By Mary Gallagher / Photos by Will A. Davis__
It might be tough to put on the brakes for the old fashioned wagon above BUT how many trillions of times on that north to south and back again jaunt along I-95 have you passed by or just stopped for a bite to eat at the Florence, SC exit? Well end that bad behavior now and take a two-night break for some big surprises. The ride into this historic city hasn’t always been the prettiest but that’s changing really fast just like it’s downtown.
Philanthropy After a local hospital sale, Florence has a benefactor: The Drs. Bruce and Lee Foundation. (No pun intended.) With assets nearing $200 million and its mission is to advance the general welfare of people in Florence, SC, through economic support to qualified and non-profit organizations. The foundation has and will support a broad range of charitable endeavors including, but not limited to medical, health and human services, education, arts, religion, civic affairs and the conservation, preservation and promotion of cultural, historical and environmental resources programs. I don’t know of too many large or small cities that wouldn’t benefit from this kind of support (Like winning the lottery!) and it already is making a big impact here.
As someone who likes to run people’s lives (everyone nods yes!) here are a few suggestions on how to enjoy your time and stay out of your car for a delightful two-night visit to Florence.
It’s late afternoon you’ve driven four hours or more so it’s time to check into the historic circa-1890s, red brick Hotel Florence. High-end rooms and suites come with comfy beds, 37-inch flat-screen TVs, coffeemakers, and free WiFi in this fully renovated hotel. Located in the heart of the “new” old downtown Florence, parking is very close and complementary.
The Hotel Florence is a restoration delight with exposed brick walls and many other original characteristics. Sometimes that means squeaky floors and other quirks too. The downtown is quiet late at night and no highways nearby so you’ll rest well. Their restaurant, Victors, was not open or on very limited hours during our visit. Give them a try plus you’ll find there is no lack of restaurant options within easy walking distance of the hotel.
After a short rest, stroll out the front door to tour the immediate area. The Town Hall Restaurant with its Dispensary rooftop bar is new and upscale in the old treasured Kress building across the street. Restaurant Row continues on Dargan Street half a block away with popular Wholly Smokin’ BBQ, casual and tasty, the Library, tapas and craft cocktails, 1031 American Grille, Thai House, and The Clay Pot Coffee Shop. After dinner, walk a few feet to Dolce Vita for a wine and chocolate pairing as dessert.
Possibly you’ll hit “Florence after Five” on the final Friday of each month from April to October for a FREE concert on S. Dargan Street between Evans and Cheves Streets – right at restaurant row. The event starts at 5:30pm and the band at 6:00pm. Food and beverages are available at the event. Look for the giant white ticket flag.
Now it’s a pleasant one block or less stroll back to your hotel for a well-deserved quiet nights rest.
This morning eat a hearty breakfast at the hotel or nearby restaurant (remember no driving!) and head out for your short walk to the Florence County Museum.
Prepare to have your socks blown off!
This stunning newer contemporary building has gorgeous open and natural light galleries for creative displays of art and artifacts. Wear comfortable shoes because there is something for everyone’s interests and the building is such a pleasure you won’t want to leave.
Collection highlights in local history include Cretaceous period reptile material, an 18 foot-tall Ancient Bald Cypress trunk sub-fossil, Native American and Colonial period artifacts, Civil War artifacts from the Florence Stockade prison camp and Confederate Naval Yard at Mars Bluff.
And in the famous person category collections, a fascinating one is related to the life and career of former FBI agent and Florence County native, Melvin Purvis. Another local “sounds like a tabloid headline” are fragments of the MK-6 atomic bomb which was accidentally dropped on the Mars Bluff, South Carolina community in 1958. The Melvin Purvis story has been featured in several movies and also PBS documentaries as was the bomb drop.
The Florence County Museum is also home to the Wright Collection of Southern Art featuring over 140 works of some of the best 20th century Southern Art.
The permanent collection currently includes eight works by celebrated 20th-century African-American artist and Florence native William H. Johnson.
Tear yourself away and walk a block or two to pick up tonight’s tickets at the Francis Marion University’s Performing Arts Center, a stunning architectural sister to the museum. You will be again asking why you’ve driven by this amazing city as you see the inside and outside of this venue.
The Mainstage auditorium is the largest venue in the PAC, and can seat up to 849 patrons. The proscenium is 58 feet wide by 38 feet high. Equipped with an orchestra pit, an automatic orchestra shell, 45 line sets, and 73 feet of clearance height, the Mainstage auditorium can and has accommodated a variety of professional productions, from solo performances to 80-person orchestra ensembles. The incorporation of a fly tower and orchestra pit also allows for a full range of music, dance, and drama productions.
As you tour the building, the many other options available for a variety of events, receptions, meetings and more for any size gathering are amazing. And every space inside and out is breathtaking.
PAC has four primary residents: The FMU Department of Fine Arts using the second floor of the Academic Wings Technology Lab and practice rooms for classes and rehearsals for Music Industry degree students. PAC is the permanent home for the 60-year-old, Florence Symphony Orchestra. Although the MasterWorks Choir is currently based out of the Central United Methodist Church, it will also present concerts at the PAC. Founded in 1979, the 50-voice choir is a highly respected and critically acclaimed regional community chorus. The South Carolina Dance Theatre has studio space on 2nd Loop for rehearsals and workshops, it performs special productions at the PAC. Follow this link for the 2016-17 calendar.
Accessibility features include parking, seating and listening devices.
The performing arts center is an easy walk from the Hotel Florence and downtown restaurants.
Drs. Bruce and Lee Foundation Library,
Just beyond the Performing Arts Center is the Drs. Bruce and Lee Foundation Library, another magnificent structure recently added to this wonderful downtown area. In addition to their library facilities special programs like author Cassandra King, widow of Pat Conroy is coming to present and autograph Pat’s memoirs A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life as well as her book, Moonrise. You can check the library’s programs at www.florencelibrary.org.
Now take time for a bite of lunch as you wander a few downtown shops, and perhaps a short nap before dinner and the show. It’s your choice for dinner before the theater or after either way you won’t need your car! That’s 30 hours and you haven’t sat in your car for a second!
If you have dinner before the theater then it’s an easy walk back to stop at several establishments, like the Dispensary rooftop bar for a nightcap, another dessert! or just sit around in some of the attractive public spaces enjoying a brief outdoor break before another great nights sleep and tomorrow’s departure.
We’ll be posting a second chapter encompassing an entire list of other Florence sites and sights for your next visit and using your car. Meanwhile, contact the Florence Visitors center for assistance and what’s new downtown. The surrounding Florence area seems to be adding new attractions and getting better each day.
Address: 126 W Evans St, Florence, SC 29501
The Town Hall Restaurant and The Dispensary Roof Top Bar
111 W Cheves ST
Florence, SC 29501
Phone: (843) 676-1200 townhallflorence.com
BBQ 110 S. Dargan St.
The Clay Pot Coffee Shop
166 S. Dargan St.
Open Mic with Grover Windham
Wednesday – 7 to 9 p.m.
After Dark Jazz Cafe
178 W. Evans St.
The Francis Marion Performing Arts Center
201 S. Dargan St.
Drs. Bruce and Lee Foundation Library
Address: 509 S Dargan St, Florence, SC 29506
Phone: (843) 662-8424
The Florence County Museum
111 W. Cheves St.