Shaded by giant live oaks and enclosed by iron fencing, this large Cistern Yard is bordered by Randolph Hall to the north, Porter’s Lodge and George Street to the south, Towell Library and College Way to the west and St. Philip Street to the east. The land occupied by Cistern Yard is part of a 10-acre parcel that was the site of a military barracks prior to the American Revolution. The land was transferred to the College’s trustees by the South Carolina General Assembly in 1785.
Cistern Yard takes its name from a cistern that was installed in 1857 to provide drinking water and to control flooding in the basement of Randolph Hall (formerly Main Building). The need for a cistern to be constructed in front of Randolph Hall was expressed to Charleston City Council in August 1856 by Mayor William Porcher Miles, who had previously served as a professor at the College: “It is a pity that the immense quantity of rain water which descends upon this very extensive roof should all be lost. It would be sufficient to supply the whole neighborhood; moreover, the floods shed from the roof during a hard rain, flow into the basement rooms, which are below the surface of the ground, and inundate them. The College Laboratory and Chemical Lecture room, which is in one of these rooms, has sometimes had five or six inches of water on the floor… Good Cistern water is as free from impurities, as wholesome, and as palatable as any which is usually found in cities, and no public building should ever be erected without one.”
The cistern, which could hold up to 40,000 gallons of water, consisted of four interconnected underground chambers made of brick and a brick-lined well, all contained within a stucco-over brick ellipse. The cistern and the well are now covered by dirt and grass, and today it supplies water for the irrigation of Cistern Yard. The pump for the original cistern was first located under the portico of Randolph Hall, but was moved sometime before 1870 to a spot along the yard’s St. Philip Street gate because frequent public use of the pump had been disrupting instruction in the main building. Years later, after the cistern was no longer needed to supply water, the pump was replaced by a faucet connected to the city’s water system. The faucet, still retaining the look of a pump, was referred to as the “Freshman Pump” and was used to douse new students as part of their initiation into the College.
But the yard has not always served as the symbolic front door to campus, as it does today. Prior to an 1850 renovation of Randolph Hall, which reoriented the building’s front façade from the north to the south, the yard served as a work space behind the main building. A cow, chickens and goats once roamed the yard, the animals belonging to a College janitor who lived in Porter’s Lodge. A city firehouse stood inside that yard at the corner of George and St. Philip streets, and privies also occupied the yard prior to the renovation.
During the 1910s and 20s, freshman boys were made to jump into a large pool of mud in the yard as an initiation ritual, and girl students hanging around the Cistern to meet boys were said to be “cisternating.” Brick steps were added to the north and south sides of the cistern around 1960. In the 21st century, however, some students believe that walking across the Cistern before finishing their education will jinx their chances of graduating.
Spring Commencement, which takes place in Cistern Yard annually on Mother’s Day weekend, is one of the College’s most well-known and well-loved traditions. Since 1933, the Cistern has served as a stage for these graduation ceremonies. To support larger graduating classes, a stage is now constructed over the Cistern, and graduates wearing traditional white dresses and white dinner jackets process from Randolph Hall to take their seats on this stage facing the audience in Cistern Yard. At the end of the ceremony, they process out of Porter’s Lodge, finishing a journey started at convocation when incoming students assemble in Cistern Yard for their formal welcome to the College.
Cistern Yard also takes center stage in another annual tradition – the City of Charleston’s Spoleto Festival USA. In fact, opening ceremonies for the inaugural Spoleto Festival were held there on May 25, 1977. While serving as both president of the College and chair of the festival’s steering committee in the late 1970s, Ted Stern leveraged the school’s resources to help launch the festival, and, for a time, managed Spoleto out of the President’s Office in Randolph Hall.
As part of the College’s expansion in the 1970s, a landscaping plan was adopted for the area surrounding Randolph Hall, including the closure of College and Green streets to vehicle traffic and the burying of utility lines. Cistern Yard retained its traditional appearance, complete with its mature oak trees, but some of the trees were lost to winds from Hurricane Hugo in September 1989.
For generations of students, Cistern Yard has served as a place for socializing, studying, campus and community events, protests and celebrations. It has welcomed many high-profile guests. On Jan. 11, 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama, running in the Democratic presidential primary, made a campaign stop at the College with then-U.S. Sen. John Kerry. From a lectern atop the cistern, Kerry endorsed and introduced the man who became the nation’s first African American president.
In summer 2016, one of Cistern Yard’s beloved oaks succumbed to disease and unexpectedly came crashing to the ground, taking out a portion of iron fencing and blocking traffic along George Street. In 2017, three new live oaks from Adams Run, South Carolina, were planted in the area where the fallen oak had stood.