At the start of every year at the College of Charleston, thousands of new freshmen pass through the Porter’s Lodge and onto the Cistern Yard in the ceremonial tradition of Convocation. Gazing above at the face of Porter’s Lodge, students can see a greek inscription which translates to “know thyself.” Students embark on a journey of self discovery at the start of their college experience, yet before students are able to know themselves, they should know and cherish the history of the College itself.
College of Charleston was founded in 1770 and since then has grown and evolved into the exquisite campus we all call home today. After plans were established to create the College, the Revolutionary War halted all efforts until just after the war was over. Graduating in 1794, the college’s first class consisted of just six students. Students first attended classes inside the building we know today as the President’s House on Glebe Street, until classes were moved to former Revolutionary War military barracks on the Cistern Yard. Here, the Cistern Yard’s importance to the College was born. By 1829, William Strickland completed Randolph Hall, the college’s first academic building. Today, just a few classes are held inside this building and it is mostly used for faculty offices.
Porter’s Lodge, the beautiful arched building that sits across from Randolph Hall, was constructed in 1852 by architect E. B. White. Then known as the Gate Lodge, this building housed the college’s “porter.” According to a Charleston legend, porter John Cahill saved the college from union soldiers during the Civil War in 1865. Begging for the school to be protected, Cahill reached an agreement with Union Colonel Stewart Woodford that the school would not be tampered with. Today, just a few faculty offices are located inside this small building.
By 1855, College of Charleston consisted of three buildings when the Towell Library was built to hold the college’s burgeoning amount of books. Since the College was then an all men’s school, architect E. B. White designed the front doors of the building to be particularly narrow in order to keep women out. Women at that time wore wide petticoat style skirts that would not fit through the narrow doors, ensuring that no woman could sneak in. Now holding admissions offices, the doors of the Towell Library no longer serve to keep women out, yet carry on as a reminder of the numerous men who have passed through the College’s doors throughout the years, and as a tribute to the women who couldn’t enter until the college went co-ed in 1935.
The cistern itself is often underestimated when compared to the allure of the three buildings surrounding
it. Every year on Mother’s Day, College of Charleston seniors take their final steps as undergraduate students and walk across the Cistern for the first time in four years. As most students at the College know, walking across the cistern before graduation is taboo, as superstition holds that for each time a student crosses the cistern, he or she will stay at the College for another year. Before this structure was the scene of this superstitious college tradition, it was used by the city of Charleston for a very different purpose. The cistern was constructed in 1857 in order to hold the cities water supply and to act as a drainage for Charleston’s infamous flooding. When there were fires in Charleston, citizens would fill buckets with water from the cistern to put them out. Underneath the grass covered oval is an underground brick structure that can hold up to 40,000 gallons of water. It was filled in and covered with grass once the city installed a proper water system.
Walking through the Cistern Yard, anyone could see that the site is an important part of our campus. Every day, frisbees are thrown around under the grand oak trees and students converse, study and read on the surrounding benches. There is a historical spirit that cannot be overlooked. When asked why she enjoys studying on the Cistern Yard, freshman student Jenna Wilhelm stated that “the Cistern is the calm in the storm of this bustling city. It is still and peaceful.” As one of the most well preserved historic sites on campus, “still” is the perfect word to describe this seemingly untouched Charleston gem. Aside from a few restoration projects, the three structures that make up the Cistern Yard have remained virtually the same since the mid-1800s. It is a precious piece of history that has endured through times of prosperity, hardship and war. Every pass through Porter’s Lodge is a step through time, and a reminder of all the history that has occurred at the College in the past 244 years and of the history we are all creating there each and every day.