The buildings of early Charleston did not have numbered addresses prior to or during the American Revolution. The earliest know street numbers began to appear in the mid-1780s, soon after the incorporation of the city in 1783. City records explaining the method of the early numbering system have not survived, so its logic is unclear. By observing the numbering of various addresses in the local newspapers and the city directories of the 1780s through the early 1800s, however, one can see that the streets were renumbered on multiple occasions. Again, no city records survive to explain these changes.
In September 1848 Charleston’s City Council ordered all buildings in the city (i.e. south of modern Calhoun Street) to be numbered immediately in preparation for a city-wide census. Two years later, after the city annexed the “Neck” area in 1850, the addresses between Calhoun Street and Mt. Pleasant Street slowly began to be numbered in accordance with the city’s existing system. In the wake of these two mid-century events, the street numbers of urban Charleston evolved to a point at which the addresses in many streets began to resemble modern address numbers.
In 1861 Frederick Ford published a “census” (really a directory) of the city of Charleston in which he arranged the contents alphabetically by street name and then sequentially by house number. Ford’s house numbering system was apparently of his own invention, however, for in September of that year City Council approved a plan to renumber the streets in accordance with the system used in Ford’s directory. Due to wartime exigencies, however, this work was postponed indefinitely.
Fifteen years after the conclusion of the Civil War, Charleston’s City Council renewed the discussion of street renumbering. On 22 June 1880, the city’s Committee on Streets recommended that an engineer be hired to survey the entire city in preparation for a complete renumbering of the buildings and vacant lots. More than a year later, on 13 December 1881, the same committee recommended more specifically “that a competent engineer be employed to draw a plat of the city dividing the squares into equal spaces of —– feet each. The said spaces to be numbered regularly from one upwards, with uniform numbers cast in iron or some other durable material.” Accordingly, on 8 August 1882 Council approved a contract with H. S. Lamblé to execute “a complete set of drawings of the City of Charleston by squares, showing the shape and dimensions of each lot and the dimensions and characters of the buildings on the lots, with descriptions of the same.” Nearly two years later, on 10 June 1884, the city hired William Brown to consult Lamblé’s recently-completed drawings and then to “number all of the houses and lots in the City of Charleston with zinc plates made of the best material and the numbers thereon hand painted.”
In January 1886 the city assessor reported that “the work of renumbering the city and putting up new street signs . . . has practically been finished. The entire city has been laid off, an average frontage of lots being allowed for each number and the description of property with new numbers assigned, and names of owners recorded in twelve separate ward books. The numbers in some portions of the suburbs of the city, and some courts and alleys, have not yet been put up, but the contractor is now giving his attention to the same, and in a short time the entire work will be completed.” This numbering system, based on an average street frontage of thirty feet, was completed before the earthquake of 31 August 1886 and forms the basis of the Charleston’s present street numbers. Some localized renumbering has taken place over the years as various streets were lengthened, merged, or otherwise altered, but most of the city’s addresses have not changed since 1886.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the city of Charleston tentatively initiated a new numbering system that resulted in many years of confusion. On 30 December 1901 City Council ratified an ordinance adopting a “centigrade plan” diverging from a central point located at the corner of King and Calhoun Streets. This law directed “that hereafter all streets below Calhoun Street running north and south, shall have the word ‘south’ affixed to their present name, and all streets north of Calhoun Street running north and south, shall have the word ‘north’ affixed to their present name, and all streets east of King Street running east and west, shall have the word ‘east’ affixed to their present names, and all streets west of King Street running east and west, shall have the word ‘west’ affixed to their present names.”
Despite being authorized by law, the 1901 “centigrade plan” was never fully implemented. Between 1904 and 1915 the city assessor complained repeatedly that the mix of old and new street numbering systems amounted to a “burlesque,” and urged the city to “either go back to the old method of marking the streets or endeavor to carry out the plan suggested by the street-signs as they now exist.” In 1919 the local Civic Club petitioned City Council to adopt the “Washington Plan” street numbering system, a variation of the “centigrade plan.” In response, the city acknowledged that it already had such a “block plan” on hand, but stopped short of advocating its implementation. Despite the fact that the 1901 “centigrade plan” ordinance remained in the city code of laws through 1960, it appears that this ambitious plan to renumber the streets was effectively abandoned shortly after its adoption.
In 1960 the city of Charleston began annexing land beyond its traditional peninsular boundaries. The rationale for the numbering of city streets in the various neighborhoods west of the Ashley River and east of the Cooper River, however, lies beyond the scope of this essay.
The most recent updating of street addresses in the city of Charleston occurred in preparation for the implementation of the 9–1–1 emergency telephone system in August 1983. A number of irregularities were corrected at that time, but the vast majority of the city’s street numbers remained unchanged.
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