CHARLESTON ORPHAN HOUSE

This entry is adapted from Lost Charleston and is included on Charleston Raconteurs' Lost Charleston (Route 3) Tour.

The first municipal orphanage in America was established by Charleston City Council in 1790 on Boundary (now Calhoun) Street on the block between St. Philip’s and Coming streets. Its mission was to care for and educate “poor orphan children, and those of poor, distressed and disabled parents who are unable to support and maintain them.”

Charleston was no stranger to catastrophic epidemics, fires, hurricanes, and battles for survival in the New World. Nearly everyone had lost someone close to them as a result of such frequent calamities. Perhaps because of that, colonial Charlestonians saw it as their natural duty to take in the children of friends or family who had lost their parents. Before the American Revolution, St. Philip’s parish had been principally responsible for the welfare of Charles Town’s orphaned children, placing them in parishioners' homes. 

After the Revolution and the end of Anglicanism as the state religion, orphans became a civic, rather than parish, responsibility. About 5,000 children would pass through the orphanage over the next century and a half, with a peak population of 334 at the end of the Civil War. Many were not necessarily true orphans, but the children of widows who could return home once their mothers had remarried and secured financial stability.

Completed by 1794, the Orphan House occupied nearly a full city block and stood four stories high, a grand edifice featuring both Palladian and Renaissance Revival architectural details, a mansard roof and a cupola. Its magnificent chapel was designed by Charleston’s “gentleman architect,” Gabriel Manigault, in 1802. The building was expanded in the 1850s by renowned antebellum architects Edward Jones and Francis Lee. Boys were housed in the west wing and girls in the east.

Accounts suggest the physical and general welfare needs of the children who lived here were met as humanely as possible throughout the institution’s existence. Several alumni went on to distinguish themselves as political and financial leaders, including the future Treasurer of the Confederacy and educator Christopher Memminger and early 20th century philanthropist Andrew Buist Murray.

The Orphan House played a significant role in Charleston for several reasons. Not only was it was an important resource for children needing temporary or long-term shelter, but it also played an important educational role. After several years of classroom education, boys were apprenticed to local craftsmen and girls to matrons who taught them the basics of running a house. Thus the poor and orphaned learned skills that would provide them with a steady livelihood as adults.

In addition, the Orphan House was a source of pride for its wealthy benefactors. Rarely did visiting dignitaries to the city miss seeing the benevolence of Charleston’s elite. President George Washington himself laid the building’s cornerstone during his 1791 visit to the city. Later visitors included the Marquis de Lafayette, Confederate generals P.G.T. Beauregard and Robert E. Lee, and Presidents James Monroe, Grover Cleveland and William Howard Taft, all of whom lauded the home, as well as the vision and commitment of its benevolent patrons.

In 1951, the children were relocated to a modern facility in North Charleston. Despite protests from preservation groups and others, the Charleston Orphan House was torn down to make way for a Sears Department Store, which in turn was torn down for the College of Charleston’s Lightsey Continuing Education Center. In 1978, the orphanage became an independent nonprofit organization now known as the Carolina Youth Development Center. Most Charlestonians agree, the Charleston Orphan House was undoubtedly one of the city’s greatest architectural losses.

  

Sources & more information:

Bellows, Barbara L. Benevolence among Slaveholders: Assisting the Poor in Charleston, 1670–1860. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993.
King, Susan L. The Charleston Orphan House. (Columbia, SC: South Carolina Geneology Trails)
King, Susan L. “The Charleston Orphan House: The First One Hundred Years.” Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association (1998): 106–15.
 
Murray, John E. The Charleston Orphan House: Children's Lives in the First Public Orphanage in America. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013)
 
Murray, John E. "Charleston Orphan House," in South Carolina Enclyclopedia (Columbia: South Carolina Press, 2006)

Murray, John E. “Fates of Orphans: Poor Children in Antebellum Charleston.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33 (spring 2003): 519–45.


The Charleston Orphan House, seen here c. 1900, is considered by many Charlestonians to be the city's single greatest architectural loss. (Photo credit: Detroit Publishing Co., via Shorpy Historic Picture Archive)
A Union soldier stands sentinel outside the abandoned Orphan House shortly after the city fell to Federal troops in February 1865. Damage from the city’s bombardment is apparent, though the children had been evacuated to Columbia earlier out of a concern for their safety. (Photo credit: Library of Congress, Civil War Photograph Collection)
The orphanage’s Chapel was designed by Charleston’s “Gentleman Architect,” Gabriel Manigault, in 1802. (Photo credit: Library of Congress)

An emphasis on education was a hallmark of the Orphan House’s legacy. The school’s study hall was located on its second floor. (Photo credit: Southern Illinois University/Edwardsville)
Girls were apprenticed to matrons who taught them the basics of running a household. (Photo credit: Southern Illinois University/Edwardsville)

(Photo credit and date: Undetermined)