Charleston, South Carolina, unlike a lot of American cities, has never had an identity crisis. It has always been proud—some would say too proud—of being what it is. It reveres the past, and what it doesn’t revere, it still doesn’t hide. Some cities so tied to slavery, the Civil War, and the Lost Cause might pave right over such dark parts of their history. Charleston just owns it, the good and the bad.
The most interesting thing about Charleston’s relationship to its past is the way it brings that past into the present. When you walk the city’s streets—and it is one of the most walkable cities in the U.S.—there is no sense of a city trapped in amber. Rather, you get the sense of a place that honors what is good about the past, particularly in its domestic architecture (Charleston was the first city in the U.S. to use zoning as a preservation tool) but also works with architects and developers to innovate on historical styles. As the noted architectural writer Witold Rybcyznski notes in his absorbing book Charleston Fancy, no one has done this with more flair than developer/designers George Holt and Andrew Gould. If you find yourself in Charleston, by all means, check out their work.
The ethos of blending past and present is by no means limited to small, individual construction. Hotel Bennett, Charleston’s newest luxury hotel, was constructed in the same spirit. So much so that were you to walk by the hotel, you’d be forgiven for not recognizing that it only opened earlier this year. Situated next to historic Marion Square in the heart of downtown, it nestles into its surroundings as though it had been there for a couple of centuries. Preservationists fought a losing battle against the hotel’s eight-story height before construction began, but as completed the hotel, composed of two conjoined towers with setbacks, does not seem overwhelming or out of place.
The exterior of the 179-room hotel is a pale ochre set off by green shutters, a color combination that manages to be both striking and easy on the eyes. But to encounter the hotel’s more luxe appointments, you must go inside. There opulence is everywhere, from the marble floors to the distinctively individual chandeliers scattered throughout. And lest you forget that you are entering an elegant establishment, a discretely placed plaque in the lobby requests that “Gentlemen Please Remove Hats Before Entering Lobby.” Alas, most hat- and cap-wearing gentlemen I encountered chose not to comply.
The hotel’s public spaces—lobby, restaurant, bars, ballroom, requisite rooftop pool and adjacent lounge—are all well-lit and roomy (in the case of the lobby, almost too roomy: you have to cross a huge open room to reach the check-in desk, and it leaves you feeling a little lonely by the time you make the hike, i.e., you don’t want to linger, you want to get out). But the bar is a comfortable space, with floor-to-ceiling doors and windows that encourage you to step out to the ground-level patio, weather permitting (Charleston gets pretty steamy about six months out of the year). An upper floor opens onto a spacious piazza (low country lingo for porch) covered by a pergola and overlooking Marion Square that made me want to stay all day.
If every engaged couple in South Carolina is dreaming of Hotel Bennett for their destination wedding, I would not be surprised.
Lately, I’ve begun formulating an admittedly eccentric but I believe telling way to judge hotel-room aesthetics: what they do with the furniture once the bed is in place. OK, the credenza or whatever it is that holds the TV, the dresser drawers, and the refrigerator/mini-bar goes on the wall facing the foot of the bed. But what do they do with the chairs? How many times do you check into a hotel and find chairs and sometimes the odd end-table stuck in odd corners, or shoved next to the bedside table—chairs, in other words, that no one will ever sit in, tables that just take up space? Hotel Bennett passed this test easily. The chairs, sofa, coffee table, and lamps in my spacious room were arranged such that you had comfort, natural light, reading light, and plenty of space. It was a well-appointed but not ostentatious room, marred only for fumble-fingered occupants like me by a light-switch panel by the door that seemed to require an engineering degree to master.
Because the College of Charleston sprawls all over downtown, students are always out and about at all times of day or night, which makes walking in the city, even after dark, feel perfectly safe. But were you to check into the Hotel Bennett and just stay there the whole time you were in the city, I wouldn’t blame you. Even though Charleston is a foodie hotspot, the hotel’s patisserie and restaurant should satisfy the most demanding palate. They even do breakfast with flair: I ordered biscuits and gravy just to see what they would do with this humble dish and damn if my meal didn’t ruin biscuits and gravy for me anywhere else. The only thing I craved when I got up from the table was the recipe.
Editor's Note: This is the latest installment in our series on exciting new hotels, The New Room with a View.