Governor’s House Inn History
Welcome to the Governor’s House Inn! We are honored that you have chosen to stay with us, and we hope you thoroughly enjoy everything about your visit to our historic Inn in Charleston. Few houses in the United States can boast a history as colorful as the Governor’s House Inn. With its history spanning nearly 250 years this site has been visited and lived in by U.S. Presidents, Governors, statesmen, royalty, diplomats, mayors, military heroes, religious leaders, prominent attorneys, physicians, successful merchants and entrepreneurs. While each new owner and visitor over its history has left their mark, the house has continued to retain its original character and sumptuous architectural details.
Historic Inns Charleston – Our Story Begins in the 18th Century
This history of the house sets out the past lives, tragedies and triumphs that the Governor’s House Inn has borne witness. Beginning in the 1760’s this property was granted to John Elliott, Alexander Chisolm and London physician Dr. Samuel Carne. The property when first developed was an 18th century orange garden believed to have been a venue for concerts in colonial times. In 1767 Alexander Petrie, Charleston’s first real estate promoter, purchased the land and divided it into twelve lots. The home that is now the Governor’s House Inn stands on three of the divisions. The property was just outside of the original city walls as may be seen in the below illustration.
Schematic of original wall around Charles Towne
This house was built circa 1760 for James Laurens, a prominent Charleston merchant. Designed in the classic Georgian double house style and built by architects/builders Miller & Fullerton, the interior of the home was graced with tall ceilings, a center stairway and two rooms symmetrically located on either side. The original five-bay center section, heart of pine floors, fireplaces and triple-hung windows still remain. When the home was first built its opulence and majesty was a clear reflection of Laurens’ place in the community.
The home’s first owner, James Laurens, was born in 1728 and died at the age of fifty-six (56), while living in France in 1784. Unlike the rest of his family he did not have a taste for the revolutionary politics of the times. Instead he moved to England in 1775 and while there oversaw the well-being of his sister and his brother Henry’s three children. It was during that time period when James’ brother, Henry, took over for John Hancock as the President of our nation’s Second Continental Congress. In his responsibilities Henry worked closely with General George Washington during the difficult days when there was great uncertainty as to how America in its infancy would fare in its fight for independence. At one-point Henry Laurens was captured by the British and became the only American housed in the Tower of London as a prisoner of the Revolutionary War. He was later exchanged for Lord General Cornwallis after his defeat at the Battle of Yorktown. Henry Laurens’ son, Lt. Colonel John Laurens was an American Revolutionary war hero, statesmen, abolitionist, and close friend of Alexander Hamilton. He served as a top aide to General George Washington. For those who are fans of the theatre, John Laurens is a lead character portrayed in the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton.”
James Laurens only lived in this home for a short period of time before moving to England in 1765. Not long thereafter he moved to Southern France where his Huguenot family originated from prior to moving to America in the mid 1600’s. James ultimately died in France leaving his brother Henry to manage his estate and the sale of this home to the young attorney and patriot Edward Rutledge. Based upon the Deed found in Charleston city archives Rutledge first rented the home from Laurens with payment made in the form of “peppercorn.” After a lengthy rental period, Rutledge ultimately purchased the home in 1788 for 4,000 Pounds.
State Gazette of South Carolina 1785 Advertisement
The Governor’s House Inn is named in honor of one of its most renowned residents, Edward Rutledge. It was while living here that Rutledge came to be known as the youngest signer of the Declaration of Independence. At twenty-six (26) years of age he signed what would become America’s birth certificate on August 2, 1776. Rutledge would later become a soldier of the Revolution, a South Carolina legislator and ultimately the tenth (10th) Governor of South Carolina. He held the position until his death in 1800.
Edward Rutledge was born in Charles Town on November 23, 1749. In 1769 he sailed to London, England and studied Law at the Middle Temple, an ancient institution for teaching law that was founded by the Knights Templar. When Edward returned to Charles Town after completing his education, he soon began to live in this home. While living here Rutledge developed a successful law practice and was married to Henrietta Middleton, daughter of the wealthy planter Henry Middleton. By marriage Rutledge allied himself to one of the wealthiest & most politically powerful families in the colony. Edward and Henrietta had three children, two of whom lived to adulthood. Governor Rutledge lived in this house until his death on January 23, 1800 at the age of 50. He is buried nearby at St. Philips Churchyard Cemetery.
