Tennessee Williams, JFK and a Suspected Nazi Spy: The History Behind Charleston’s Fort Sumter House | Kanebridge News
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Tennessee Williams, JFK and a Suspected Nazi Spy: The History Behind Charleston’s Fort Sumter House

By BETH DECARBO
Tue, Jan 17, 2023 9:09amGrey Clock 5 min

Even at 100 years old, Fort Sumter House is a relative newcomer to Charleston, S.C., where many of the homes date to the 1700s. Nonetheless, this former luxury hotel—now a condominium—touts a rich history.

In the 1940s, visitors to the hotel included playwright Tennessee Williams and a young John F. Kennedy, who used it for a tryst with the Danish journalist Inga Arvad.

Sen. John F. Kennedy in 1953, called the Senate’s “most eligible Bachelor”,

But the building is also iconic for its appearance, according to Erin Minnigan of the Preservation Society of Charleston. A rare example of Spanish colonial-revival architecture, Fort Sumter House is the only high-rise building in the South of Broad neighborhood, and will remain so because of height restrictions in the city’s historic districts, she says.

The Fort Sumter House homeowners association recently completed an extensive restoration of the exterior facade, including the stucco and ironwork, working with the preservation society to ensure the building’s historic look remained intact.

“It has become well loved by the citizens of Charleston,” Ms. Minnigan says.

Construction on the Fort Sumter Hotel began in 1923, with the first guests checking in the following year, according to a history maintained by the homeowners association. A centennial celebration is in the works, residents say.

The unusual design of the Fort Sumter Hotel riled some of the locals when construction on the building began, according to some accounts that Ms. Minnigan has read. “At the time preservationists really felt that it was inappropriate—the scale and its modern design. I can certainly see that being the case,” she says. “But that was 100 years ago, and buildings gain significance over time.”

Kennedy, at the time a young Navy officer, stayed at the hotel in 1942 with the charming and beautiful Arvad, says Scott Farris, a presidential scholar and author of “Inga: Kennedy’s Great Love, Hitler’s Perfect Beauty, and J. Edgar Hoover’s Prime Suspect.” The FBI under Hoover also suspected that Arvad was a Nazi spy, Mr. Farris says, and the agency bugged their hotel room.

The Fort Sumter Hotel “was a beautiful place and perfect for a weekend tryst,” says Mr. Farris, who studied former Hoover’s voluminous trove of papers after they were declassified. Arvad’s FBI file is well over 1,000 pages, Mr. Farris says, and eventually the agency decided that she probably wasn’t a spy. “They realized that there was no there there,” he says.

For residents interested in the topic, “JFK and Inga Binga,” a farcical retelling of the Kennedy affair, takes the stage in February at Charleston’s Dock Street Theatre.

In 1947, playwright Tennessee Williams and his literary agent met with theater producer Irene Selznick at the Fort Sumter Hotel to discuss Williams’ latest play, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” according to theater critic and author John Lahr, author of “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh.”

Sheraton Hotels purchased the building in 1967 for $435,000 and spent another $500,000 on renovations, according to the homeowners association. In 1973, real-estate investors purchased the hotel and started a $2 million project to convert its 225 rooms into 67 condo units, according to the HOA. Since then, a number of the units have been combined.

Today, what makes this building noteworthy, homeowners say, are its sweeping water views and proximity to the boutique shops and restaurants on the southern end of the city’s peninsula. White Point Garden, a public park, is just steps away from the main entrance of Fort Sumter House.

“We’re in the prime location,” says Katherine Wilkinson, who in 2020 paid $425,000 for a one-bedroom, one-bath condo in Fort Sumter House with her husband, Mark Wilkinson.

“The battery is just outside, and the historic, iconic mansions are breathtaking,” says Ms. Wilkinson, 61, who works in an interior-design showroom. “We pinch ourselves every day. It’s just magic.”

Since 2020, at least 12 units have sold at Fort Sumter House, according to public records. Sale prices range from $387,000 for a roughly 585-square-foot unit to $1.225 million for a two-bedroom, two-bath unit measuring about 1,500 square feet.

In 2021, Josh Nass paid $770,000 for a roughly 1,200-square-foot unit at Fort Sumter House that dwarfed his studio apartment in Manhattan. During the pandemic, “I realized that I didn’t have to be in New York City to work—I could be anywhere,” says Mr. Nass, a 31-year-old crisis-communications specialist.

