The Long Journey of the Charleston Dining Room

Seldom seen by visitors today, the Charleston Dining Room on the third floor of Winterthur contains woodwork and windows from what was once a fashionable gathering place in antebellum South Carolina. The 18th-century paneling, cornices, fireplace and mantle, and windows come from a hotel that stood in Charleston near the intersection of Broad and Meeting Streets. During its heyday in the 1820s and 1830s, the hotel hosted visitors from across America and Europe.

Site of the old Jones Hotel in Charleston

If appreciating the carved woodwork today is easy, grappling with the hotel’s legacy is more difficult. As was common during that time in Charleston, many of the workers who earned the hotel its reputation were enslaved, but what was more unusual was the proprietors were free people of color. Jehu Jones was a tailor who purchased his freedom in 1798 and soon began acquiring real estate—and enslaved human beings too. He purchased the hotel for $13,000 in 1816, but it was probably his wife Abigail, a pastry cook, who put the hotel on the map.

“Every Englishman who visits Charleston,” wrote one foreign guest in 1833, “will, if he be wise, direct his baggage to be conveyed to Jones’s hotel.” The old world elegance of its dinners included iced claret that “might have converted even Diogenes into a gourmet.”(1) Another guest was Samuel F. B. Morse, who was still known as a painter rather than as an inventor. Around 1821, Morse came to Charleston and rented rooms behind the Jones Hotel as a portrait studio.

Both guests would have spent time in the Charleston Dining Room. Located on the second floor of the main building, it probably served not as a dining room but as a drawing room, where guests might gather after meals. The bay window projected over the hotel’s main entrance on Broad Street, giving guests a clear view of Charleston’s city hall.

The Jones Hotel was also just a few hundred feet from the headquarters of Charleston’s city guard. After nine o’clock at night, the guard would arrest black residents, whether enslaved or free, who ventured out of doors. A German duke staying at the hotel around 1825 recounted hearing a warning call; he was “startled to hear the retreat and reveillé beat there” from inside his room.(2) The Joneses, for all their importance to the social life of the elite—and although they were slaveholders themselves—were among the people being targeted.

If you get the chance to see the room today, you are viewing what may be the only identifiable surviving part of the main hotel.

The building fell into disrepair in the late 19th century. Around 1928, it was dismantled and placed in storage. Some pieces, including the paneling from this room, were eventually acquired by the Yale University Art Gallery, where Henry Francis du Pont discovered them in the 1950s. What is now the Charleston Dining Room, was shipped from New Haven and installed at Winterthur, originally to serve as a lunch spot for visitors taking all-day tours.

Today, the warm sandy color of the walls is based on the earliest original layer of paint, applied around 1774 when the hotel was constructed as a private home. The white tiles lining the fireplace suggest the patterned Delft tiles popular in Charleston at the time. What comes from the building itself is the carved wood—including the windows, the elaborate decorations above the fireplace, and the two closet doors. The entrance, however, was moved from its original location opposite the bay window in order to fit the current space.

Post by Jonathan W. Wilson, a historian and adjunct faculty member at the University of Scranton and Marywood University. He is working on a book project about the Jones family.

 

NOTES

(1) Thomas Hamilton, Men and Manners in America, vol. 2 (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and T. Cadell, 1833), 278.

(2) Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar Eisenach, Travels through North America, during the Years 1825 and 1826, vol. 2 (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Carey, 1928), 7.

SELECTED REFERENCES

Amrita Chakrabarti Myers, Forging Freedom: Black Women and the Pursuit of Liberty in Antebellum Charleston (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 99-100.

Albert Simons, “Report of Matters Pertaining to the Removal of the Mansion House, Charleston, South Carolina,” n.d., Winterthur Archives

Harriet P. and Albert Simons, “The William Burrows House of Charleston,” Winterthur Portfolio 3 (1967): 172-203.

South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Public Programs Packet no. 1, Jehu Jones: Free Black Entrepreneur [1989]

John A. H. Sweeney, The Treasury House of Early American Rooms (New York: W. W. Norton, 1963), 12 and 76-77.

Marina Wikramanayake, A World In Shadow: The Free Black in Antebellum South Carolina (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1973), 79 and 103-111.

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