The building was constructed in 1850-51 during renovations and additions that re-oriented the College’s main building towards George Street. Prior to these additions, this side of the campus had been a space for privies and a firehouse. Architect and College of Charleston trustee Edward B. White designed a new portico for the 1828 building and lowered the tall brick wall that had surrounded the campus, making the new portico visible to passersby. After the Lodge was constructed, the College janitor was asked to keep his firewood and laundry out of the main alcove and to get rid of a cow that grazed Cistern Yard. The former backyard, now enclosed by a fence rather than a wall, was further transformed by the attractive proportions of the Porter’s Lodge, with arched entryways and iron gates. White’s design resulted in a cohesive, elegant green space that framed and complemented the substantial Main Building, later renamed Randolph Hall.Today, faculty offices occupy the top floor of Porter’s Lodge, but these rooms were originally living quarters for a custodian, or “porter,” in the parlance of English universities that the College wished to emulate. Long-serving janitor John Cahill lived in the Lodge for almost 50 years, including the Civil War years when a horse-drawn fire engine was stored in the Lodge. Cahill was later commended by the College for remaining at his post during the bombardment of Charleston.
In the 20th century, the Lodge ceased to house a janitor, but was periodically used as a space for student clubs and a dormitory. The Lodge was sometimes referred to as “the guard house,” but the janitor was often called upon to guard the College from the hijinks and vandalism of its students, rather than intruders, according to janitor Robert Matthews. During a brief period in 1918 when the College doubled as a barracks while students trained for the military, Matthews also served in uniform as an orderly. Interviewed for the 1930 yearbook, he stated that the horseplay of male students became more restrained once women began attending the College.
In earlier decades, Porter’s Lodge offered a visual statement of welcome to those who belonged, while also declaring that this enclosed, tranquil park was set apart for College use. In Lemon Swamp and Other Places (1983), a memoir of growing up in a middle-class African American family, Mamie Garvin Fields recalls walking past George Street as a young girl in the early 1900s. She and her sister peered through the gate at the campus, which was “full of pretty flowers,” but they were interrupted by a white boy shouting, “Scat! N_____, what you doin’ ya?” The frightened girls ran across the street, where a kindly woman selling candy comforted them, explaining,“Chillun, dat ain’t for we.” This painful memory reflects the College’s past as an exclusionary, white-only institution, but Fields recalls another prophetic remark by the candy-seller, who told the girls, “Someday you chillun will go right ya to get schoolin, just like dat po’ buckrah who talked to you so mean.” The College, which desegregated in 1967, now strives to be inclusive rather than exclusive, welcoming all into a space once reserved for sons of Charleston’s white elite. Mamie Garvin Fields, who became an influential educator and community leader, was welcomed into the College posthumously: the papers of Mamie Garvin Fields are housed in the College’s Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture.
Although the campus now extends well beyond the Cistern Yard, Porter’s Lodge remains the symbolic threshold into and out of the College. Its gates usually remain open except during special events. The College’s spring commencement concludes with graduates processing out onto George Street through the Porter’s Lodge, passing under a triumphal arch and a Greek inscription that translates as “Know thyself.”