Earliest Known Sketch of the Rutledge Home (circa 1838)
Due to the home’s association with Governor Rutledge and the Laurens family, the U.S. Department of Interior declared it a National Historic Landmark in 1971. It became the Governor’s House Inn in 1998 and is now one of the only homes in America where guests may sleep under the same roof as a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Few homes in America can boast a history as colorful as the Governor’s House. With its history spanning nearly 260 years, it has been visited and lived in by founding fathers, US Presidents, Governors, statesmen, diplomats, mayors, successful merchants, religious leaders and entrepreneurs of all types. While each new owner has left their mark, the house has continued to retain its original character and sumptuous architectural details.
Upon entering the house, while in the foyer you may see a portrait of Edward Rutledge and a special copy of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration is an 1819 edition that was specially printed to highlight and commemorate important historical features related to the Declaration of Independence. A quick study of the document allows one to recognize the South Carolina signatories who were all an important part of America’s birth: Rutledge, his brother-in-law Arthur Middleton, Thomas Lynch, Jr., and Thomas Heyward Jr.
Miniature Portrait of Dr. Alexander Baron (Gibbes Collection)
The next prominent owner and caretaker of this home was Dr. Alexander Baron. With the passing of Edward Rutledge in 1800, Dr. Baron purchased the home in 1804 at the price of 4,500 Pounds. Baron came to Charleston in 1769 after growing up in Scotland where he attended college at Aberdeen and then graduated medical school at Edinburgh in 1768. Once in Charleston, Baron acquired an extensive practice which included a specialty in obstetrics. He was one of the founders of the Medical Society of South Carolina and served for twenty-eight years as president of the St. Andrew’s Society, the oldest charitable society in the state. Dr. Baron died in 1819 and is interred at Old Scots Presbyterian Church.
The home remained in the Baron family until purchased by Allard H. Belin (1803-1871) in 1850 for $14,500. Belin was of Huguenot descent and grew up on his father’s plantation known as Sandy Knowle located on Sandy Island (Prince George Winya Parish) North of Charleston in Georgetown County, South Carolina. As the eldest son of a wealthy planter, Belin was educated at Harvard where he attended as a classmate of Ralph Waldo Emerson. They graduated together in 1821 with Belin continuing his studies at Harvard as a student of law. Belin served in the military during his life and attained the rank of Colonel. He later entered politics, dealt in mercantile and enjoyed the life of a planter. When he died in 1871 he was buried in Charleston at St. Peters Episcopal Church.
It was during the ownership of Allard Belin that this house received its first physical transformation post construction. In 1856 an application was made to the Charleston Committee of Brick and Wooden Building, so as to add Greek revival piazzas upon the east and west ends of the home. The additions were approved and now allow guests to sit outside to appreciate Charleston’s coastal breezes.
Relaxing on outdoor piazzas was soon to be outlived. On April 12, 1861 cadets from the Military College of South Carolina (The Citadel), under the orders of Major Pierre Beauregard, began canon bombardment upon Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. A Federal blockade of the city ensued with the Civil War lasting until the collapse of the South in 1865. Charleston suffered from Union bombardment that lasted 545 days from 1863 to 1865. While this house survived Union bombing during the war, the war had a lasting effect on Charleston and the South that is still recognized today.
The Cathedral of St. John and St. Finbar on 120 Broad Street (1865 photo).
