After many weeks of hard labor the Sunken Garden was finally completed. The crew, foreman and architects who had worked on this project had much to be proud of. They had scooped out a bare slab of Charleston soil to create something that could truly be called a work of art. A three foot deep lake, oblong in shape, and fed by springs of natural water, ringed the garden. This new lake was surrounded by low wall decorated with statuary in the shapes of seashells, fish and other nautical designs. At the center of the lake was a small island covered with flora. The architect in chief had called for the island to be "vivid with flowers of the richest splendor."
Evidently his vision had come to pass for a newspaper correspondent who visited the island wrote that "A refined taste is manifest in the plants and flowers (many rare exotics) already flourishing, and gives promise of rare beauty, diversified, yet harmonious." Knowing it would be a popular destination, as well as a centerpiece, four bridges arced over the water to allow easy access and prevent crowds. A dome-roofed bandstand stood a short distance from the head of the lake and gave visitors a chance to look back and reflect on the majesty of the Sunken Garden as a whole.
Yet, as beautiful as it was, this was just a small part of a larger affair. A city once stood on the banks of the Sunken Gardens in Hampton Park. It was called the Ivory City, named for its stark white plaster facade of its' three main buildings, the Cotton Palace, the South Carolina Building, and the Palace of Commerce. These massive structures were "Palaces" in name only; they were made not made of stone, but of wood and a mixture of plaster and cement called "staff", which was then painted white.
To promote Charleston, and to prove to the world that the Holy City had survived the physical and economic devastation wrought by such events as the Civil War and the Earthquake of 1886 it was decided to host an Exposition. The official title was the South Carolina Inter-State and West Indian Exposition. The Exposition ran from the end of 1901 to early 1902, and by most accounts, it was considered a financial failure. Yet, this display of industry did manage to attract some new businesses to the area. Perhaps the most tangible benefit is one of Charleston's most beloved recreational spots - Hampton Park. After the Expo folded, much of the area remained a public park, and although the original design for the Sunken Garden, except for the bandstand, is no longer visible, Hampton Park remains a fitting tribute to the spirit of endurance shown by Charleston in 1901.
Michael D. Coker is a Charleston native, published author, and licensed tour guide. He has worked in local museums for 15 years, and has developed a reputation for his extensive knowledge of history. You can reach Michael by email by clicking on the links above.