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The Francis Marion: A Historic Hotel in a Historic City

Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

“Charleston, Charleston/ Made in Carolina/Some dance, some prance/I’ll say there’s nothing finer/Than the Charleston, Charleston. . .” Spontaneously one of us broke into the anthem of the Roaring Twenties as we crossed the Ashley River into the historic downtown section of the town Conde Nast ranked best city in the USA in 2011, only to raise their estimation the following year to best city in the world.

This was going to be our first visit to the famed harbor city whose military distinctions remain in the forefront of its consciousness. The initial shots of the Civil War were fired here, streets are paved with ballast once used in battle, and the hotel we were headed to bore the name of the general from the

American Revolution who is credited with being a founder of guerilla warfare. But driving down King Street on a beautiful Sunday afternoon and lingering beside the horse-drawn carriages before Marion Square where the spire on the little church at its center seemed tall enough to pierce a hole in the sky, the mood seemed eminently peaceful, inviting, evocative of another day.Directly across the way, on the corner of King and Calhoun Streets, stands the tall and elegant Francis Marion Hotel. When it opened in 1924 at the height of the Charleston dance craze, the 12-story, 232-room Georgian-style building was the largest and grandest hotel in the Carolinas.

“At the Francis Marion, you really know you are in the South,” Tressa Wright, director of sales and marketing, told us when we met her for coffee in Swamp Fox (the restaurant and bar bear the nickname of Francis Marion). “It’s the best place in town and possessed of a very southern atmosphere, a local flavor that has remained through the years.”

In the olden days, Tressa said, pitchers of ice water would be at the end of every hallway. Today air conditioning has precluded such features, but a local flavor, an antebellum aura prevails particularly in the lobby, a splendid bi-level space on the second floor that is marked by rectangular pillars with classically-inspired capitals and lit by sparkling crystal chandeliers that hang from a ceiling nearly three stories high. Dotted with potted palms and arrangements of fresh bouquets, replete with plush sofas upholstered in fine damasks in shades ranging from copper to coral, and replete with a grand piano and cabinets of rich, gleaming mahogany, it looks out to King and Calhoun Streets through tall Palladian windows trimmed in white.

A historic hotel in a historic city, the Francis Marion is, at the same time, very much a 21st century affair with all the elements one expects in a luxury property from valet parking to complimentary wireless Internet service, fine dining, the services of a concierge and the rest. Through the decades, it attracted a roster of celebrity guests among them Babe Ruth, Bob Hope, Elvis Presley, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Doris Day.

But there were down times as well. The hotel was even closed for seven years. During that period, the College of Charleston  proposed they take over the property and convert the guest rooms into dormitories. space. But the mayor summarily rejected the idea. “It’s always been a hotel, and it will remain a hotel,” he reportedly said.

And so it has, since 1996 when the Francis Marion re-opened after a multi-million dollar renovation project which included restoration of original architectural features that had suffered from years of neglect. As a result, the hotel was named one of the fourteen national preservation success stories by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Its renovation is looked upon as the catalyst for the revival of King Street.

Some seventeen years later, we are sitting with Tressa in Swamp Fox. It’s a busy afternoon; every table in the bar and restaurant seems to be filled. Tressa tells us most of the people here are associated with the natural gas industry; they have chosen the Francis Marion to host a conference on this source of energy. Visibly enjoying the low-country cuisine and live piano jazz, they seem, by their very presence, to pose an interesting counterpoint: the confluence of a new industry with a setting renowned for its past.

The next day, we checked out and drove down to the Battery where we strolled through the White Point Gardens, admired the beautiful, perfectly maintained 19th century houses facing the harbor, walked along the promenade along the edge of the waterfront, and reflected on the scene in Swamp Fox we had witnessed. And it occurred to us that the merging of past and present is what Charleston and specifically the Francis Marion are all about. There is King Street winding all the way down to the Battery, its high-end shops featuring goods from Dior to Miu Miu on the ground level of 19th small century buildings, one huddled up against the other. And there is the state-of-the-art full-service Spa Adagio and a Starbucks on the entry level of the landmarked Francis Marion, a hotel listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is, as Tressa said, a unique hotel, with great character and so aptly set in one of America’s most beautiful cities, deserving of its designation as one of the best cities in the world.

Francis Marion Hotel
387 King Street
Charleston, SC  29403

Phone:  843-722-0600

Photographs by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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