The imaginative reconstruction of the Dock Street Theatre, completed between 1935 and 1937 in Charleston, South Carolina, was a New Deal experiment in historic preservation. Funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and led by local architects Albert Simons and Samuel Lapham, the orchestrated re-creation of a lost eighteenth-century theater reflected the white elite’s desire to immortalize the city’s prosperous colonial and antebellum past in the historic built environment. While the project courted conservative interests and created a romanticized version of Old Charleston, the strong support of Democratic mayor Burnet Maybank and WPA director Harry L. Hopkins simultaneously pushed forward a progressive southern agenda. This dual and contradictory set of motivations culminated in an intriguing use of historic preservation to nurture a particular community’s sense of place and use historic buildings as a catalyst for cultural rebirth.
“Restoring” Charleston’s Dock Street Theatre: Preservation and Power in the Depression-Era South
Stephanie Gray is an Assistant Professor of Public History at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, specializing in historic preservation. Her broader research areas include American cultural history and the built environment, with a focus on the Depression and New Deal eras. She earned her PhD from the University of South Carolina and has worked with the National Park Service and the South Carolina State Historic Preservation Office. She would like to thank the four anonymous reviewers for their constructive feedback, and Lydia Mattice Brandt, Hannah LeComte, John Mitcham, Lauren Sklaroff, Marjorie Spruill, Patricia Sullivan, and Robert Weyeneth for their helpful comments.
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Stephanie Gray; “Restoring” Charleston’s Dock Street Theatre: Preservation and Power in the Depression-Era South. The Public Historian 1 August 2022; 44 (3): 58–91. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/tph.2022.44.3.58
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