession of the Country.”
The Patriot militia of [Francis] Marion, [Thomas] Sumter and [Andrew] Pickens had seemed the only threat to the British a few months earlier. However, by the spring of 1781 [Nisbet] Balfour [commandant of Charlestown] wrote Cornwallis, “The Defection of the Militia is also almost universal and they have joined the Enemy wherever they have come . . . ” In May Balfour informed Clinton that he feared for the safety of Charlestown itself since [Nathanael] Greene’s arrival in the South.
The success of Greene and the militia leaders had left the British control of little territory but Charlestown. Hayne then felt his obligation to his oath ended because “allegiance due to a conqueror ceased with his expulsion from the subdued territory.” Hayne became a colonel in the South Carolina militia. Public records show that at least by the late spring he was active in the area, as Hayne–or men under his orders–impressed provisions for use by his forces or the public.
In July near Charlestown, Colonel Hayne captured General Andrew Williamson, an American who had joined the British. Balfour, fearful that Williamson might be hanged, sent men out in force and surprised and captured Hayne.
Hayne was held in the prison of the provost, the basement of the Exchange, while Balfour corresponded with [Lord Francis] Rawdon, who later arrived in Charlestown exhausted and ill. After Rawdon had withdrawn from Ninety-Six to Orangeburg, Balfour had stressed the need of making an example of Hayne to discourage other Loyalists from breaking their oaths. Rawdon agreed. Balfour was careful to follow orders and waited for Rawdon’s arrival in Charlestown to decide Hayne’s fate. In the letter Rawdon wrote Cornwallis on August 2, 1781, two days before the execution, he–either by intention or oversight–did not mention the Hayne affair.
The rest of Hayne’s story is told through the notes he left. On July 26 Hayne received a note stating: “Sir: I am charged by the commandant to inform you that a council of general officers will assemble tomorrow at ten o‘clock, in the hall of the Province, to try you.” The note was from the town major, Major Charles Fraser. Later the same day Hayne received another note from Fraser stating: “Sir: I am ordered by the commandant to acquaint you that instead of a council of general officers, as is mentioned in my letter of this morning, a court of inquiry, composed of four general officers and four captains, will be assembled tomorrow at ten o’clock in the province hall, for the purpose of determining under what point of view you ought to be considered.”
Hayne’s account of the proceedings is in the letter of protest he later wrote to Rawdon and Balfour . . .
The following day Rawdon and Balfour issued a joint statement sentencing Hayne . . .
Hayne sent for his attorney, John Colcock, who denied Rawdon’s or Balfour’s authority to pass such a sentence. Colcock asked that the ruling be overturned because Hayne had no knowledge of the intent of the board, because no one could be sentenced without a trial except a spy, and because Hayne’s guilt had not been proven. The only reaction to this from the officers in charge was the statement that his sentence was not due to a board of inquiry ruling but by virtue of the authority with which the commander-in-chief in South Carolina and the commanding officer in Charlestown were invested. The decision then rested clearly with Balfour and Rawdon, and their desire was to make an example of Hayne.
Hayne then asked for a respite that he might send for his children for a last farewell. This request was denied, and at one o’clock on the morning of July 31 Hayne was told that it was time to prepare for death. Hayne was informed that he would leave for his execution at five o’clock. Major Fraser returned shortly, however, with a message: “Colonel Hayne, I am to acquaint you, that in consequence of a petition signed by Governor Bull and many more, as also of your prayer of yesterday, and the humane treatment shewn by you to the British prisoners who fell into your hands, you are respited for forty-eight hours.” . . . The delays were probably granted while Balfour and Rawdon considered the entreaties for Hayne’s life made by the people of Charlestown. . . . When these requests and the pleas of Hayne’s own children for their father’s life failed, Hayne was doomed.
Hayne’s son William Edward visited his father the night before his death and saw “upon one side of the room of his confinement a Hessian Soldier or Centinal on the [other] side a Coffin covered with Black Broad Cloth & lined with white.” Hayne’s eldest son Isaac accompanied his father to the “place of execution & after it took charge of his body and had it [conveyed] to the place of his Residence.”
An eyewitness account of the execution was delivered to Congress by Isaac Neufville, a fourteen-year-old boy from Charlestown. He said that Hayne “was escorted by a party of soldiers to a gallows erected without the lines of the town with his hands tied behind, and there hung up till he was dead.”
A contemporary of Hayne described the day: “The streets were crowded with thousands of anxious spectators . . . When the city barrier was past, and the instrument of catastrophe appeared full in view, a faithful friend by his side observed to him, ‘that he hoped he would exhibit an example of the manner in which an American can die.’ He answered with the utmost tranquility, ‘I will endeavor to do so.’ He ascended the cart with a firm step and serene aspect. He enquired of the executioner, who was making an attempt to get the cap over his eyes, what he wanted? Upon being informed of his design, the colonel replied, ‘I will save you that trouble, ‘ and he pulled it over himself. He was afterwards asked whether he wished to say anything, to which he answered, ‘I will only take leave of my friends, and be ready.’ He then affectionately shook hands with three gentlemen–recommended his children to their care–and gave the signal for the cart to move.”
