Of the many colorful plants and trees that accentuate Charleston’s historic architectural beauty is the distinctive “Angel’s Trumpet”. This flower is very distinctive, blooming in the late Summer with massive, drooping orange petals in gardens such as the one at 31 Legare Street.
The House at 31 Legare dates to 1789, and is famously known for a the ghost of a man killed in a deer hunting accident centuries ago who supposedly haunts the drawing room with his presence. Ironically, the Angel’s Trumpet, whose scientific name is Brugmansia Sauveolens, is famous as an hallucinogen. It comes from tropical regions of South America, where it was boiled in teas by primitive tribes to create hallucinatory effects believed to link them to the afterlife.
The flower was named for Dutch botanist Sebald Brugmans, and considering the Dutch propensity for getting high, this connection seems very appropriate. Brugmansia was not grown in North America until the mid 19th century, so some of the old Charleston ghost stories may have been induced by native hallucinogenic plants such as the Jimson weed, which once grew throughout the city. Apparently, cows, goats, and horses were grazing on the Jimson weed doing some might strange things in the streets, so the city passed and ordinance in the 1750’s requiring property owners to remove it under punishment of fines.
Fortunately, you won’t get fined for growing the Brugmansia in your Charleston yard. Just be warned that the hallucinations from ingesting this plant can be very unpleasant, and we don’t need any more ghosts in the old city.
The Middleton-Pinckney House on George Street represents the high-water mark of Charleston wealth in the post-Revolutionary period, and ironically was literally pumping tons of water daily one hundred years later.
The 1796 Federal-style structure was built for wealthy widow Frances Motte Middleton, who later married Gen, Thomas Pinckney. Both came from powerful, influential families that prospered from rice plantations that made Charleston among the wealthiest cities in colonial America.
The outer elegance would survive Civil War and Charleston’s economic decline, but the spacious interior was gutted for steam powered shafts that pumped water through pipe mains first created throughout the city by the early 1880’s, as the old mansion became home to the city water utility. Until the post-Civil War period, shallow wells and rainwater had been Charleston’s water supply, and the populace suffered from water-borne diseases spread by germs that festered in the city’s heat. A new artesian well system was successfully completed in 1878, allowing for the pumping of 3 million gallons daily from a huge reservoir behind the house.
In 1933, a public swimming pool was built on the property, and was used until 1963. By that time, Charleston’s water supply was primarily derived from the Edisto River, but the artesian flow continued until the 1980’s when the underground aquifer dried up.
The Middleton-Pinckney House is now home to administrative offices for Spoleto USA, Charleston’s annual international arts and music festival, and presumably it is a welcome signal from the past if the roof springs an occasional leak.
Many people from long-time Charleston families have attended formal parties at the Wickliffe House on Ashley Avenue. The 1850 house is now property of the Medical University of South Carolina, and is rented out for weddings and other formal functions that rekindle memories of the grand balls that epitomized society in the antebellum South.
The house was built by rice planter John Hume Lucas, whose family owned Hopsewee Plantation on the banks of the Santee River. Hopsewee had been home to Thomas Lynch, Jr., signer of the Declaration of Independence, and was sold to Lucas in 1844. Like many wealthy rice planters, Lucas spent the hotter Summer months in Charleston to avoid the swarms of mosquitoes along the Santee River delta.
When the Lucas(Wickliffe) house was built, it stood overlooking the Ashley River, and was cooled by the prevailing westerly breezes that blow through Charleston. Across the street, the Lucas family was entertained by marching soldiers at the Federal arsenal, which would later become home to Porter Military Academy, the now the Medical University.
Although the waterfront area has long been filled in and is now crowded with towering hospitals and research facilities, the old house retains its antebellum aura with grand piazzas overlooking a still-substantial property, and inside, massive ballrooms where the cream of Charleston society once mingled.
Doing some research the other day, I came across a letter written by Charlestonian Alicia Rhett in 1943. For those who are not familiar with Miss Rhett, she played India Wilkes in “Gone With The Wind”, and was a world-class portrait artist here in Charleston for many years from her Tradd Street home. When the new Dock Street Theatre was being constructed in 1936 on Church Street in the old Planters Hotel building, Miss Rhett was very much involved in the decorations and planning. Her letter describes the varying details she added to the theatre, which was replicated to look like the 18th century Dock Street Theatre that had disappeared after the Revolution. Miss Rhett personally hung drapes in the upstairs boxes and added artistic details to the theatre lobby, as well as creating the distinctive seal of King James VI featured above the stage curtain. The symbolic “order of the garter” includes the unicorn of Scotland and the Lion of England, representing the union of those countries in 1707, and is embellished with French slogans “Dieu et mon Droit” and “Honi sont qui mal y pense”, meaning “God and my right” and “Foolish are those who think badly(of others)”. The notable symbol was first displayed in the Charleston area at the old Goose Creek church in the early 1700’s, and was chosen for the Dock Street Theatre replication project as part of a myriad of motifs throughout the theatre property that incorporate classic architectural themes from Charleston’s past.