A friend from Charleston encouraged Mr. Nass to consider the Holy City. After renting briefly, Mr. Nass contacted Douglas Berlinsky at the firm Disher, Hamrick & Myers Real Estate, describing himself as a fervent foodie who loved European architecture and cobblestone streets. Mr. Berlinsky showed him Fort Sumter House because of its historic feel. “Its presence from the street is of an elegant residence,” Mr. Berlinsky says. “It also has amenities that many complexes in the city do not—a pool, a fitness room and [designated] parking.”

Currently, only one apartment at Fort Sumter House is listed for sale: a two-bedroom, two-bath unit on the fourth floor asking $1.19 million. Lee Williams of Oyster Point Realty Group has the listing. At nearly 1,200 square feet, the apartment is one of the more spacious units in the building.

Overall, the inventory of condos in downtown Charleston remains tight, according to an analysis by real-estate website Zillow. In November, 45 condos were on the market, a decrease of 41.6% from the same month in 2021. The median list price for downtown condos on Nov. 30 was $975,000, up 34.5% from a year earlier, Zillow found.

Under Construction in Charleston

Several condo projects are in the works in Charleston. A former Masonic Lodge on Wentworth Street is undergoing a condo conversion, and all 11 units have been presold, according to the developer, East West Partners.

New developments currently under construction include City House Charleston, located in the French Quarter. Carriage Properties is handling presales of 21 condos there, including a three-bedroom, three-bath unit asking $4.2 million. Handsome Properties is marketing four luxury townhomes being built at 122 Beaufain Street in the Harleston Village neighborhood. Currently on the market are two three-bedroom, three-bath units measuring roughly 3,000 square feet and asking $2.55 million each.

New buildings must complement the character of the neighborhood, says Ms. Minnigan of the Preservation Society of Charleston. “The design must blend in with its surroundings,” she says. “At the same time, we don’t want to give a false sense of it being a historic building.”

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Property values have fallen hard and fast in this popular city, but it’s done little to dent pandemic rises

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Highest property values, biggest dip the next. That’s the outcome for Australia’s northernmost capital on the east coast, with Brisbane property values recording their largest and fastest decline, data from Corelogic reveals.

The fall comes just seven months after values hit their peak after a population surge driven by the pandemic saw an increase of 43 percent. Home values hit a record high on June 19, 2022 but have since declined 10.9 percent, in parallel with eight consecutive interest rate rises since April last year.

Historically, peak-to-trough declines in Brisbane have lasted 14 months and have ranged from value drops of -2.9 percent to -10.8 percent. While the new record is just -0.1 percent compared with previous figures, that fall came over 21 months between April 2010 and January 2012. The latest decline was a much swifter seven month drop.

CoreLogic head of research Eliza Owen said it is worth putting the Brisbane figures into context with the rest of Australia’s capital cities, as well as considering the significant rise in property values in the Queensland capital over the pandemic.

“Brisbane now stands out as one of two capital city markets with record declines, the other being Hobart,” Ms Owen said. “Sydney continues to have the largest peak-to-trough falls of the capital city markets (currently at -13.8 percent), while peak-to-tough falls remain mild in some cities (such as Perth, where values are down just -1.0 percent from a recent peak in August 2022).” 

“The record fall in Brisbane home values has not made much of a dent in the gains made during the upswing. The fall in the Brisbane daily HVI follows an upswing of 43.5 percent between August 2020 and 19 June 2022, which was the fastest trajectory of rising values on record. This leaves home values across Brisbane 27.9 percent higher than at the previous trough in August 2020.” 

The median dwelling value in Brisbane jumped from $506,553 at the start of the pandemic in March 2020 to $707,658 by the end of last year, Ms Owen said.

“Despite the large decline from peak, Brisbane maintains the third highest gain in value of the capital cities since the start of the pandemic,” she said. 

“Only Adelaide and Darwin, which are 42.8 percent and 29.6 percent higher respectively than at the onset of the pandemic, have performed stronger. 

“For this reason, there is marginal risk of negative equity for Brisbane homeowners, with the exception of very recent buyers, who purchased around the peak in June 2022 with less than a 20 percent deposit.” 

However, there are signs of resilience in the market. Brisbane remains a more affordable option compared with the other east coast capitals, Ms Owen said.

Although housing values remain higher than pre-COVID levels, Brisbane retains a lower price point than Sydney, with a $435,170 difference in median house values and $280,749 difference in median unit values,” she said. 

“The gap between Brisbane and Melbourne housing values is also significant, with a $119,697 gap between median house values and $97,692 difference in median unit values.

“This could encourage ongoing housing demand from those willing to migrate to the state, or own an interstate investment.” 

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