The Old Exchange Building

Last week, I had the pleasure of leading two walking tours around Charleston’s Historic District made up of German visitors aboard the Transcoma Cruise Ship. It’s always exciting for me to see Charleston through the eyes of first-time guests. And, though the language barrier was a tiny issue as most of them understood only a bit of English, I made sure to speak slowly and clearly for them — mainly choosing the most beautiful streets, alleys, and secret passageways that make the Holy City extraordinarily unique. After all, this was to be a walking tour, not a talking tour. My goal: Less talking, more beauty.
Since the groups both had set times to visit the Heyward-Washington House as part of their tours, it was my duty to keep them entertained before and after the scheduled visit. Since the port terminal is located behind the U.S. Custom House, I ventured south along E. Bay Street towards the peninsula’s most beautiful houses, buildings, churches, and gardens.
The first noticeable building my guests encountered is considered to be one of the three most historically significant colonial buildings  in the United States, the Old Exchange (constructed 1767-71) was built on the site of Half-Moon Battery, part of the city’s original walled fortifications. Since the city’s beginnings major civic structures had occupied the site, including the “Court of Guard” (where Stede Bonnet the “Gentleman Pirate,” was imprisoned in 1718) and then the old council chamber, which was razed between 1767 and 1768.
Charles Town’s wealthy merchants and investors prompted the S.C. Assembly to pass an act in 1767 for the building of an “Exchange or Custom House.” The new Exchange was needed to accommodate the heavy export/import trade and as a place to conduct both public and private business.
The siting of the Exchange was an attempt “to harmoniously relate spaces and uses,” the basis of modern-day urban planning. The chosen site 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 converged.
Designed by William Rigby Naylor, the 40, 935 pound contract for the construction of the Exchange was awarded to Peter and John Adam Horlbeck, master masons and immigrants from Germany. (My guests loved this fact!) The building is reminiscent of contemporaneous exchanges in London, Liverpool and Bristol. The site, design and construction of the building also symbolized the self-image of Charles Town’s elite.
The Horlbeck brothers imported shiploads of cut, dressed and beveled Portland stone for the Exchange’s facade. Its symmetrical Palladian design and construction materials were unique. And, quite beautiful!
Arriving royal governors were greeted here, the last being Lord William Campbell. On December 3, 1773, citizens of Charles Town met here to protest the British Tea Tax. That public meeting is considered the first meeting of the S.C. General Assembly and the birth of the state’s present government. Taxed tea was seized by local authorities and stored in the Exchange until it was sold to help finance the Patriot cause.
Since my groups were about to visit the place where George Washington stayed during his 1791 visit to Charles Town, it was of particular interest to them that during his time in the city in May 1791, he was rowed across the harbor to the official landing below the Exchange Building, which then served as City Hall, having been conveyed to the city in 1783. A magnificent concert and ball were held here. Ladies of the city wore “fillets” or bandeaux in their hair, with pictures of Washington and the words “Long Live the President” in gilt letters. Washington commented that the women of Charleston were among the most elegant to be found anywhere.
Praise, indeed!
To schedule a private walking tour, please visit my website for more information. I promise small groups for a private tour experience.

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