–Bowden, David K. The Execution of Isaac Hayne. Lexington, South Carolina: The Sandlapper Store, 1977.
The plan for ratification [of the Constitution] was designed to avoid the problems which had held up adoption of the Articles of Confederation for three and a half years. The voters of each state were to call a convention for the specific purpose of ratification of the constitution of the United States of America. South Carolina assembled her delegates on May 12, 1788 at Charleston. They met in the Exchange Building.
The one hundred men present in city hall on the first day chose Thomas Bee as chairman of the delegates. The next day officers were selected and motions entertained. According to theJournals of the Convention of the State of South Carolina Which Ratified the Constitution of the United States, May 23, 1788, one committee was appointed “to enquire whether a more commodious place than the City Hall could be procured for the sitting of the Convention.” On Wednesday, May 14, Doctor Ramsay reported for the committee, but no action was taken. On Thursday the consideration of a “more commodious place” was postponed. The convention continued to convene at City Hall until 23rd of May. On that day the motion to “assent to and ratify the Constitution” was voted on. The resolution carried 149 Ayes and 73 Noes. South Carolina was the eighth state to ratify the document. The rules required ratification by nine states for the Constitution to become the law of the land. One month later New Hampshire’s ratification accomplished the necessary number.
–Miller, Ruth M. and Andrus, Ann Taylor. Witness to History–Charleston’s Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon. Orangeburg, South Carolina: Sandlapper Publishing, Inc., 1986.
In 1791 President George Washington visited South Carolina. He spent a week, May 2 through May 9, in Charleston and the Old Exchange played a huge role during his stay. From the west elevation of the building he addressed the citizens of Charleston upon his arrival. During his visit four lavish events inlcuding a ball and concert were held inside the exchange in his honor.
The Post Office moved to the Exchange Building in 1815 with Thomas Bacot as postmaster. Bacot had been appointed postmaster by George Washington in 1791 and brought with him a new form of organization. The almanac of 1825 reported the Charleston Post Office to be the “best and most convenient in the United States.”
In 1831, the newly-formed South Carolina Railroad was contracted by Bacot to carry the mail. This was the first occasion of mail by rail and soon followed throughout the United States, rapidly increasing mail service.
After serving 42 years, Bacot died in 1834 and was succeeded by Alfred Huger, a graduate of Princeton, and former state Senator. . . . Huger experienced a unique dilemma that unquestionably demonstrated his respect and duty for his position.
. . . When northern abolitionists began mailing anti-slavery literature to southerners through the post office, many Charlestonians became infuriated. They felt the appropriate manner in which to handle this matter was to destroy the pamphlets that came through the post office.
After a large mob was turned away from the post office by a city guard, a second group, organized and silent, was able to break into the post office at night and seize these pamphlets which they then burned in front of The Citadel (present day Marion Square on Calhoun Street).
The next group that came for the mail was met by Postmaster Huger, who had “. . . ready his shot gun to die, if necessary, before he would permit such another outrage.” Huger informed the people of Charleston that it was his duty to ensure the mail was received by those to whom it was addressed, and only then could it be destroyed.
Prior to 1849, Charlestonians were required to go to the post office to receive or mail a letter.
In 1849, the greatest change in mail service occurred when letter carriers began delivering the mail to the residents of Charleston. This service was provided, until the Civil War, by contract carriers, bonded and sanctioned by the Post Office. For a delivery fee of one penny per letter, in addition to the regular post charge, the “penny post” greatly helped with the delivery of mail.
Another innovative idea that began while the post office was in the Exchange was the creation of the first United States postage stamps in 1847.
In 1860, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union . . . With the termination of the Federal post service within the Confederacy, Confederate postmasters were obligated to create their own postage systems. Though a Unionist, Postmaster Huger remained as Charleston’s Confederate postmaster because, like so many others, loyalty to his state was greater. Huger had the Charleston five-cent stamp printed at Walker, Evans and Cogswell across the street since the new confederacy had not yet printed postage stamps.
–The Old Exchange Building Postal History 1815-1896–Old Exchange Publications
The upheavals of the Civil War years and the eventual bombardment of Charleston meant that the post office had to be moved frequently. By the end of the war, Huger was operating from the Parish House of the Church of the Holy Communion. When the South fell, so did the Confederate Postal Service, but Huger was so well respected that he was offered the job of Federal Postmaster at the close of the war, a job which he declined due to his advancing age.
The bombardment of Charleston during the Civil War had severely damaged the long-time home of Charleston’s Post office, the Exchange Building, but by 1875 the building had been repaired and the post office moved back. During this time, the city’s first black postmaster, Dr. Benjamin Boseman, was appointed in 1873. He served until his death in 1881.
The Exchange Building was again damaged by an earthquake, which demolished much of Charleston in 1886. The post office moved temporarily until repairs were completed. In 1896 the post office moved to the new Post Office Building which was erected over the ruins of the old police station [intersection of Meeting and Broad Streets] which had been destroyed in the earthquake of 1886.
