the front of the old exchange and provost dungeon, as seen from broad street

The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon is one of the oldest buildings in Charleston.
It prides itself as the birthplace of South Carolina.
If that sounds boring, that’s because it can be.
But you can’t blame the people who work at the Old Exchange and Provost from trying to make it interesting.
Plus, the ghosts stories are kind of cool. I am a bit of a history nerd myself, so I decided to write about it.

 

Where to Find the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon

This particular attraction is a major snooze-fest for some. For those with any interest in American history (or ghosts), this will undoubtedly be one of the top things to do in Charleston, SC, on your next visit.
 
The Old Exchange Building is situated in the historic downtown Charleston district. More specifically, it’s on East Bay Street at the start of Broad Street. The building is a masonry building of two stories, and is roofed with a hipped roof and fixed on an elevated brick basement. The primary facade faces west and has a three-bay triangular section at the center. The flanking walls also have a Palladian window situated on a brick base with a low railing or balustrade.

History of the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon

The Exchange building was built over a four year period from 1767 to 1771 by the provincial government of South Carolina. It was used in the 18th century for different civic functions, including:
  1. custom house
  2. public market
  3. public meeting place
  4. jailhouse
During the American Revolution, confiscated tea was stored in the building in 1774. Revolutionary leadership held councils within its halls throughout the war. After the capture of the city by the British in 1780, it became a barracks to house troops. The basement was converted into a military prison, fitting for the historic use as a dungeon. An investigation held in 2012 documented that at least 120 people were held as prisoners in the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon.

The Old Exchange and Provost Building in Early America

The Exchange Building was the venue which hosted the South Carolina convention which ratified the U.S Constitution in the 17th century. George Washington even hosted banquets in the Great Hall when he visited the city. The building remained an Exchange until it became a post office in the 19th Century.
 
During the American Civil War, the building continued as a post office of the Confederate States. It was abandoned after suffering damage from Union shells.

The Old Exchange and Provost Building in the 1900s

docent standing at the entrance to the old exchange and provost dungeon facing easy bay street in historic downtown charleston scIn World War I, it served as an army headquarter of General Leonard Wood and the Lighthouse Service of the US. In World War II, the exchange building was a USO facility and a canteen for the troops. It was also a Coastal Picket Station for the United States Coast Guard Sixth Naval District.
 
In the mid-1900s, plans were made to tear-down the Old Exchange and Provost building and build a gas station in its place. A vehement response from locals led to the Daughters of the American Revolution taking it over for preservation. The building has been in their care ever since.
 
The cupola of the building was first damaged in the 1800s by a hurricane while the second cupola suffered damaged from the Great Earthquake, which occurred in 1886. The third, however, was not affixed until 1981 on the opening of a museum in the building.

The Fun Stuff: History of the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon

The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon is actually almost 100 years older than the building above it, however. The dungeon is actually a part of the old wall that ran around the city of Charleston. The Court of Guard originally sat above it, though it was torn down and replaced by the current building with the expansion of the city.

Stede Bonnet and the Pirates of the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon

This was the dungeon that held Stede Bonnet, also known as the “Gentleman Pirate” and his crew before their hanging in 1718. Stede Bonnet earned his nickname for being a Barbadian plantation owner before becoming a pirate. He abandoned a life of privilege supposedly because he grew bored with his charmed life. The other theory is he left because he grew tired of his wife’s nagging.
 
Either way, Stede Bonnet became a pirate known for being relatively classy by pirate standards. He held Charleston hostage in tandem with Blackbeard, which earned him Charleston’s lasting hatred. They held the city hostage in exchange for medicine including mercury, used at the time to treat a certain ailment common among pirates. Afterwards, Bonnet and Blackbeard sailed north from Charleston towards North Carolina.

Capture, Imprisonment, and Hanging

The Charlestonian elite followed the Gentleman pirate to Cape Fear, where they did battle and brought him and his men back in chains. Bennet was initially treated with respect, and even hosted in the home of a local Charlestonian. He was placed in prison with his men after he attempted to escape (supposedly in women’s clothing). A dozen of the men were hung along with them at what is now White Point Gardens. Their bodies were left hanging as a warning to future pirates. Many claim that reminder is why pirates were never again a problem in Charleston and the coastal South.

Plan a Visit to the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon

The Exchange and Provost building now offers some guided tours around the building. Tours teach Charleston’s history to visitors interested in Charleston’s role in the Civil and Revolutionary wars.

The Ghosts of the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon

Docents will tell you stories of the many people, influential or no, who passed through its halls while reenacting the period to make it feel more real. That does sometimes lead to confusion, however. Ghost stories of the Old Exchange and Provost building include visitors not being able to tell the difference between a docent dressed in attire suitable to that time and a ghost. These visitors have reported being mortified to see the docent disappear into thin air when approached.
 
But the ghosts upstairs don’t compare to the ones down in the dungeon. Prisoners in the old prisoner were often chained to the walls and left to rot. Some would drown when the dungeon flooded (which happened often, as it was below sea level). As such, there are supposedly more than a few unhappy spirits in the dungeon. It is said that the sounds of cries and moans of the prisoners can be heard from the stone walls. Some visitors also report seeing chains used to block traffic being pulled or tugged for no apparent reason. Other visitors to the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon claim to have been pushed, and even choked.
 
