Spiral Stair Mystery

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Some nice folks on my tour told me about the Loretto Chapel in Sante Fe that is built in the similar cantilevered style of the famous staircase at the Nathaniel Russell House at 51 Meeting Street. The Loretto chapel was built in 1878, after Catholic nuns asked for help in building a passageway from their chapel to a choir area 22 feet above. They apparently prayed for help to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters, and had their prayer answered by an anonymous builder, who fashioned the magnificent staircase to spiral upward in elliptical shape without any supporting wall.

How interesting that the 3-story staircase at the Russell house also goes up without any support, and the carpenter is also unknown. Even more intriguing is that the Russell house also became home to nuns in 1870, when the Sisters of Charity of Our lady of Mercy moved in and turned the house into a convent school.

Southern Wharf

Charleston’s historic East Bay Street was once lined with more than two dozen large wharves, where tall-masted sailing ships once loaded large cargoes of rice and cotton. The very first wharves where made by tying together palmetto logs, floating them off the bank and sinking them in the mud at low tide, then bridging the distance with stones, tree limbs and even animal carcasses. Not surprisingly, the first such docks were called “bridges”, and in colonial-era maps, there are numerous bridges protruding out into the Cooper River.

Over time, the docks got wharf names and were built bigger and wider to accommodate warehouses and shipping offices. The picture is a rare glimpse at the famous Southern Wharf, which was busy until after the War Between the States, when commerce declined. This shot is the wharf in ruins shortly after the Cyclone of 1885, which wrecked an already-dilapidated area. Today, the old wharf is home to the Carolina Yacht Club, whose buildings include cotton brokers offices visible in the 1885 picture.east battery 9_25_1885

Old Charleston HIgh School

IMG_2801The original High School of Charleston opened in this building at 55 Society Street in 1841. Designed by famed Charleston architect Edward Brickell White, it Classic Revival structure features a portico facade of six massive Corinthian columns on a high raised basement. This was part of the city’s rebuilding program in the Ansonborough area after the fire of 1838, and included “fire loans” to citizens who rebuilt in brick, or brick and stucco such as this building. Students who attended studied Latin, Greek, English Composition, Algebra, and Biology, as well as Chronology and Mammology.

The fortunes of the neighborhood suffered after the War Between the States, and the area declined into a slum. The high school was relocated to  George Street in 1881, and the old building fell into disrepair, and was used as a VFW post in the early 20th century. Ansonborough made a comeback in the 60’s and 70’s, and in 1984, the old school was beautifully restored into condominiums.

St. Luke and St. Paul’s “New” Oldest

IMG_2805With St. Michael’s and St.Philip’s congregations returning to the Anglican fold, the historic Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul is now the oldest Episcopal Church on the Charleston peninsula. Consecrated as St. Paul’s Churchin 1816 in the area known as Radcliffeborough, the structure was designed by architects James and John Gordon in Classic Revival style. The Gordons also designed the Second Presbyterian Church on Meeting Street, and the two buildings are very similar in their details and great size. Apparently steeples  for such massive structures were a problem in the Gordons’ design, and neither church has a full spire. Nevertheless, St. Paul’s had bells in its Gothic tower, which were melted down for cannon during the War Between the States.

Historically nicknamed “Planters’ Church” St. Paul’s was situated on a small bluff overlooking a section of the western peninsula that was mostly marshes and creeks well into the 19th century, and whose pleasant breezes attracted numerous planters to build stately homes in the area.

The congregation merged with St. Luke’s in 1949, and became the Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul. !n 2001, eight new bells were installed in the tower which are now rung by hand in the method known as “change ringing” , in which ringers change the sequence of rings to change the octaves that the eight bell notes can create.

Clever Calhoun

IMG_2628Standing high above us is a fitting location at Marion Square for John C. Calhoun – a man whose genius dwarfs that of most American politicians before or since. Despite the stereotype that he was some crusty, backward yokel, Calhoun was Yale-educated and one of America’s most outstanding orators, and was twice elected Vice President of the United States, while also serving as Secretary of War and Secretary of State, as well in the U.S. Senate.

Calhoun’s grasp of the purpose of government, being formed to serve and protect its people, not rule them, was as astute as any of the founding fathers. Calhoun’s brilliant “Disquisition on Government”, written nearly 200 years ago, provides a good example of his concise, logical perspective, as well as a good lesson in what ails our government and society today. For example, he envisioned in the 1840’s, a “despotism in numbers” where tax consumers could out vote and control tax payers and impose majority will on a voiceless minority. He stressed, as Jefferson had years before, the principle of nullification and concurrent consent, which the South had voiced in response to tariffs passed by a Northern majority in Congress that

favored one region at the expense of another.

“In such case,” he wrote, “ it would require so large a portion of the community, compared with the whole, to concur, or acquiesce in the action of the government, that the number to be plundered would be too few, and the number to be aggrandized too many, to afford adequate motives to oppression and the abuse of its powers.”

We Worship Washington

IMG_2485The shadow of George Washington still looms in grand fashion over historic   Charleston. The first Washington presence in the city was actually George’s cousin William, who came to South Carolina to fight the British during the Revolution. William was crucial to the victory here, and fell in love with Charlestonian Jane Elliott, who he married and lived here happily after the war. George made his visit here in May of 1791, on his tour of Southern states after his election. Charleston adored George, but George was less impressed with Charleston’s streets, and mentioned in his diary that the thoroughfares here were “like sand”. Washington was feted at the Old Exchange, where he was seated between local ladies known for their whit and good looks, and apparently the father of our country held his own with charm and intelligence to match his military record.

