We are so fortunate to have such a scenic city here in Charleston, with such a wealth of magnificent historic architecture, and visitors who join my walking tours are impressed with the photogenic locations throughout – but there could have been even more. We have lost some of our best buildings, not to fire or storms, but at the hand of short-sighted individuals who apparently had little appreciation for history or architecture. The most lamentable loss, in my opinion, was the Charleston Hotel. This magnificent classical structure was completed in 1839 with a grand two-story portico of Corinthian columns that stretched an entire block. Old pictures show that it was a showcase of the Meeting Street business district, but in 1960, it was torn down to build an ugly one-story motor court. A bank building was approved on the location years later, and at first there was hope that the grand old facade would be reborn, but instead we got a cheap-looking, scaled-down version of the original that looks almost as bad as the motor court.
One of the great scenic visuals on my walking tours of historic Charleston is the Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. This Gothic-Revival brownstone structure was begun in 1890 to replace another brownstone Gothic Revival cathedral on the same site that was finished in 1854, but burned seven years later. Although the second church was designed by the same architect, Patrick Keel, it was not completed for more than a century because of lack of funds, and the steeple finally added in 2010 was 50 feet shorter than the 216-foot spire of the original.
Because Charleston has always been such an easy place to grow tropical and subtropical plants and trees, many non-native species introduced over the years have flourished. One that catches the eye of many visitors to our scenic city is the Triadica Sebifera, commonly known as the Popcorn Tree. This Chinese native was said to have been introduced to America by Ben Franklin in the 1770’s, and is so common now to be considered invasive in coastal areas along the edge of marshes and creeks. But in the old historic city, the tree is still quit popular, and we can see it in many places along the route I take for my walking tours. It’s most distinctive feature is the budding of tallow-covered seeds that look just like popcorn, and which are often harvested to be worked into wreaths that are sometimes spray-painted red at Christmas time.
People who join me on walking tours of scenic Charleston, SC, are typically very interested in architecture and buildings methods from the city’s past. I point out that many of the historic buildings date to the 18th or early 19th century, when wooden framing was done in the post-and-beam style, building progressively vertically. This type of construction required little use of nails, as timbers were fitted with mortise and tenon joints that were pegged together. This is a very sturdy type of construction, and many of the early houses are better built that those that came later. After 1830, the popular style was “balloon framing”, in which the entire frame was assembled before the inner joints were added.
On my walking tours of scenic Charleston, visitors on vacation often ask which is the oldest building we pass, and are usually surprised that it’s made of wood – the John Lining house at 106 Broad Street. The house was built shortly after the lot was purchased in 1692, and has survived fires, earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes. It has been home to a variety of people and businesses, once used as a newspaper office and for many years as a drugstore. But it is famously linked with Scottish-born physician John Lining, who was vastly head of his time in his meticulous study and understanding of fevers, electricity, climate and botany.
Two parallel streets in Charleston’s Charleston Village area are Beaufain and Montagu, with the latter just above the former crossing the historic peninsula. What an irony it is that Montagu was literally atop Beaufain in 1769, when Lord Charles Grenville Montagu, then Governor of the royal colony, sailed to England standing on the deck of the sloop Beaufain, named for Hector Berenger de Beaufain, who had been the collector of ships’ duties for years here in the city. Another irony is that these names, so close in proximity and seemingly in national origin, represented an Englishman (Montagu), who was despised by local townspeople for supporting the Stamp Act, while Beaufain was French, an became very popular with local merchants with his fair dealings toward all.
There are numerous pictures of historic Charleston that are confounding as to determining when the image was taken. This picture of Washington Square is typical of one such, but although uncertain in date, there are clues that place its date and tell something about the park today. The first is the statue of William Pitt, which was placed in the park in 1891. But the dress of the women on the left is more in keeping with the late 1920’s and 30’s, and the Pitt Statue was removed in 1938 and replaced with George Washington,, so the image is probably mid-1930’s. Another telling aspect are the big trees in the picture, all deciduous, which is a vast contrast from the big, evergreen live oak trees at those same spots today. A tornado did ravage the park in 1938, after which new trees were planted, and what look to be centuries-old oaks there today are clearly not even close to 100 years old.
Guests on my walking tours are impressed with “ugliest building in town”, as the new U.S. Post Office building was jokingly called when it opened in 1896. What sets it apart from so much of Charleston’s historic architecture that typically featured wood or stucco exteriors, is that the courthouse cladding is blue granite. This unusual granite color comes from its igneous origins with particles of mica, feldspar and quartz, and was first mined in 1883 in Fairfield County, whose county seat is the town of Winnsboro. The colorful stone became very popular in construction projects at the turn of the 20th century, and in 1909, 5.3 miles of Charleston curb was laid in Winnsboro granite. Charleston architect John Henry Devereux designed the courthouse in a Renaissance Revival style in 1887, but the construction was held up by a stone cutters’ strike, and not finished until 1896. The bulky, rusticated nature of the stone raised enough eyebrows that, at first, it was considered ugly by local folks, but now a prominent landmark of the Four Corners of Law.
The first of the bi-annual blooms of out state flower, the Yellow Jessamine, are emerging to add to the colorful scenery in Charleston.. There are versions of this plant found in South America as well as the Southeastern US. It is a climbing vine, found usually on gates around historic Charleston, featuring a trumpet-shaped yellow flower and what botanist call “lanceolate” leaves. The scientific name for the plant is a curious combination of Latin, Italian and Turkish. The name “gelsemium” is a Latinized version of the Italian “gelsemino”, which means “jasmine”, which comes from the Turkish “yasemin”. Sempervirens is a Latin combination, meaning “always flourishing”. It is also known as Yellow Jasmine, Carolina Jasmine, Evening Trumpetflower and Woodbine. The flower was supposedly used for medicinal benefits centuries ago, but I wouldn’t advise trying it, as it contains strychnine-based alkaloids that a toxic, as well as a sap that can irritate the skin.
There have been attempts to revise the history of Charleston in recent years, largely based on assumption. One of the casualties of this trend has been the early artisans of Charleston, much of whose work, it is now commonly told, was actually done by slaves. This is verifiably not true, as there are records available that prove otherwise. The Pinckney Mansion on East Bay, built in the 1740’s and lost in the 1861 fire, is recorded as the mostly the work of such European-born artisans as John Pagett, James Hartley, Humphrey Sommers and Joesph Black. The mid 1700’s saw the emergence of a large artisan class in Charleston, that included Thomas Elfe, Samuel Cardy, Henry Bedon, William Carwither, Charles Warham, and Benjamin Baker. One of the most sought after was Scottish-born Robert Deans, who, according to records, did a great deal of the carving and joining work at St. Michael’s church, begun in 1752. Deans carved capitals, cornices, stairs, molding, finials, and a variety of detailed embellishments. Deans was also a close associate of John Drayton, whose plantation, Drayton Hall was constructed in years overlapping both the Pinckney Mansion and St. Michael’s. If there is to be assumption on who built the plantation, it would likely have been Deans and those who worked on the Pinckney mansion , as both were done in a very similar Palladian style. Slave labor was certainly used in many Charleston buildings, and there were very skilled artisans who were both free blacks and slaves, but the truth is that there were many hands from many backgrounds who built Charleston.