By the way, Miss Rhett is still with us at age 98, now living in a nursing facility but, according to her nephew, still possessing the sharp mind that provided so many Charlestonians with lasting images of their families.
Saturday August 4th marks one of Charleston’s most somber anniversaries – the hanging of Col. Isaac Hayne. A rice planter from Colleton County, Hayne was commissioned as an office in the South Carolina forces fighting for independence against the British. Hayne was among the thousands of soldiers trapped in Charleston during the second British siege in 1780, and was captured and paroled. Under the terms of parole, an officer was allowed to return to his home under the condition that he not take up arms again, under the punishment of death.
But Hayne, who was an accomplished soldier with outstanding leadership, was put in an awkward position by the British in 1781, as fortunes were turning in favor of the Revolutionary cause in South Carolina. The English demanded that Hayne take up arms for the British, or be subjected to house arrest at his Walterboro plantation. Hayne chose the threat of death rather than change his convictions, and considered the British offer tantamount to violating the terms of parole, once again joining the American ranks. He was captured again, and held in the basement of the Exchange building at the foot of Broad Street that still stands today.
Found guilty of treason, he was marched through the streets of Charleston to the gallows at White Point, encountering sobbing citizens along the way who begged the British not to hang one with such honorable standing in the city. Hayne’s hanging not only helped inspire South Carolina’s patriots to drive the British out within the year, it also gave rise to a famous ghost story.
According legend, Hayne passed the house of his sister on the way to the gallows, and she called out to him to please come back to her. Her supposedly promised that he would return, and there have been claims that his boots can be heard marching down Broad Street at the dead of night.
When I was first enrolled at old Gaud School for boys as a fourth-grader in 1961, classrooms were in the 1760’s John Rutledge House on Broad Street. This venerated Georgian structure had been home to Rutledge, who was a signer of the US Constitution, and was later remodeled with details added by the great Charleston iron master Christopher Werner. In the early 20th century, it was home to Robert Goodwyn Rhett, Charleston mayor and good friend of President William Howard Taft, who visited the house on several occasions, and it was here that Rhett’s cook, Henry Deas, created the famous she-crab soup as a treat for the President.
Not only noted for its great beauty and historic connections, the house famously survived the great fire of 1861, which literally passed by next door and ruined 540 acres of Charleston, with the Rutledge House only slightly scorched on its west side.
After all this, however, there came three years of young school boys who went to the extent of their creative and delinquent genius to forever change the old building. Exquisite parquet floors became scratch pads for initials, enchanting marble mantels were targeted daily with spitballs, hand-carved doorways were peppered by paper airplanes equipped with needle noses, time-worn iron railings rattled with outlandish yo-yo tricks, and classic staircases were lined with peeled bumper stickers turned upside down to stick on teachers’ shoes.
In the same spaces where a Constitution signed dreamed great thoughts and a President was hailed, the swish of rubber-band/ruler guns and the clatter of rolling “steelies” made the Rutledge House a challenging place…not to learn, but to see who could outdo the other in new, entertaining mischief.
Alas, the Rutledge House room with which I was most familiar was the second floor area reserved for detention, and I actually found myself there one Christmas Eve, writing “I will not release my ant farm in class” 250 times.
Gaud School moved out in 1965, and some people in the neighborhood swore that, from the old Rutledge House, they heard a gigantic sigh of relief
Charleston is famous for haunted places, and quite a few people I have known all my life firmly believe that they have ghosts with a variety of behaviors in their houses. On one block of Church Street there are three notable ghosts. There is “the man on the stairs” at 71 Church Street, who supposedly wanders up and down the stairs of the house and has been heard by different families who live there so many times that they actually gave him the name “Mr. Huger”. Next door at 73 Church, Dr. Thomas Dale and his children are said to reappear from time to time, which is quite a feat considering they lived in the 1750’s. And down the block at 59 Church, “the ghost of the whistling doctor” probably does cause a stir, because the Preservation Society plaque explaining the story has the name wrong. The doctor’s name was Joseph Brown Ladd, who rented a room in the house after the Revolution and was known for whistling while he walked. He was involved in a duel in 1786 and was mortally wounded and brought back to his room, where he died. The words on the plaque are copied verbatim from a newspaper story written years ago by Jack Leland, a wonderful man who did have a cocktail occasionally and may well have had his vision blurred when he typed the script, so it came out Joseph Ladd Brown. No wonder the doctor’s ghost is still whistling – he’s ticked off that they can’t get his name right!
Speaking of tales told incorrectly, the most painful to hear is the use of the word “haint” for ghosts and referring to sky-blue piazza ceilings as colors meant to ward them off. The term “hant” is an old Gullah word referring to a ghostly presence, not “haint”. And from the Gullah traditions, one of the most menacing hants was the “Plat-eye”, a ghost who entered peoples’ bodies and made them do awful things. The Plat-eye’s only weakness was that it could not cross over water, and thus, many houses in the remote areas around Charleston long featured sea-blue paint around door and window frames.
