When it opened its doors 96 years ago, the Francis Marion Hotel was a sign that Charleston had made it. It was the city’s first modern high-end hotel, a solution to the peninsula’s lack of guest rooms and a stimulus for tourism.
For hotelier Stephen Dopp, there’s a story around every corner of the 12-floor lodging: the front desk where the late governor and U.S. Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings once worked as a night clerk, an upper floor that was the headquarters of the city’s first radio station, and event venues that have hosted everything from debutante balls to corporate conventions.
Over its nearly century-long life in Charleston, the hotel has changed hands multiple times, closed indefinitely once and been restored in a multiyear and multimillion dollar project.
Longtime owner Dopp was honored with a lifetime achievement award from the Historic Hotels of America, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation that recognizes historic lodgings around the country.
The National Trust is the same organization that put Charleston on “watch status” in 2011 due to concerns about Carnival cruise ships docking in the city’s harbor. Dopp himself has also shared his concerns about the cruise ships, their scale and their soot.
The Historic Hotels accolade came as somewhat of a surprise, Dopp said. Though the Francis Marion was nominated for the best historic hotel of the year, and Dopp was up for recognition as a “steward of history and historic preservation,” he hadn’t known about the lifetime achievement nod until it was announced at an awards gala.
Dopp started his career as an attorney but has since devoted several decades to the hotel industry. He’s owned four historic lodgings, three of which he still retains.
Along with the Francis Marion, Dopp owns the oldest hotel still operating in downtown Greenville, the Westin Poinsett, and a historic lodging in Vermont, the Middlebury Inn.
- By Emily Williams email@example.com
Now nearing the century mark, a building like the Francis Marion requires particular care.
“She needs constant attention,” Dopp said on a recent walk through the hotel.
The lodging has 234 guest rooms and close to 20,000 square feet of meeting space. Conferences, meetings and events are the Francis Marion’s “bread and butter,” Dopp said. It’s one of just three existing lodgings on the peninsula that qualifies as a “full service” hotel under the city of Charleston’s definition.
The Francis Marion towers above most new developments. Not accounting for church steeples, the 12-story building remains one of the tallest on the peninsula.
This front page from the Charleston Evening Post on March 19, 1924 announced Charleston’s entrance into the luxury hotel market.
When it opened to guests in 1924, the Francis Marion was the tallest building in the eastern part of South Carolina. It took about $1.5 million to build, according to reports about its opening.
“When the magnificent Francis Marion Hotel partially opened for room guests the early part of February, all Charleston was deeply pleased, for it was just such a hotel as the progressive citizen had anticipated for many years…” read a front-page article in the Charleston Evening Post.
A second grand opening happened almost 60 years later in 1983, when the hotel became part of the Ramada hotel chain. By that time, the property had “declined in ambiance,” but a new owner was putting in the capital to “bring the hotel up from the basement to the penthouse,” a Ramada Inns spokesperson had said.
About six years later, mortgage payments were being missed. Prudential Insurance Co. took ownership of the hotel and closed it until further notice.