Hibernian Hall, with its classical visage, is important as a member of the tremendous classical ensemble near and around the area often called “the Four Corners of the Law.” The Hibernian Society was formed in 1801 to assist poor Irish families who came to Charleston to pursue a better life. Like many origins in Charleston, this one began in conversations at a pub. There were at first two such organizations that naturally melded into one called The Hibernian Society.
As the society membership grew, both Catholic and Protestant individuals joined, as did a few non-Irish members. By 1833, the group decided to elicit architectural designs for a grand meeting place. This was at the height of the Greek Revival architectural style in the nation. They advertised a design competition in publications (mostly newspapers) up and down the East Coast, as there were few architects at that time. Charleston’s famous architect, Robert Mills, came in second place to the Philadelphia architect Thomas U. Walter. Mills worked with Thomas Jefferson on Monticello and later designed the Washington Monument and the Treasury building in D.C. Walter prevailed and the building was completed in 1841.
Walter had an ongoing project in Philadelphia called Founder’s Hall at Girard College that was a massive classical building. That project included a year exploring the grand classical buildings of Europe as precedents. The Hibernian Society included some who wanted the edifice to include a hotel for income, but that fell by the wayside. Walter created a classical Ionic portico that carried the day for him in the competition. Behind that classical countenance was a tremendous three-story entrance vestibule that used the ancient precedent of the superimposed orders. That precedent can be traced back to Rome’s Coliseum. From the bottom floor to the circular oculus he placed the Doric order first and then the Ionic and then the Corinthian orders that make for a soaring and grandly impressive building. The “competition” in terms of the Charleston penchant for grand and showy membership organization structures included the St. Andrew’s Society and the South Carolina Society buildings. In that mileu, Hibernian was at least an equal.
Walter went on to design new wings for the U.S. Capitol and during the Civil War he designed the dome of that iconic capitol, and he later oversaw the construction of the extraordinary City Hall in the center square of Philadelphia. Walter was a leader in the professionalization of the field of architecture. Among his contributions to that cause was his key role in creating the American Institute of Architecture which is still a mainstay for the architectural profession.
The immense earthquake centered in Charleston in 1886 caused extensive damage to Hibernian Hall. Much of the portico crumbled to the ground. It was rebuilt almost in kind, but it had a few changes that include an elaborate modillioned cornice and an Italianate window.
Ralph Muldrow is a professor of historic preservation at the College of Charleston.
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