The Powder Magazine, South Carolina’s oldest public building, turns 300 this year, and organizers have planned a splashy celebration Saturday that includes costumed re-enactors, a live musket volley and musical demonstrations of 18th-century music.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and historian Walter Edgar will be on hand for the events, which also will include the unveiling of the Powder Magazine Museum’s new exhibition, “Arsenal of History: The Powder Magazine of South Carolina.” Gov. Nikki Haley also has been invited.
Colonial Dorchester Historic Site, just up the road in Summerville, is partnering with the magazine to host period re-enactors, who will be on site all day demonstrating military life from centuries past, said Alan Stello, director of the Powder Magazine museum.
The small brick building on Cumberland Street is distinctive for its three-feet-thick walls, four groin vaulted arches, and a pyramid roof, architectural necessities in case the loose gun powder stored there in the 1700s exploded.
“It was very well built,” said retired USC art and architectural historian John Bryan. “And the proof of that is the fact that it is still there.”
The magazine was completed in 1713 under the Lord Proprietors rule and was part of the walled city called Charles Towne. That city was four blocks wide and two blocks long, bordered by the present Meeting, Cumberland, East Bay and Water streets.
Every seaboard city had a powder magazine, Bryan said, in order for residents to be prepared for possible attack. The magazines were routinely built near the harbor and the ships so that the dangerous business of transporting the barrels of gun powder would be dispensed quickly.
Sand is packed at the top of the arches and in the crevices, said Stello. And that, coupled with the pyramid-shaped roof, was meant so that if there was an explosion, “it would go up and out,” Bryan said.
The city of Charleston went on to hire the great architect Robert Mills to design a complex of powder magazines outside of the city walls, buildings that are no longer there, Bryan said.
According to the Powder Magazine’s website, the entrance gates and the draw bridge were at Meeting and Broad streets. Half Moon Battery was at the other end of Broad Street. Four military outposts were located at each corner of the enclosure with 84 cannons along the waterfront in case of attack by the French, the Spanish, pirates or native Americans.
The building served as a powder magazine from 1713-1770 and during the Revolutionary War. After that, it was transformed over the years for other purposes, including a stable, a wine cellar, a print shop and now a museum. The building, a National Historic Landmark, is owned by the National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the State of South Carolina.
Stella said about 16,000 visitors come to the powder magazine each year. Additionally, another 5,000-6,000 schoolchildren come to learn about the magazine and the state’s history.
“That is a big part of what we do as a nonprofit,” Stella said.