Lost Light

One of the most intriguing stories in historic #Charleston is that of the Morris Island Lighthouse, built in 1876. The 161-foot lighthouse was decommissioned in 1962, but has stood, remarkably, against tides and winds ever since. As land eroded around the lighthouse, it became surrounded by water at high tide, and fears that it might collapse led to a “save the light” movement that has bolstered its base. The great irony here is that there is no light to save. The Morris Island light had been equipped with a Fresnel Lens, invented by French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel in the early 1800’s. The unique feature of the lens is that it uses vast layers of glass crystals in a myriad of layers to both reflect and refract light, a principle known as catadiotropic, and could capture more light from a light source in order to project it farther, in this case about 20 miles. The lens installed at Morris Island stands nearly 8 feet high and weighs well over a ton, but it doesn’t stand on Morris Island. Years after the lighthouse was decommissioned in 1962, and erosion seems to make its collapse imminent, the big lens was extracted and moved to the 1875 Hunting Island Lighthouse near Beaufort, which is the only lighthouse open to the public in South Carolina today. Fortunately, visitors don’t have to scale it’s 167 steps to see the sense, which stands just inside the ground floor entrance. <img.src=”Charleston Curiosities” alt=”Morris Island Lighthouse”

Roman Relic

The striking architecture of Market Hall is one of the best-known and least-understood in historic #Charleston. The building was opened in 1841, and designed by the prolific Charleston-born architect and engineer, Edward Brickell White. The 1840’s in America was a time of when architecture was greatly influenced by ancient Greek and Roman concepts, and Market Hall is strictly Roman in nature. Its dramatic portico is the four-columned “tetra” style favored by Romans, the columns are plain Tuscan, and the area behind the columns, the proneos, is the exact width of the cella, or building facade, also in keeping with ancient Rome. The ornate frieze below the roof eaves is the most misunderstood and incorrectly-explained part of the building. Tourists are repeatedly told that the images of ram and ox heads were there to show slaves that the building was a meat market. Well in fact, the slaves, free blacks and everyone else knew very well where the meat market was, in the sheds behind the big building, where fish and vegetables were also sold. No, the frieze images are examples of bucrania, which is Latin for ox skull. Such images were commonly found on ancient Roman temples, where oxen and other animals were sacrificed to the gods. Market Hall is in effect, a replica of an ancient Roman temple, whose style has long been misrepresented and misunderstood. <img.src=”Charleston Architecture” alt=”Market Hall”

Easement Edification


One very common plaque we see on private hones as we tour historic #Charleston is that of the conservation easement. An easement is a legal instrument that protects certain aspects of the property from being altered. An easement is purely voluntary, created by the property owner, but stays in effect for perpetuity, attached to the deed, regardless of who buys or sells the property. Although the property remains privately-owned, the easement invests power either to a land trust, conservation entity, or local government to constrain all present and future owners to conform to certain conservation purposes expressed in the easement.

 One common purpose for houses in old Charleston is to protect interior details, such as historic mantels, staircases and molding, from being gutted, painted over or removed. In fact, the easement is the only way any interior details can be protected in historic Charleston, as the city authority over building alterations on covers the exterior through the power of the Board of Architectural  Review. 

 <img.src=”Charleston Architecture” alt=”Conservation Easements”

Sumter Sentiment

During my walking tours of #Charleston, our group strolls along the High Battery promenade overlooking Charleston harbor, where I point out Fort Sumter and its role in the Civil War. Most guests are surprised at how little there is to see of the fort from this perspective, as it only looks like a small, flat silhouette above the water 3 miles away. When it was the focus of opposing political and military forces in the 1860’s, it was originally much bigger. The fort was built to have three tiers of cannon firing at a variety of angles to protect the entrance to Charleston Harbor. There are numerous old images from the Civil War era like the one below that show the fort as it was intended to look. What changed it was bombardment than began in earnest in 1863 from Federal naval and shore batteries, and the brick and mortar facade crumbled under the onslaught of huge 11 and 15 inch cannon and their heavy shells that weighed as much as 300 pounds. By the end of the Civil War, the Northern troops besieging the city had still never taken Fort Sumter, but they had reduced it to a pile of rubble. Some of the Fort was rebuilt after the war, and some new additions made during the Spanish-American War, but the old fort was never rebuilt to its original height, and is still seems to be a small feature from distance today.

Pulchritudinous Pulpit

On most of my walking tours of historic #Charleston, we enter St. Michael’s Anglican Church. One of the many striking features inside is the old pulpit, hand-carved from mahogany in the 1750’s. Much of the pulpit work is attributed to the famed English-born furniture maker, Thomas Elfe, who was a member of St. Michael’s congregation. On the front piece of the pulpit is what’s known as a Christograph, with the Greek symbols IHS, and abbreviation of Jesus – Iota Eta Sigma – above the Star of David surrounding a circle with a triangle inside. This is symbolic of the Bible – Old Testament and New Testament. The pulpit was damaged in February, 1865 by Federal troops bombarding the city. The Union gunners did not distinguish between military and civilian targets, which today most likely would be considered inhumane, and sent a shell through the back wall that exploded inside the church. Fragments struck the pulpit, leaving scars that can still be seen today.  <img.src=”Charleston Landmarks” alt=”St. Michael’s pulpit”

Michaux Marvel

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Winter in #Charleston is the blooming of the Camellia Japonica. This Asian species was introduced to America here in Charleston by the famed French botanist Andre Michaux, who had traveled the world to discover a wealth of plant species. Michuax was intrigued by the climate of South Carolina when he was sent to America in 1782 as an emissary of French King Louis XVI. He came to Charleston in 1785 and quickly established a large botanical garden in which he favored the colorful blooms of the Far East. He introduced the Camellia in Charleston as a gift to the Middleton family at their Ashley River plantation, and Charlestonians then and now have marveled at the luxurious beauty of the Camellia’s cold weather blooms. <img.src=”Charleston Gardens” alt=”Camellia Japonica”

Gun Guts

One of the more recent plaques erected in Charleston on East Bay Street offers the story of the famous escape by black slave Robert Smalls and his family aboard the supply ship Planter, which Smalls piloted during the Civil War, and which he turned over to the Union blockading fleet and offered his services against the Confederate defenders of the city. The bravery of Smalls is well-documented and well-deserved, but the plaque omits another side of his story in which the brave souls fought for the other side, and a side whose people and stories has largely been ignored in recent years. Smalls was given charge of the Federal ironclad Keokuk, a double-turreted ship armed with two enormous XI-inch Dahlgren cannon, which was part of the Union squadron that tried to run past the Confederate defenses on April 7, 1863. The Union ships were badly mauled by Confederate guns, and the Keokuk sank in shallow water after being hit 90 times in 60 minutes, allow Smalls and the crew escaped. But in early may, Charleston engineers Adolphus and John Lacoste led two separate night-time forays by open boat under the noses of the Federal felt to cut open the Keokuk turrets “with sledge and chisel, wrench and crowbar” and hoist the two 16,000-pound guns on to barges and mount them on Sullivan’s Island to help defend the city. Today, the only remaining of the two stands at White Point Garden. We should be careful to include all historical perspectives and that should be on the plaque as well.<img.src=”Charleston Civl War History” alt=”The Keokuk Gun”

Double Deception

Each day on my tours of historic #Charleston, our group will pass at least several grand houses featuring a double frontal staircase. This is most typical on the “double-house” construction, in which two rooms face the street on each floor. These houses were most commonly cooled in the old days by building them higher on a raised basement, and thus the steps were need to ascend to the front door which is also typically shaded by a columned portico. The story most often heard explaining the two sides of the staircase is that one side was for men and the other for women. This is pure urban legend, and if anything, it would have been customary for a gentleman to escort a lady up or down such steps. No, the idea is purely European in origin, as is most of Charleston’s architecture, and is what is known as an Imperial Staircase, meant to replicate the grand stair cases of European royalty. Please remember, Charlestonians have always had an affinity for aristocrats, and the grander the look, the more acceptable it was in history. <img.src=”Charleston Architecture” alt=”Imperial Staircase”

Gargantuan Ghost

One of the grand Victorian buildings that was known to so many who lived in and visited historic #Charleston was the 1907 Union Station on East Bay Street. This passenger railroad depot was Charleston’s primary connection to other parts of the country in the early part of the 20th century. Trolley lines led here from other parts of the city for trains destined anywhere from Columbia to New York City, and it was from here that many soldiers left for duty in both world wars. The unusual tower construction with the open-air top floor arcades was very Venetian in nature and somewhat a departure from Victorian-era norms. Expanded highways, bridges, and the burgeoning number of automobiles after World War made the old station obsolete, and shortly after it closed in 1947, most of the building was destroyed in a fire. The remnants were eventually pulled down, and there is no structure at the location at all today, just a few railroad tracks leading to the seaport terminals with railroad cars full of, ironically, automobiles. <img.src=”Charleston History” alt=”Union Station”