An essential part of the streetscape of Church Street, the Dock Street Theatre is Charleston's last surviving hotel from the antebellum period. The silhouette of its wrought iron balcony against the spire of St. Philip's church may be the single most photographed spot in the city. The main portion of the building was constructed around 1809 as Planter's Hotel. The hotel was built by Alexander Calder and his wife, who did so by renovating several pre-existing buildings at the site. The main entrance may not have been built until 1855 by J.W. Gamble.
Dock Street Theatre
Photograph by Lissa D'Aquisto, courtesy of City of Charleston
The hotel was used extensively by planters from the midlands of South Carolina, who traveled to Charleston during horse-racing season. It was noted for its wonderful food and drinks during this era, and the South's famous Planter's Punch may have originated here. Guests to the hotel passed through the recessed porch with brownstone columns, into the lobby, and up a grand staircase that ascended to a drawing room. While much of the interior has been altered, these elements of the antebellum hotel remain and were adapted in subsequent uses of the building. A series of additions to the hotel throughout the 19th and 20th centuries can be easily identified by differences in brick coloration.
The Dock Street Theatre also relates the story of Charleston's theater history.
In the 1930s, the building was restored by the City of Charleston as a
Works Progress Administration project. During this project, a large section
was constructed behind the hotel containing a stage and auditorium characteristic
of the 18th century. The renovated building took the name of a 1730s theater
which stood on the Queen Street (formerly Dock Street) side of the property.
This theater is said to have been the first building built specifically
for theatrical performances in America. Planter's Hotel occasionally housed
one of the city's theatrical troupes, which performed at the nearby New
Theatre during the mid-19th century. The most notable actor of this troupe
was Junius Brutus Booth. Booth was the patriarch of an outstanding family
of actors, which included John Wilkes Booth, President Lincoln's assassin.
Junius Booth, who stayed at the Planter's Hotel, allegedly tried to kill
his manager here in 1838. Today the Dock Street Theatre is home to the
Charleston Stage Company, South Carolina's largest professional theater production company, and houses the city's
Cultural Affairs office as well as The City Gallery, an exhibition space
for local artists.
Dock Street Theatre
NPS photograph by Linda McClelland