King Street, Charleston, S.C.

by James A. Bacon

I can’t overstate how important the creative use of small spaces is to evoking the aura of authenticity and charm that people love. As with so many things, small spaces-as-works-of-art cannot be managed from the top-down; it must burble from the bottom up. Each of the small spaces highlighted here, drawn from my recent trip to Charleston, S.C., originated as a work of passion and creativity by an individual property owner. Added to and improved incrementally over the years, they they form an impression that no central design authority — be it a municipal government or a giant private developer — could possibly replicate.

This series of photos was taken along King Street, a marvelous, walkable retail-restaurant district. Richmond’s Carytown is comparable, though definitely a poor cousin. I haven’t visited Old Town Alexandria in several years, but I recall similar street scenes. Otherwise, Virginia has nothing else that comes close.

King Street does many things right. It has many historic buildings, and recent redevelopment maintains the same sense of human scale. There are no blank spaces in the street — no large parking lots, no blank facades. Indeed, what stands out is the way property owners have made the most of every niche available to them. The result of many individual actions is a collective masterpiece.

portalThe photograph immediately above shows a funky iron-forged gate that cordons off an enclosed outdoor dining space visible to King Street.

The photo at left shows an oval porthole in a wall, also on King Street that reveals another enclosed outdoor dining area. This arrangement provides more privacy, yet still creates a visual delight for pedestrians.


Just one more example. Here is the entrance to the Peninsula Grill. Observe the elements: ironwork and a lantern, brick walkway, carefully tended landscaping and even a palmetto palm tree.

I could go on and on — the small spaces of Charleston could easily fill a coffee table book by a photographer far more worthy than me — but you get the idea. Any community that wants to create places where people love to live and visit needs to figure out Charleston’s secret sauce. Just remember: It can’t be imposed from above, and it will not arise overnight. Such places are labors of love. and they evolve over many years.

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6 responses to “More Small Spaces”

  1. You shouldn’t discount the strong leadership and vision of former Mayor Joseph Riley in transforming Charleston, SC.

  2. JOHN BR Avatar

    So true, regarding that such caring, beautiful places cannot be imposed by an all-knowing government.

    Look at the great cities of Europe: Vienna, Prague, Paris, etc. Much of what is loved about them was accomplished over time by the people who actually lived in and cared about those cities.

    Central planning may make a Brasilia or one of those Chinese ghost cities. But not something real.

  3. Walkable small spaces demand attention to detail that’s accessible only when walking. Cause or effect? Is Charleston the way it is because it survived the automotive desertification years with enough of its walkable 18th and 19th century spaces intact? Or because those spaces have been re-created by far-sighted planners and civic leaders? Or because of tourist dollars, attracted by history? Or because downtown Charleston, even just off Meeting Streets’s north-of-Broad shopping, has remained a place that’s lived in, cared for at a residential scale? Or because it’s a gathering place for hedonistic pleasure in the restaurants and on the water? Or because it has the vibrancy of a college town in its midst? Or because it’s, simply put, beautiful, and courteous, and delightful?

    How about all of those things? Add your own.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      An acute sense of one’s own history, its culture, its sensibilities, its hopes and its dreams, its monumental deeds, its good and its evil, all of it burned deep into the remnants of a people who suffered a horrible loss and who then worked through this intense past over generations in wondrous ways.

      Ways that not only sustain and deepen their memories with all its pain and paradox, but also in ways that sustain and bring reconciliation to the present and future of all those involved in those long ago events and those who today carry their blood.

      Ways that now emanate from their surroundings in this great city every hour of every day, transforming its sublime and terrible events and actions played out in a lost cause there then, but now resurrected in ways to nurture and enrich the present and inform the future. As witnessed by recent events.

      Its a huge achievement. It’s a great lesson. A terrible beautiful history harnessed in ways that only the best in America can.

      Every day individuals keep this alive in small ways feeding on one another for the benefit of all who pass by.

    2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Basil’s first comment here about America’s longest serving mayor is likely also critical to Charleston’s present. See:

      I would be interesting history to trace the restoration of Wilmington NC and of Beaufort SC and of Savannah Ga. And so to discern the degree to which those wonderful restorations track and/or emulate Charleston’s Renaissance. Did the rebirth of Charleston spark restorations all over the decayed historic south, from plantations to cities to oceanside resorts?

      Surely the great Southern Culture we see blooming today was latent all along – waiting like Rumpelstiltskin – for a singular spark amid all the neglect and cultural forgetting all around, all that cultural guilt and repression so evident in the throw away awful Myrtle Beaches or the modern desecration that even today threaten to overwhelm Summerville’s Victorian residential core.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” Each of the small spaces highlighted here, drawn from my recent trip to Charleston, S.C., originated as a work of passion and creativity by an individual property owner. Added to and improved incrementally over the years, they they form an impression that no central design authority — be it a municipal government or a giant private developer — could possibly replicate.”

    Good Grief!

    every street and street corner is managed by the govt in terms of legal parking spots, and tow away zones, traffic signals and ped crossings…and th requirement that trash and trash cans be kept off the streets and promptly removed by sanitation workers.

    the streets are well patrolled by police to keep the bad guys away so the streets and alley’s are relatively safe to walk even at night and your car relatively safe from being broken into.

    the streets, the ramps, the bridges, etc… ditto… govt-provisioned …

    to not recognize this and the significant and necessary involvement of government in doing these vital things is incomprehensible …

    take away the police, the parking rules, the sanitation, trash service, the traffic signals and ped/walk signals, the water, sewer – and you have Cairo or Mogadishu.

    come on guys… deal with the reality here. Gov infrastructure and services is what enables the private sector in Charleston – without it , Charleston is another 3rd world city.

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