To look at pictures of war ravaged Charleston can at time be confusing. At the conclusion of the war in 1865 the city was devastated and ruined, but not all of the damage was due to bombardment. On a cold evening on December 11, 1861 Charleston suffered its greatest fire in history. The “Great Fire of 1861” started on East Bay Street near warehouses that are now the Harris Teeter Grocery Store. The fire was pressed by high winds and soon spread across the peninsula in a southwesterly direction. Confederate General Robert E. Lee was staying at the Mills House Hotel on Meeting Street the night of the fire and was relocated to the Edmondston-Alston House on East Battery for his personal safety. Fourteen (14) houses on Queen Street were blown up to create a fire block so as to save the Marine and Roper hospitals, the Medical College, and the Roman Catholic Orphan House. By noon the next day the fire had cleared the peninsula and was beginning to burn itself out. The City Market area and a large section of Meeting St., as well as the north side of Queen St., much of Broad St., and the north side of Tradd St. were devastated. The fire burned over 540 acres, 575 homes, numerous businesses, and five churches. The cost in property was estimated to be between $5 million and $8 million. Officially no deaths were recorded, although that claim is contested.
Path of Charleston’s 1861 Great Fire
Civil War & Reconstruction Period of this Historic Inn
Despite narrowly surviving the Great Fire and years of sustained Union bombardment, this home suffered along with the rest of the South during the Civil War and the Reconstruction period that followed. The era of Reconstruction was defined by volatile political struggles over who would determine the future of Charleston, South Carolina and the defeated South. South Carolina created a new constitution in 1868 that introduced revolutionary democratic changes. For the first time African Americans were allowed property ownership and voting rights. No longer would a population be without voice. In the past black residents were known to outnumber Charleston’s white minority, so there was always concern with giving the black population the right to vote. During Reconstruction many African Americans associated themselves with Lincoln’s Republican Party where they began the process of voting their own representatives into office.
In 1863 during the middle of the Civil War, the house sold to Charleston attorney William Whaley (1817-1879) for $40,000. Whaley grew up in Charleston from privilege with his family owning two separate plantations located on the way to Edisto Island. Pine Barren was a 600 acre plantation along St. Pierre’s Creek and Green’s Point plantation was more than 200 acres on the banks of the North Edisto River. In 1850 Whaley served as U.S. District Attorney for South Carolina. During the Civil War, Whaley served as a Lt. Colonel. Following the war he had a busy law practice reuniting property owners with their seized farms and plantations. Prior to being reunited with their property, many of the owners hoping to reclaim their property had to take an “Amnesty Oath” before being allowed to regain possession of their land and homes.
In 1879 William Whaley died leaving his daughter, Charlotte Small, to inherit the home. She was married to J. Small, a Scottish merchant. They lived here with her mother, Rachael, and their two daughters until they sold the home in 1885 to F.W. Wagener for $12,000.
Captain F.W. Wagener (1840-1921)
Captain Frederick W. Wagener was one of Charleston’s greatest rags to riches stories. An immigrant who left his German homeland at the age of 16, Wagener became one of Charleston’s wealthiest citizens. He built the largest grocery wholesale company, F.W. Wagener & Co., and his beautiful 1880 building still stands today on the corner of East Bay & Queen Streets. Wagener was also a horse breeder and racer, and most noted for donating the land for the South Carolina Interstate and West Indian Exposition in 1901. The Citadel and Hampton Park are now located at the site of the Expo.
Into the 20th Century with Victorian Renovations
Victorian Styling of 117 Broad Street during the 1880’s.
During Wagener’s ownership, Victorian was all the rage. The house underwent a large renovation, and a new wing was added on the East (along Orange St.) end of the house. The staircase was moved from the center of the foyer and rebuilt as a Victorian semi- spiral staircase to the left (East) side of the room where it stands today. Wagener’s wife also added additional Victorian elements to the foyer, such as dark paneling and wood & mirrored pediments around the fireplace. With the renovation a full kitchen was attached to the rear of the home. Due to fire concerns most historic homes in Charleston had a separate Kitchen House for cooking and food preparation. This property was no different and the original Kitchen House is still standing today. Electricity was also a new technology that was introduced to the home with the Wagener ownership. With the renovation the entire home was also electrified for the first time.
It was during the Wagener’s ownership that Charleston suffered from the “Great Earthquake of 1886.” A majority of Peninsular Charleston homes and buildings suffered from the quake that was estimated to be of 6.9-7.3 magnitude. Its devastation is still able to be seen and recognized in buildings around to this day. Luckily this home survived the damage experienced by so much of the city.
