No doubt one of Spoleto Festival USA’s most cherished venues, the College of Charleston Cistern Yard hosts a range of evening performances in 2023, from a disco-meets-punk spectacle to a serene night of jazz piano, progressive bluegrass to powerful folk and electronic classical-pop. And with its towering live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, it’s easily one of the most picturesque venues. So what’s the story behind this audience-favorite? Read on to learn five hidden secrets of the Cistern Yard.
1. The site dates back more than 238 years, when it was acquired by the College of Charleston.
Prior to the American Revolution, the land was the site of a military barracks. The land transferred to the College in 1785, and in 1857, a cistern—a large well—was built to control flooding in the basement of Randolph Hall and provide water to the city for drinking and fighting fires. The cistern held up to 40,000 gallons of water. Fun fact: The city installed an underground water system in 1879, but most houses built before 1890 had their own cisterns. So while the cistern in front of Randolph Hall may be the most well known, the College of Charleston has at least 10 cisterns—possibly as many as 50—across campus.
2. The arched entry way, a building named Porter’s Lodge, isn’t only ornamental.
Constructed in 1850 during renovations to Randolph Hall (which reoriented the building towards George Street), Porter’s Lodge helped transform and enclose the Cistern Yard. Rooms atop the top floor were originally designed as living quarters for the custodian (“porter”), though it has housed a dormitory and student clubs. Today the spaces are occupied by faculty offices.
3. From livestock to live events:
Prior to the 1850s’ renovations, a cow, chickens, and goats roamed the Cistern Yard—the animals belonged to a groundskeeper who resided in Porter’s Lodge. Following the renovation, the Cistern became a focal point and gathering place for the college. The first College of Charleston commencement ceremony took place at the Cistern Yard in 1933, and outdoor graduation on the grounds has since become an annual tradition, taking place every Mother’s Day weekend. Legend has it that students who walk across the Cistern Yard before graduation will not graduate.
4. Known for its age-old oaks that have kept students cool and shaded for generations, the Cistern Yard is now home to three newer trees.
In July 2016, one of the site’s towering trees collapsed across George Street. Upon further inspection, two additional live oaks and one laurel oak trees were deemed hazardous and subsequently removed. All was not lost, however: the college planted three new oak trees in 2017, and immediately after the giant oak fell, enterprising alumni jumped into action, securing some of the wood and repurposing pieces into beautiful keepsake items—cufflinks, earrings, oyster knives, and pendants still for sale today.
5. Spoleto Festival USA literally kicked off in the Cistern Yard.
The first-ever opening ceremonies of Spoleto took place in the Cistern Yard. The venue has served as backdrop to various concerts and dance or theater performances nearly every year since. Some notable performances include jazz icon Ella Fitzgerald in 1978, the dance companies of Lar Lubovitch and Trisha Brown, and playwright and director Lee Breur’s The Warrior Ant, as well as such disparate artists as Rosanne Cash, Chick Corea, Bill Frissell, Kurt Elling, Trombone Shorty, JD McPherson, Jason Moran, Old Crow Medicine Show, Terence Blanchard, Jon Batiste, and Ricky Skaggs.
Ready to attend an alfresco concert under the oaks? Use promo code MAGIC15 to receive 15% off when you purchase tickets to two or more magical Cistern Yard performances.