Today, we have Washington Square, aka Washington Park, which the statue in the picture dominates. We also have a Washington Street near the waterfront, and the Village of Washington, a post-Revolutionary suburb near Hampton Park. One of Charleston’s most fabled organizations is the Washington Light Infantry, a military unit established in 1807, which has fought with distinction both for and against the United States, and whose towering obelisk is the central focus of Washington Square.

On President’s day here in Charleston, we tend to favor the great George, a fellow-Southerner who won our respect and our hearts, as well as helping win our liberty.

Bollards Not For Boats

IMG_2571The bollard is still a common sight in historic Charleston, found in various sizes and shapes around the old city. The bollard is an old ship-tethering component, and thus has created some far-fetched stories about boats being tied up to bollards on Water and Church streets, such as these pictured in front of the George Eveleigh house. The term bollard comes from the Old English word for tree, “bole”, and is a device that was much more commonly used as a barrier against wagon and carts. Heavy drays and wagons could easily damage walls and houses if they bumped their axles against other surfaces, and people would use just about anything that could create an effective barrier. Old cannon barrels were often used as bollards, and one still exists on Tradd Street, and for many years, the West end of Longitude Lane was blocked by a cannon-barrel bollard, since replaced by the masonry one there today.

Although the Eveleigh house was built when Water Street was still a creek, these bollards certainly don’t date to the 18th century, and were most likely added when Church Street was continued in the early 19th century, creating a bend in front of the house where wagons could easily stray into the property if not for the barrier. The real mystery of the four bollards on the spot is not so much their purpose, but why they all lean slightly to the West. My guess is that the soil beneath them settled or was shifted by the 1886 earthquake, causing the noticeable lean that gives them such character today.

The Real Stag Story

IMG_2566The Stag Window at 73 Rutledge has been the subject of many stories over the years in fabled Charleston, and an image that has so long been attributed to a local family name, actually has its origins in Hartford, Connecticut.

The house stands at the corner of Rutledge and Wentworth streets, and for years was the unfortunate target of wayward drivers speeding too fast down the formerly one-way thoroughfare. Now that the lanes have been made two-way, the old house is safe from cars, but not from misinformation.

Remodeled in the 1890’s by Charleston businessman Isaac W. Hirsch, the house has Victorian features, such as its stained glass windows. Because the German name Hirsch means “stag”, it has been logical to assume that Mr. Hirsch installed the window, but, after doing some interesting research, I find that he didn’t.

The house had been built in the 1850’s by another Charleston businessman, William Whilden, who was an insurance broker who represented The Hartford Insurance Company. In 1875, The Hartford established as its symbol a 10-point buck taken from a painting called “The Monarch of the Glen”, modifying it in 1890. A quick comparison of the latter version and the 73 Rutledge window are a perfect match.

So the truth is, Mr. Whilden, who didn’t sell the house until 1893. put the window in as a symbol of the company he represented here in Charleston.

Cannonball Showcase

IMG_2472It’s not unusual to see cannonballs and other ordnance decorating Charleston locations, because there is certainly more where that came from. The city has twice been subjected to bombardment from besieging troops – in 1780 by the British, and from 1863-65 by Federal troops. Contrary to the popular conception that these balls, shot and shells were fired into the city by ships, by far the largest amount came from land-based guns. Ship cannons in historic times rarely had the ability to be angled high enough to fired great distances, whereas land guns could easily be set at a trajectory that allowed great range. The British did fire into the city from ships that came very close to the peninsula, but they also used guns placed at land approaches to a city they had surrounded by 1780. Some of the British guns were placed West of the Ashley River, about were the neighborhood of Moreland is today, and launched both explosive balls and solid shot at patriot fortifications. Just last year, a 22-pound solid ball was unearthed on Savage Street, which would have been the western line of American defenses during the Revolution.

More common and plentiful were the bullet-shaped explosive shells of the Federal guns mounted on and around Morris Island. These huge rifled cannons could fire 200-pound projectiles in excess of 3 miles, and also included rounds mixed with pitch and tar to ignite fires. One single gun near Cummings Point fired 4606 shells into Charleston in the Fall of 1863 before its muzzle exploded, and estimated are as high as 22,000 rounds fired by Northern troops at Charleston. Some folks have dug these up, and the proper procedure is to call in the Air Force Base Bomb Squad, as the black powder inside still may be dangerous. However, as much as Charlesonians like their artifacts, many are willing to disarm the shells themselves, and a certain prominent attorney who lives on Tradd Street still displays a 200-pound Parrott shell in his hallway that was dug up by a contractor, who simply sat the shell in a garbage can full of water for several days to assure it was defused.

Enlightening Latin

IMG_2483The official seal of the city of Charleston is very interesting and often misinterpreted. The seal shows the Greek goddess Athena standing symbolically as the protector of Charleston, depicted behind her. Athena was recognized as the goddess of the city or town in the ancient Greek world, and much of Charleston’s symbolism in architecture and sayings comes from ancient Rome and Greece. Above her is the city motto, “Aedes Mores Juraque Curat”, meaning “She guards her buildings, customs and laws”, referring to Athena symbolically representing the city in protecting its own. Beneath her, the term “Carolopolis” is a combination of Latin and Greek, “Carolus” is Latin for Charles, for whom the city was named, and “polis” is town in Greek, the combined meaning “Charleston”.

“Condita AD 1670” refers to the founding of the city, as  “Condita Anno Domini” is “established in the year of our Lord” in Latin.

Below that is the term “Civitatis Regimine Donata AD 1783”, meaning in Latin “Given to the city government in 1783”, referring to the official incorporation of the city after the Revolution.

Finally, at bottom and surrounding the seal are books, scroll, quill, lamp, and palmetto leaves, representing the wisdom and legality of the city government, as well as its openess to other as shown by the palms, which were a symbol of welcome in the ancient world.

This seal is in the main hall of City Hall, carved in the stone floor.