Charleston’s Hidden Alleys
Exploring Three Narrow Alleys: Philadelphia Alley, Longitude Lane and Stoll’s Alley
by Amy Tankersley
There are 3 public streets that don’t look like streets- they are so narrow, that people often walk right past them. They were not originally planned streets- they were short-cuts, footpaths, or alleys between 2 “real streets”. Over time, houses were built along them, and they remained narrow, and eventually they were officially made public streets. Parts of them get almost no sun, making it delightful to walk on a hot summer day. Start early in the day, because if you follow the entire adventure, I can keep you busy for hours.
Philadelphia Alley is hard to find, so read this carefully. Find the block which is bordered by Cumberland St on the north, State St. on the east, Queen St. on the south, and Church St. on the west. The north end of Philadelphia Alley is on Cumberland and the south end of Philadelphia Alley is on Queen St. If you end up on State St., go take a book from the Little Free Library in front of 46 State St. The building is pink. If you get thirsty, grab a soda from the convenience store at the corner of Cumberland and State. The Martschink Building at 26 Cumberland is across from the north end of the Alley. The Footlight Players Theater at 20 Queen St. is next to the south end. Inside the Alley, look for the plaque on the west wall that explains why it’s called Philadelphia Alley.
To get to the other 2 alleys, go to the intersection of Church and Queen and head south on Church. But wait. Look north and photograph the steeple of St. Phillips Episcopal Church. Then go a few feet south on Church St and stop to photograph the pink and black church of Gothic Revival architecture. This is The French Huguenot Church. They were Calvinist Presbyterians who were being persecuted by the Catholic French Monarchy, and many escaped and came here. Then look at the Dock Street Theater across the street.
I love the detail work at the top of the columns and the teal-colored iron-work. All that in just a few feet. Continue south on Church St. By now you have guessed why it’s called Church St., I hope. Get your camera out, because you will cross Chalmers Street, one of the few ballast-stone streets still uncovered. While at that intersection, make a reminder to come back to it later, and see The Old Slave Mart Museum, at #6 Chalmers St, dedicated to African-American History and Culture. (It’s between Church and State.) Or maybe go to it immediately, and find the other alleys later. It’s your adventure, after all. The building was a slave brokerage house run by a slave broker named Thomas Ryan in the 1850’s. Listen to voice recordings of former slaves who gave oral autobiographies in the 1930’s. They were very old by then. Read about how some slaves cleverly influenced their own sale to their advantage. They are not open on Sundays.
If you go to the museum first, then return to the intersection of Chalmers and Church, and continue south on Church St. You will get to a main east/west street called Broad St. You will wait for your crossing signal and then cross, and continue south on Church St. You will now enter a really charming area of houses from the 1700’s and 1800’s. Slow down to look at each house. Look on the left for goat.sheep.cow at 106 Church St, and run inside for a sandwich. The house at #105 Church St is so adorable, it looks like a sweet, shabby little granny. I would never re-paint it. You’ll see what I mean. Keep going south on Church St. Cross the next street and look at the cute bridal shop on the left. Then you’ll get into one of my favorite sections. Stop and stand still in front of #97 Church St. Those 3 houses in a row- #’s 95,97 and 99. They were all built at the same time in 1907, by a developer, in a late Victorian Style.
They are the youngsters on the block, because their neighbors across the street are 1700’s. Move south to admire the cool building at 89/91 Church St., built in 1783. Look at the cool arched tunnel going to the back courtyard. This was a popular style for apartment buildings. This building was one of the inspirations for the opera “Porgy and Bess”. Ladies, pop inside the impossibly adorable little shop called Madison Matthews , the sell beach tunics and dresses perfect for Charleston’s summer weather. The next house at #87 Church St was the home of Thomas Heyward, Jr., who was one of the 4 South Carolina signers of The Declaration of Independence. George Washington stayed there as his guest in 1791. How cool is all that? It is a house museum, and on a whim, maybe you could run in and get a tour if you are there at starting time- I think they do it every half hour. Either way, you’ll eventually continue south on Church St. Cross Tradd St, continuing to go slow and take pictures of houses. Right after #74 is the next narrow alley, Longitude Lane.
Look up and you’ll see the green street sign. Walk down it and back again, it’s only a block long, and very charming. It dates to the mid 1700’s. Return to Church St. and continue south. At #54 Church St, you’ll get to the 3rd one, and my favorite, Stoll’s Alley. Look up and you’ll see the green street sign. This ancient brick passage was once called “Pilot’s Alley”, a reference to the maritime nature of the waterfront, and probably because harbor pilots lived there. Later, it was named for Justinus Stoll, who built #7 Stoll’s Alley around 1745. It degenerated into a slum by the 1920’s, and has since been rehabilitated. Walk all the way down the narrow end where it gets to 5 feet wide. Have you ever been on a public street that was 5 feet wide? Reach out your arms and touch the walls on either side of the street. On the hottest summer day, it feels like air-conditioning in there. Almost to the end, is # zero Stoll’s Alley, an apartment built into the high basement of a house on East Bay St. In a few more feet, pop out into the sunshine of East Bay St.
At this point, either of these 2 options would be fun:
The first would be to run across East Bay Street, and head south along the seawall looking over the harbor and if the tide is out, there is a small triangle beach. At the second post of the railing, the wall has a foothold, so you can climb over and walk in the sand. Look for dolphins. The seawall will take you all the way down to White Point Gardens at the very end of the peninsula. The second would be to return back down Stoll’s Alley to Church St. and head south. Water Street will cross here. Water Street is a landfill. It used to be a tidal creek named Vanderhorst Creek until the early 1800’s.
This is why Church St. is crooked at this point. It does a slight “dogleg” to the right and continues south. At this point, Church Street is a brick street and very charming. It will cross Atlantic St, and in one more block, it will end at White Point Gardens at the very end of the peninsula. Both of these options take you to the same park. Look for the monument dedicated to pirates who were hanged in that area in 1718. The Pirate Blackbeard (real name was Edward Teach), came to Charleston that same year, but escaped and was killed in North Carolina. But enough of being on your feet. Go find a bench or a grassy spot and lay down for a nap. Imagine- this adventure started as a quest for 3 alleys, and included museums, shopping, food, a beach. Is it any wonder that I consider Charleston to be The Greatest City In The World ???
And while this is a step by step on how to see these hidden gems, you don’t need to go searching for all the city’s secret spots on your own. Our Hidden Alleyways and Passages Tour will help you find some Southern charm — without spending the whole day trying to find it.