We visit the site of the Three Sisters on our Lost Charleston Tour.
From 1996 through the first decade of the 21st century, Charleston’s Committee to Save the City was a strident community voice advocating that classical, rather than contemporary, architectural styles soley should be used when designing new buildings within the city’s historic district. Not everyone agreed, including some preservationists. Still, the committee garnered significant public awareness through its annual presentation of the Three Sisters Award, recognizing what it considered exemplary contributions to Charleston’s historic character in ways “that are not appreciated when they are present, but sorely missed when they are gone.”
The award’s name recalls three nearly identical single houses that once stood on the southeast corner of Calhoun and East Bay streets. Typical examples of Charleston’s ubiquitous single-house design, no significant historical events ever happened there, nor were they the homes of any renowned persons. A survey of local newspapers from the time of their construction in the 1840s through their demolition in 1964 reveals only the mundane details of everyday life: rooms for rent, city permitting applications, the occasional petty larceny, addresses in the obituaries of the ordinary people, both black and white, who lived there.
Yet despite their ordinariness, or perhaps because of it, the houses at 37, 39 and 41 Calhoun Street drew the attention of many local and visiting artists. Their sketches and watercolors in some way captured the beauty of life in Charleston. The ground floor of 41 Calhoun was eventually converted into a liquor store; the other two remained rental properties, all gradually deteriorating from neglect, as rentals are wont to do. In 1961, 37 and 39 Calhoun were condemned as unsafe during an annual fire inspection and slated for demolition.
“During some 200 years the ‘three sisters’ at Calhoun and East Bay have withstood the ravages of time, fire and earthquakes,” decried Preservation Society of Charleston President W.T. Hart in the Evening Post (February 3, 1962). Yet “they cannot withstand the shameful attacks of man.”
The worst part, he said, was that the houses were being demolished not by a greedy developer, but by “the government which was put into office to preserve Charleston.” Citing Rainbow Row and the nearby Gadsden and Primrose houses, Hart encouraged the city to board up the houses until someone could restore them. “This would be real progress,” he said, “because progress is improving on the old, not destroying it.”
Nevertheless all three houses were torn down and replaced by nothing. Christmas trees were occasionally sold from the vacant lot behind what seems to be a permanent for-sale sign as the lot remains vacant to this day. For Charlestonians, the fate of the Three Sisters embodies the tragedy of failing to appreciate something you take for granted until it’s gone.
The Sisters Revisited
Few popular walking or carriage tours go as far north up East Bay Street to its relatively unattractive intersection with Calhoun Street. Still, some tourists, being familiar with old sketches and paintings of the Three Sisters, still ask to see them. Not wanting to disappoint their visitors, some guides have recreated a new story of the Three Sisters around three colorful, well-restored houses along lower Meeting Street. Some cite their similar architectural style for the moniker. A more entertaining variation of the story claims that a wealthy father built the three houses for his ugly unmarried daughters, painting each as a tribute to the daughter's hair color: gray, blond and red. Neither story makes them old Charlestonians’ true Three Sisters.