–Postal History Charleston, S.C.–Three Hundred Years of Mail Service–1694-1994–U.S.P.S. Charleston Publication
The Old Exchange Building housed the Charleston Post Office
from 1815 to 1896 with brief interruptions
due to earthquake and war.
The United States government decided by Act of Congress to sell the Exchange in the late 1890s, but the act was not executed immediately. In 1898 the building was turned over to the United States Light House Department. Meanwhile, the act had sounded the alarm for a group of women who feared what the future might hold for this witness to history since 1771. Enter the members of the Rebecca Motte Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, whose foresight and interest in the preservation of the Exchange determined, at the first talk of selling the building, that they would save it.
When the sale was finally ordered in 1912, these women met the occasion with the concern and perseverance that marked their association with the Exchange Building for the rest of its history. Alarmed by rumors that a builder was interested in the site, the Rebecca Motte Chapter took action. A committee’s efforts were rewarded on March 4, 1913, when a bill passed by Congress authorized the Secretary of the Treasury “to convey, by quitclaim deed, the Old Exchange . . . to the Order of Daughters of the American Revolution in and of the State of South Carolina, to be held by it as a historical memorial in trust for such use, care, and occupation thereof by the Rebecca Motte Chapter of said order . . . as the said chapter shall in its judgment deem to best subserve the preservation of said colonial building and promote the honorable and patriotic purpose for which the grant is requested.” The deed provided for the Light House Department to continue use of the building until provisions could be made for other quarters.
As the nation’s Bicentennial approached, the Rebecca Motte Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution worked with city and state commissions to produce a comprehensive plan for complete restoration and acquisition of funds for the project. Many details had to be decided, and matters could not be resolved in time for the Bicentennial Celebration, but talks continued. With the help of Governor James B. Edwards, agreements were reached between the Rebecca Motte Chapter and the State Bicentennail Commission. The agreement was presented to the State General Assembly in 1976.
The Old Exchange Commission, established by an act of the General Assembly, was given operative and administrative control of matters relating to the Exchange. A lease was signed in December 1976, giving the Exchange Building Commission effective control over most of the building for the next twenty-five years. The Commission also had the option to continue control for three more successive twenty-five year periods.
–Witness to History: Charleston’s Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon. Orangeburg, South Carolina: Sandlapper Publishing, Inc., 1986.
A contract for restoration was executed on August 10, 1979 in the Old Exchange Building. The architectural firm of Simons, Mitchell, Small and Donahue had previously been hired to draw up restoration plans. A low bid of $1,637,000, submitted by Charleston Constructors, Inc., was accepted for the work.
During the complete renovation of the building, John M. Mitchell Jr., who acted as project architect, made some interesting discoveries. The vaulted ceilings of the cellar are only one brick thick at the point of the vault, an engineering masterpiece. The vaults are leveled above with loads of sand to support the original purbeck stone of the main floor. In the sand, Mitchell found single unbroken oyster shells. It appears the workmen over two hundred years ago helped themselves to oysters growing along the riverbanks at the front of the building, ate the oysters for lunch, then tossed the shells into the sand they were using for fill.
Another discovery was the original wood in the attic of the building. Here huge beams bear the ax marks of hand-hewn timber, and some attic supports are tied together with wedge-shaped bars pounded into metal bands, another early construction technique. Wooden beams supporting the original cupola were left amid the rafters, and some original window boxes were also discovered. Most window boxes, the part which houses the weights that enable the windows to open and close, are made with several pieces of wood. Those in the Exchange were made of single pieces of wood, with the weight chamber hollowed out in dugout canoe fashion. These were stored in the attic for further study.
Every effort has been made to preserve original portions of the building while adapting it to modern usage. In addition to the timbers, capital portions of the eastern pilasters and original interior plaster bound with horsehair are visible in the attic, where they can be studied by scholars.
On the main floor, a closet door opens to reveal an original arch filled with poor-quality “salmon” brick. Within the same closet can be found a unique stucco coating. The finish is beautifully smooth and polished, hand-spattered with various colored paints to resemble granite. The fine stucco coating predates the enclosing of the arches and is one of the earliest finishes applied to the great Exchange.
The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon was formally opened on October 5, 1981. Now, at long last, the Exchange is restored to its former splendor. Ready to tell the fascinating tale, this witness to American history stands proudly at the foot of Broad Street. The Provost, still dank and without sunlight, speaks of pirates and patriots in chains, of troublesome tea and hidden gunpowder. The arcade level bears the same purbeck stone floor on which strode thousands of merchants, slaves and citizens–the infamous and the famous. The second story holds the Great Hall in which so many, from the boisterous patriots of the Revolution to elegant dancers at the ball sponsored for President Washington, played their part in America’s story. The Old Exchange Commission, the South Carolina State Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the Rebecca Motte Chapter invite visitors to step back into history and visit the Old Exchange, a National Historic Landmark, beautifully restored and open as a living museum.