Charleston Library Society Saves You From Sinking Into Savagery

Visitors to Charleston, SC may not realize when they stroll past the lovely Charleston Library Society building at 164 King Street in the historic downtown district that it’s the third building intended for residents/guests to keep up with the scientific and philosophical issues of the day. So, what does that mean? This isn’t just a typical library!
It all began in 1748 by a group of 17 young gentlemen who organized the society and hoped “to save their descendants from sinking into savagery.” As funny as that might sound, it’s core reason speaks volumes about the high standards and expectations of the Holy City’s social set. For me, as the owner of a walking tour business who holds an M.A. in Humanities, this group of men, one might say, are “my people.” I have always loved the continued education of one’s city and the great support of the arts. I became a member of the Charleston Library Society after a few months of relocating to Charleston several years ago. The following photos were taken at a book event I attended there for Style icon, Carolyne Roehm. Fans of the hit Bravo show Southern Charm may recognize her as one of Patricia Altschul’s glamorous friends.
The initial group included nine merchants, two lawyers, a schoolmaster, a peruke-maker, a physician, and two planters. (Had I lived during these times, perhaps I would have protested they include a lady, such as myself!) The society received a Royal charter in 1754. In addition to an annual sum spent on books, the society purchased scientific instruments including a microscope, a concave mirror, an air pump, a telescope, a camera obscura, and a hydrostatic balance. In 1767, the society sponsored an exhibit of electrical experiments. In 1773, a committee was appointed “for collecting materials for promoting a Natural History of this province.” This is considered the foundation of The Charleston Museum.
Where were the other two buildings located in Charleston? The Library Society’s first permanent address, which it occupied from 1792 to 1835, was within what is now the Charleston County Courthouse at 84 Broad Street. The second building was located at 50 Broad Street from 1835 to 1914. In 1914, the Society moved to its current location at 164 King Street. The building was designed in the Beaux Arts style by Philadelphia architects McGoodwin and Hawley. In 1963 the Library Society bought the adjacent Barnwell Annex at 162 King Street. And, most recently in 1992, the CLS purchased the Carolina Rifles Armory (c. 1888) at 158-160 King Street (pictured below), restored the building over several years, and renamed it the Ripley-Ravenel Building. Only the facade of the Carolina Rifles Armory had survived Hurricane Hugo in 1989, so the CLS retained that but built a fireproof storage building behind it for its rarest and most valuable collections. 
The Library Society is the third oldest subscription library in the United States after the Library Company of Philadelphia (1731) and the Redwood Library and Anthenaeum of Newport, Rhode Island (1747).
There are many lectures and book readings/signings offered to members or the general public. If you’d like to attend an event at the Charleston Library Society, please visit their website for the current list of upcoming events: Charleston Library Society.
You’re welcome to pop inside for a look. I highly recommend it! AND, if the weather permits, cross King Street and head west to the Gateway Walk
Fun fact: Fans of the Audience channel TV series “Mr. Mercedes” may recognize the interior as it was used as a filming location during Season Three. (I actually served as an extra on several episodes of Seasons 2 and 3!)
To book one of the best walking tours in the city, please visit my Tours page or call me directly at 843.806.9915 to arrange a private tour.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Mary

    Hi! Can you share your email address for a correction?


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