The Wagener family remained in the home until the death of Mr. Wagener in 1921. His wife predeceased him years before and the couple had no children to take over the home, so the property was sold in 1927 to Wagener business interests for $35,000. The home then sold to Josiah E. Smith in 1932 for $12,000. As witnessed by the 1932 sales price for this home, the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression had an obvious effect upon Charleston and this home in particular.
Dr. Josiah E. Smith (1937 photo)
Josiah E. Smith was a doctor of ophthalmology who was extremely active in Charleston philanthropy. He was a high ranking Mason, a member of Charleston’s City Counsel and active on the Board of Commissioners for the Charleston Orphan House. He also served as the first Chairman of the Charleston Housing Authority where he served from 1935 until his death in 1960. During that time Dr. Smith oversaw the first public housing project in the United States (Meeting Street Manor) after it was determined that Charleston ranked dismally low of 64 US cities surveyed for housing conditions (48% no indoor plumbing, 21% no running water). The housing project overseen by Dr. Smith was provided through Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Public Works Administration and is still in use today.
Dr. Smith and his family resided in this house from 1932 until 1962. During his ownership he made several changes to the home that are still evidenced to this day. Most notably, the exterior was changed from its Victorian style to its present Colonial Revival style.
In 1962 The Catholic Diocese of Charleston purchased the property and used the home for senior care of its retired nuns. The Diocese continued to use the property in this manner until selling the home in 1974 to Charleston businessman Joseph Griffith. Just prior to the sale in 1974 the home was placed on the National Register for Historic Places. The Sons of the American Revolution considered purchasing the home at the time with the intent of making the home a museum. Ultimately, zoning for the museum was not approved, so the plan was not realized.
The Griffith family lived in the home for twenty-four years from 1974 until 1998. The Griffiths were the last family to be raised in the home prior to the residence becoming the Governor’s House Inn Bed & Breakfast. In 1985 the family attempted to enclose the side piazza and expand the kitchen. The changes were rejected by the Charleston Board of Architectural Review (BAR). A year later a compromise took place and the rear portion of the porch was allowed to be enclosed.
Special Guests of Our Historic Inn
All too often one may travel around the United States where some advertisement or claim to fame states: “George Washington slept here.” Here at the Inn we don’t make any such claims, nor may anyone else in Charleston except for one residence. In 1791 President George Washington made his “Southern Tour” to learn more about this region’s political sentiments and economy. The trip allowed Washington to become the first President of the United States to visit Charleston. He was very concerned that he not be seen as granting any kind of favoritism, so he rented the Church Street home of Thomas Heyward (signer of the Declaration of Independence), while Heyward stayed at his plantation. The home is now called the Heyward-Washington House in honor of that visit.
President Washington had many old friends and alliances living in Charleston. The Laurens and Rutledge families of this house were among those close friendships. In his diary he wrote that he dined with the Rutledge brothers in their respective homes. We know that he ate here and across the street at the home of brother John Rutledge.
During the President’s weeklong stay, George Washington made his way all about the city. An early riser, Washington could be found in front of this house racing his horse up and down Broad Street. In the evenings, Washington was wined and dined in traditional Charleston fashion. On one evening local patriots met him at McCrady’s Tavern where you can still go to this day to raise a pint to our first President. Another evening was marked with a formal ball held in the Old Exchange Building located at the corner of Broad and East Bay. This was such a monumental occasion that the ladies of Charleston wore pictures of George Washington with the wording “Long Live the President” in their hair. The President wrote in his journal, “Went to a concert where there were 400 ladies, the number and appearance of which exceeded anything I had ever seen.”
Many other US Presidents have spent time in Charleston with three (3) known to have a strong association with owners of this home. In 1902 F.W. Wagener received President Theodore Roosevelt as his guest, so the President could visit the South Carolina Interstate and West Indian Exposition. Years later in 1908, Captain Wagener hosted President William Howard Taft and his wife.