To learn the stories of even more ghosts of downtown Charleston, sign-up to enjoy one of the best Charleston, SC, ghost tours.

Places to Eat Near the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon

lunch at one of the places to eat near the old exchange and provost dungeon in downtown charleston scLike every other downtown Charleston attraction, there are plenty of restaurants for lunch nearby. Some options a stone’s throw from the Old Exchange and Provost are great casual restaurants in Charleston, SC, for lunch:
  1. Fast and French
  2. Brown Dog Deli
  3. Blind Tiger
For higher-end downtown Charleston fine dining, head up East Bay Street towards Market Street for more choices:
  1. Magnolias
  2. SNOB
  3. Poogan’s Porch
There are even nearby downtown Charleston seafood restaurants. My personal favorites nearby are:
  1. Sushi Blue (try their evening special on weekdays)
  2. Raw 167

Hotels and Places to Stay Near the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon

There are plenty of nearby places to stay, including several fantastic boutique hotels. Most of the best luxury boutique hotels in downtown Charleston, SC, are within walking distance. The list of boutique hotels and bed and breakfast inns include:
  1. The Vendue Inn
  2. Rutledge House Inn
  3. The Spectator

Visit Even More Historical Attractions in Downtown Charleston

the customs house on east bay street, close to the old exchange and provost dungeonA visit to the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon is easy. An added benefit is it’s easily accessible to other downtown Charleston tourist attractions. There are plenty of other fantastic free Charleston attractions to enjoy nearby as well!

1. Ryan’s Mart

Many incorrectly believe the Historic Charleston City Market was where slaves were bought and sold in Charleston. The Old Slave Mart, or Ryan’s Mart, was actually the antebellum slave gallery for auctions, built in 1859. It is believed that this building is the last standing slave facility in South Carolina. It has been registered as a Historic Place on the National Registry.

2. Confederate Museum

 
The site of the Confederate Museum of Charleston was originally occupied by a MASONIC hall. That hall was destroyed by fire and the market hall was built in its stead. It was made as a copy of the Wingless Victory Temple in Athens.

3. Heyward-Washington House

 
This house was built in 1772. It housed both Thomas Heyward, who was the owner of the house and source of half of the name. George Washington stayed here when he visited the city and hosted those banquets at the Old Exchange and Provost building. Guess where the Washington part of the name comes from? Today, it is a museum.

4. Dock Street Theatre

This theater is situated in Charleston’s historic French quarter, a block away from St Philip’s church. The Dock Street Theatre is on the site of the first building constructed solely for hosting the performing arts in America. The original building burned down and was replaced by a hotel known as the Planter’s Inn. The site was converted into a theater in the mid-1930s. A show here is one of the best romantic things to do in Charleston, South Carolina.

5. Powder Magazine of Charleston

This building stands as the oldest public building in South Carolina. Constructed to store the city’s gunpowder, it features some unique ideas to deal with such an explosive material. Unique features include walls that angle outwards as they increase in height, and a roof with a heavy layer of sand. The wall construction was meant to direct the theoretical blast up and away from the city. The sand on the roof was supposed to quickly fall back down and help blot-out any fires started by the explosion. Neither of these features were ever put to use, however, as the Powder Magazine obviously never exploded. This building is also registered as a historical landmark.

More Charleston, South Carolina, Tourist Attractions for the History Buff

6. Drayton Hall

drayton hall plantation, another charleston tourist attraction of interest to fans of the old exchange and provost dungeonDrayton Hall is an 18th-century Charleston plantation which was designed with architectural sophistication. This building is remarkable for being considered one of the most beautiful of the remaining plantation houses. The building has not been modified for over 200 years. It still has many of the architectural details that made it a landmark example of American architecture. The mansion was built after John Drayton acquired the land in the 1700s. He invested in the highest level of architectural elaboration in constructing the mansion.

7. Fort Sumter

Fort Sumter is most well-known for its role in the first Civil War battle, as it was the first fort fired upon by Civil War soldiers. Supposedly, the first shots were fired by Citadel cadets. This sea fort in South Carolina was reduced to rubble during the War. It was rebuilt to be used as an educational center accessible only by boat.

8. Magnolia Cemetery

This cemetery is the oldest public cemetery in the Charleston area and was founded in 1849. It is sited on the bank of the Cooper River and is also listed as a Historic Place in the National Register. It is the burial place of many generations of Southern leaders, including governors such as:
  1. Thomas Bennett
  2. Horace L. Hunley
  3. Langdon Cheves
  4. Robert Barnwell Rhett
Hundreds of Confederate soldiers are also buried here, some notables include:
  1. James Conner Micah Jenkins
  2. Roswell Ripley
  3. Arthur Manigault
  4. C.H. Stevens
All these attractions like the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon make Charleston perfect for an educational vacation. Whether it’s fun or not depends on what you consider fun.

Photo by JERRYE & ROY KLOTZ MD (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons