I tell visitors to Charleston who join my walking tours that many of the historic buildings they see in their travels around the city once had much different uses, and many for which they were not intended originally. Along scenic Ashley Avenue is a pre-Civil War chapel. The building was actually built in the 1820’s as a munitions storage shed for the United States Arsenal, which was located on this spot. After the Civil War, local clergyman Anthony Toomer Porter convinced Federal authorities to give him the property for use as a school for young men, which became Porter Military Academy. Porter changed the shed into St. Luke’s Chapel, which in recent times has been renamed St. Timothy’s Chapel, but no sign of ammunition inside these days.
One of the grandest of the many picturesque houses in scenic, historic Charleston is the South Battery structure known as the Villa Margherita. It was built in the 1890’s by Charleston banker Andrew Simonds, who made a fortune after the Civil War in finance and the timber industry. The Victorian-style Villa was a wedding present for Andrew’s bride, who lived through several husbands so that by the time she died, she had acquired an incredible name – Margaret Rose Anthony Julia Josephine Catherine Cornelia Breaux Simonds Gummere Calhoun. She was known as “Daisy”, and after Andrew died, she turned the house into a hotel called the Villa Margherita, the latter name meaning “Daisy” in Italian. The house today is a private residence.
Among the charming qualities that make Charleston such a desirable destination for those touring from all over the world, is the remarkable history of the city. Whether it’s Civil War, architectural or social history, there are considerable reminders in the form of buildings, forts, and museums. Sadly, some of the history has been lost with time and changes, and one of the common sights hundreds of years ago that has disappeared is that of the towering wind mills that dotted the landscape. The prevailing coastal sea breezes became an energy source 300 years ago when Dutch engineers built the first wind mill in Charleston to power a matrix of saws to cut lumber. The same technology was eventually used to winnow and polish rice, and by the late 1700’s, there were windmills up and down the coast. The coming of steam power in the 1820’s spelled the end for the windmills, all of which have disappeared and are today only found in paintings and property records.
Historic Charleston is always awash with vibrant colors, typically from the assortment of lush plants and trees that have made the city’s scenic gardens such a pleasure for those who tour and visit each year. But also this time of year, we begin to have several months of butterfly migrations, and colorful, fluttering wings add a special grace all their own. Butterflies are known scientifically as lepidoptera, a word derived from the Greek lepid, meaning “scales” and ptera, meaning “wings”. Butterflies like the Gulf Fritillary pictured have wings filled with slender scales that absorb sunlight. Not only does the sunlight provide the butterfly with energy, but the scales refract the light into brilliant colors that attract other butterflies for mating, and warn predators that the wings may be poisonous.
When people come to Charleston on vacations in the Summer, they often are looking for a wide variety of attractions and interests as they wander our scenic city. One of the most intriguing visits in historic Charleston is a trip to one of the fabled burial grounds. There are a number of graveyards that are open to the public, such as the Circular Congregational Church burial ground, which features some of the oldest gravestones in the city. Many of these were carved in slate, which is extremely durable, so that many of the inscriptions and markings that are hundreds of years old are still plainly visible. There are a few of the old slates that were shipped from Boston, where inscriptions were made by the famed stone carver William Codner, whose signature can still be found clearly visible.
One of the places that visitors to Charleston enjoy the most, and a site that I take tourists by on my walking tours, is scenic and historic Washington Square. The centerpiece of the park is the obelisk dedicated to the Washington Light Infantry, a military unit created in Charleston after the Revolutionary War. People often remark that it reminds them of the Washington Monument, which is quite an irony, considering that near the obelisk at the northwest border of Washington Square is the 1820’s Fireproof Building. That building and the Washington Monument itself were both designed by Charleston architect Robert Mills. Both the designs are amazingly unique and somewhat similar in their massive construction, the Washington monument made with 80,000 tons of stone and the Fireproof Building made with 850,000 bricks.
Visitors to our scenic city can enjoy blooming plants and trees throughout the year. Our warm, moist sub-tropical climate is ideal for many colorful and exotic species, many of which were brought here over the years from other parts of the world. One in bloodm now is the Lagerstroemia Indica, a bright-blooming Asian tree introduced to America by French botanist Andre Michaux, who moved to Charleston in 1796. Michael had traveled the world in search of picturesque plants and places where they would flourish. The tree became known as “Crepe Myrtle” because of its delicate Summer flowers that resemble crepe paper. But the tree is not a myrtle, which are part of the plant family Myricaceae, and is from a family of plants called Lythraceae, which includes the Pomegranate. The tree typically stays in bloom well into the Fall, making it one of the most attractive as an accent to Charleston’s gardens.
– Tourists visiting historic #Charleston enjoy sightseeing and visiting scenic places as well as hearing stories of unusual events. The building pictured was built as Chareston’s first bank in the 1790’s. Before then, wealth was stored in homes, and credit was issued through private brokers. The new building instantly attracted the attention of robbers, and in 1802, a man named Withers began to tunnel from a drain across the street to get to the vaults in the bank basement. Apparently he was able to work for weeks without being detected, and dug a small tunnel all the way under the street. Eventually, the build up of moved clay and sand became noticeable, and Withers was arrested. He became known as the “ground mole” of Charleston. There are so many stories like these that I enjoy telling to guests taking my walking tours.
I often tell guests on my walking tours of Charleston that there is quite a bit of history in the symbols displayed in some of our historic buildings. Our state and city seals are overloaded with Latin and Greek terms and symbols that were so popular in the late 1700’s when they were created. The state seal has the motto “Dum Spiro Spero”, meaning “while I breathe, I hope” and “Animis Opibusque Parati”, “prepared in mind and resources”. The original version featured the Roman goddess of Hope, Spes, holding a scepter of authority topped by the Phrygian cap symbolizing the French revolution and fight for liberty, while holding a laurel wreath symbolic of triumph. Beside her is a Revolutionary soldier, and above them Epheme, Greek goddess of proclamation. A later version has Spes holding a flower, symbolic of the birth of a nation, with a new dawn rising. Instead of the soldier, there is the palmetto tree standing on oak logs, symbolic of the victory on Sullivan’s Island over the British fleet when palmetto logs proved to be the difference, and the dates March 26th, the day we declared independence from England, and July 4th, the birth of our nation. The Latin “Quis Separabit” means “who separates” and “Meliorem Lapsa Locavit” means “better let free”. The state seal we have today incorporates both versions. The Charleston seal, according to the city website, features “a female figure” overlooking the town, to which I say, come on city, grab a mitt and get in the game! If mythical figures were used in the state seal, certainly the same would apply to the city. I strongly believe the woman is Athena, Greek goddess and protector of wisdom, culture, architecture, civilization, and law, and who is depicted historically holding an authoritative scepter as she does in the seal, with the Latin “Aedes Mores Juraque Curat”, meaning “she guards buildings, customs and laws”. The first city seal showed “Corpus Politicum”, meaning “body politic”, and there were several versions of the city seal over the years, evolving in what we have today with the Latin term “Civitatis Regimine Donata”, meaning “given to the rule of the citizens”, and “Carolopolis”, a combination of the Latin “Carolus”, meaning Charles and the Greek “Polis”, meaning town, above Condita A.D. 1670, which is “established year of our Lord 1670”, as well as the symbols of the lamp, books, quill and parchment, indicating culture and civilization, as well as the palm fronds, and ancient symbol of triumph, peace, and eternal life. Great irony, considering all the symbols of freedom, is that when we declared independence from England and were initially a sovereign state, all power was briefly given to John Rutledge, who was nicknamed “dictator” of South Carolina.
FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS – One of the aspects that Charlestonians often take for granted, but is greatly appreciated by tourists who visit, is the sound of bells. A number of churches in the Charleston area have bells in their towers and steeples, but in only four – St. Michael’s, Grace, Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul, and Stella Maris – are the bells rung by hand. It’s an old English custom called Change Ringing, meaning that the sequence of bell musical notes are changed by variations in order, and with eight bells such as St. Michael’s, there can be up to 5,000 differing scales. Bells are made of brass, sometimes mixed with copper and iron, and are cast in foundries from the top down on molds. Larger “tenor” bells can weigh tons, as does the biggest at St. Michael’s at 1900 pounds(which, in bell tradition has a saintly name “St. Michael”), while smaller “treble” bells still weigh in a hundreds of pounds. They are tuned to specific notes by saving metal inside the flanged rim, or “sound bow”, and the eight in St. Michael’s offer an octave ranging from A-flat to G-7. The massive bells are hoisted into place by experts such as England’s Whitechapel Foundry, and hung on rockers that can be swung nearly 360 degrees by means of attached ropes that lead to a room below where ringers synchronize pulls. The term peal of bells is derived from “appeal”, as traditionally bells before services were rung to draw congregants, while for more solemn calls to funerals, they are rung “half-muffled” with a leather cover silencing every other stroke of the clapper. I have taken a turn at change-ringing, and it is much harder than it looks, with the weight of the swinging bell on backstrokes easily powerful enough to yank you into the ceiling.