So, there may well be a number of ghosts lingering in and around old Charleston houses, but they ain’t haints, and the sky-blue ceilings are simply a pleasing color scheme that have nothing to do with haunted places.
The “single house” construction that dominates historic Charleston features houses one room wide that typically stand very close to each other. This creates a common situation that is seen in quite a few locations in the city, where the side piazza is only a short distance from the windows of the house next door.
In north-south situations such as 86-94 Church Street, the piazzas are all on the south side, where the door that opens into the house leads to a hall in which there is a staircase. In these narrow halls, the north-running stair turns halfway on a landing and proceeds south again to the second floor, and usually the landing is lighted by a northside window.
From this landing window, overlooking the open expanse of the piazza next door, there is a natural tendency to linger and look over at what’s going on at the neighbor’s house. Traditionally, Charlestonians would spend many hours on the piazzas on pleasant days – socializing, relaxing, or enjoying time with family.
This made it very easy for overly-inquiring minds to eavesdrop on family secrets, arguments, or romantic interludes that were not meant for the public, and tarnish the city’s reputation for politeness. So, there developed the saying “northside manners”, in which it was considered proper behavior to refrain from listening or viewing from that north staircase window on the south piazza privacy next door.
I do remember in our “side hall” single house on Legare Street, the stair configuration was somewhat different, but the tempting northside windows were there, overlooking the southside piazza at number 10. With seven children in our family who were accustomed to passing information up and down the four-story house at the top of our lungs, it couldn’t have been much fun for those adults trying to have a peaceful cocktail under our watchful eyes and ears.
So I remind myself and others that, should they linger overlooking a southside piazza, please remember your northside manners.
Wandering historic Charleston along East Bay Street just south of the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon is a delightful location that brings real character to the term “nooks and crannies”. It’s called the W. Hampton Brand Gallery, but don’t let the name make you think it’s only that, because although confined to tiny interior and courtyard of a narrow colonial building, there is an abundance of curiosities and memorabilia that compels visitors to linger. The gallery is operated by artist and South Carolina native W. Hampton Brand, who is usually seated on the sidewalk in front, busily crafting oil images with his paint brush and easel.
Hampton will paint on canvas, but the some of his most interesting works are done on historic bricks, glass, and slate, depicting such landmarks as Rainbow Row, the Old Exchange, and various classic wrought iron gates such as the Sword Gate. Hampton is one of those classically-untrained artists who took up painting when he was a kid, and had a knack for it, as well as a passion for history. His collection of historic bottles, masonry and other implements is an excellent reminder of the simple materials that were so essential to life in the colonial city. And by using these surfaces as the basis for much of his art work, Hampton follows in the footsteps of Charleston’s classic artisans by making those simple materials into things of beauty.
The gallery is in a structure that itself is one of the most unusual in Charleston. Built in the 18th century as adjoining commercial enterprises originally called Champney’s Row, it was constructed small and narrow to conform to city laws. Going back to the 1690’s, early Charles Town was protected along the waterfront by a brick barrier called “the curtain line”. To the east of the curtain line were wharves, and to the west the street that became known as East Bay, and the only passage between was through protected openings under guard. Fearing attack from pirates or other enemies who might land at he wharves and slip into the city, buildings allowed along the curtain line were restricted in size so that they could easily be pulled down in the event of invasion. Thus Hampton’s little shop is among the skinniest structures in town. To compensate for the possibility that the old shop might be ripped down, there is a massive underground cellar area that was apparently created to dump everything into.
After the Revolution, the Champney family sold the premises to the Coates family, and the adjoining sections have been known as Coates’ Row ever since. Home to a long series of taverns, the underground areas became very useful as wine cellars over the years, and two doors down at The Tavern, Gary Dow operates the oldest liquor-dispensing location in America, but more on that in another post.
Steam-powered fire engines were not used in Charleston until more than 40 years after Robert Fulton made the technology possible. For most of the city’s history, the “engines” were little more than pumps on wheels that were pulled by hand or by horse through the city to water wells dug in the streets. A variety of early pumping methods included the capstan barrel, with holes on six or eight sides to connect horse-drawn poles that would spin the device and create hydraulic pressure.
The 1860’s brought the steam engine into prominence, as companies in the northeast created a variety of contraptions that used steam pressure for suction and spray. Some of these engines, fulled loaded with boilders, pans, gauges, and hoses, weighed more than five tons, so what draft animals pull through the streets of Charleston pales in comparison.
After the first three city-wide fire houses were built in 1887, fires and heated water were constantly kept in separate non-mobile boilers for transfer to the engines to aid in rapid response to alarms, so that time was not wasted in waiting for the pressure to build. With successful digging of artesian wells in the city by the late 1870’s, a crude system of pressured water became available with mains and hydrants.
Steam engines pulled by horse were still in use into the 20th century, and the first motor-driven fire truck was purchased in 1912. Today, the old steamer in the picture stands inside the main fire house at 262 Meeting Street, as a reminder of the rustic nature of fire-fighting that served the city for so many years.