One of South Carolina’s more celebrated architectural gems began as an antebellum bank.
The Farmers’ and Exchange Bank Building, on Charleston’s East Bay Street, has been garnering the attention of locals and visitors alike since its construction in 1854.
Its Moorish design made it a novelty then and now, and it caught the eye of famed writer William Gilmore Simms, who penned an article for Harper’s Magazine in June 1857.
“It is a novelty in the architecture of Charleston, if not of the day, being Moorish in all of its details, yet without reminding you of the Alhambra or the Vermillion towers,” wrote Simms (1806-1870), regarded as a force in antebellum Southern literature. “It is of brownstone of two tints, laid alternately – an arrangement which adds considerably to the effect. The interior is finished with arabesque work from floor to ceiling, and is lighted with subdued rays from the summit. This gives a rich and harmonious effect to the whole. It is of recent erection, Jones and Lee the architects. The corporation itself is a new one, and prosperous, like all the temples reared to the god of the Mines, the Counter, and the Mint, in this virtuous city.”
The building, built to house the Farmers’ and Exchange Bank, was designed by Charlestonians Edward C. Jones and Francis D. Lee in 1853 and completed the following year.
Jones was an especially notable architect whose other works included the Church of the Holy Cross in Stateburg and Charleston’s famed Magnolia Cemetery.
The Farmers’ and Exchange Bank building has rounded horseshoe arches and a façade featuring pale Jersey and darker Connecticut brownstone, giving it a striped effect typical of many Moorish structures.
Its design is thought to have been influenced by illustrations in Washington Irving’s 19th century work, Tales of the Alhambra, a revised edition of which was published two years before construction.
The structure was built by David Lopez, who also constructed Charleston’s Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim synagogue and Institute Hall, where the South Carolina Ordinance of Secession was signed in December 1860.
The Farmers’ and Exchange Bank continued in Charleston until Federal bombardment of the city during the War Between the States forced the bank’s move to Columbia. It didn’t survive the conflict.
Later, the structure was used for a variety of purposes, including a Western Union telegraph office, office space for long-time Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings and, most recently, a restaurant.
By 1970 there was talk of tearing the building down to make room for parking; however Charleston banker Hugh Lane Sr. spent $50,000 to preserve the structure in the early 1970s.
(Top: Farmers’ and Exchange Bank Building, Charleston, SC.)