President Theodore Roosevelt with his wife and Captain Wagener (1902)
President William Howard Taft with his wife and Captain Wagener (1908)
The last President of the United States to be directly associated with this home was Gerald Ford. During the mid-1970’s he was in Charleston for a fundraiser as the guest of this home’s owner Joseph Griffith. We know he stayed here after interviewing Joseph Griffith, Jr. Now an adult, Joe tells the story from when he was a young boy. At the time he had no appreciation for the fact that the President of the United States would be staying at his home as a guest. He and his siblings were simply upset that his parents made them clean the house for an entire week prior to the special guest’s arrival. President Ford stayed in his parent’s master bedroom that is now known as the Rutledge Suite.
Reconciling Charleston’s Past
Throughout the history of Charleston this home has seen its share of U.S. Presidents, Governors, statesmen, military heroes, bishops, prominent attorneys, physicians, successful merchants and entrepreneurs. The city and this home has also witnessed its share of troubled times with the British Siege of 1780, Great Fire of 1861, Civil War Bombardment, Great Earthquake of 1896, 1929 Stock Market Crash, 1989 Hurricane Hugo and multiple floods. Surviving difficult times seems to play a part of living in such a beautiful city.
Our Mother Emanuel Service for Nine Murdered Parishioners (2015)
Not long ago Charleston suffered a great indignity with the inexcusable loss of life at one of our most cherished churches. Our Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is one of Charleston’s most historic and revered places of worship that plays a significant role in the lives of Charleston’s African American citizens. On June 17, 2015 a racist murderer intentionally targeted Mother Emanuel for it being one of the United States’ oldest black churches with an important history as a site for community organization around civil rights. On that day nine (9) Charlestonians were needlessly murdered. All of our guests are urged to visit the church to recognize the shameless hatred and racism that marked a terrible day in our city and nation’s history.
Racism and inequality is a part of this city that cannot be hidden and should never be forgotten. This home does not ignore that slavery was part of its past and recognizes the inhumanity involved with the practice. This home’s first five (5) owners were slaveholders. We take no pride in knowing that and make no excuses for the individuals’ actions. The City of Charleston has recently taken responsibility for its role in slavery by formally apologizing for its past conduct. In 1783 when the city became a legal entity it adopted practices that allowed it to profit by the practice of slavery. The city received business tax fees from the sale of slaves. The city also employed a practice of slave badges. Owners leased out services of their slaves using badges, which were purchased through the city at a fee. Brick makers, layers, carpenters, cooks, bakers, seamstresses and gardeners were among the skilled slaves that were hired out using the badges. It is the hope of Charleston that acknowledging these past acts will aid in the reconciliation of all citizens as it relates to Charleston’s past, so our present and future may be seen as brighter.
Slave Badges Used By the City of Charleston, SC
The Present & Future for Charleston and the Governor’s House Inn
There can be no denying that Charleston is in the midst of a great renaissance. With the city’s natural beauty and charm guests flock to visit us for our wonderful restaurants, sunny weather, beautiful beaches and incredible history. For five (5) straight years Travel & Leisure magazine ranked Charleston as the Best City in the United States and even ranked Charleston #2 in the world. Conde’ Nast magazine recently recognized the Governor’s House Inn as one of the Best Places to Stay in Charleston. We are humbled by the accolade and will continue to work hard to make our guests’ visit to our beautiful city one they will never forget. Here in Charleston you could say we have a history of making individuals’ time here memorable. Please enjoy your time with us and if there is anything we can do to make your stay even more special, do not hesitate to ask.
TIMELINE OF OWNERSHIP
James Laurens, Merchant (1770-1788)
Edward Rutledge, Attorney, Plantation Owner, Patriot, Governor (1788-1800)
Alexander Baron, Physician, Plantation Owner (1804-1850)
Allard Belin, Attorney, Plantation Owner, Legislator (1850-1863)
William Whaley, Attorney, Plantation Owner, Officer, Legislator (1863-1885)
F.W. Wagener, Merchant, Officer, Entrepreneur, Philanthropist (1885-1921)
Josiah E. Smith, Physician (1835-1962)
The Catholic Diocese of Charleston (1962-1974)
Joseph Griffith, Realtor, Insurer (1972-1998)
The Governor’s House Inn (1998- present)