Save Charleston’s Grace

IMG_2216The proposed new Clemson Architectural Center in historic Ansonborough is an atrocious design that resembles a sagging mattress made of glass. The defenders of this design say this is consistent with traditional Charleston architectural innovation, but that is simply not true.

Charleston is graced with classic designs such as the details shown here of the William Blacklock House on Bull Street. The Blacklock house was built around 1800 in a style that was innovative for its day – the Adam style that is also know as Federal style. Rather than deviate from tradition, the Adam style enhanced it, with elaborate detail meant to show off the skill of artisans in wood, iron and plaster. The brothers Robert and James Adam patterned the style after the beautiful details of late Roman and Greek classics, such as the Pantheon, where aesthetics were considered the ultimate in building achievement.

There is nothing aesthetic about the proposed Clemson structure, which is bulky, boxy and totally out of character with the historic Ansonborough neighborhood, which was mostly built in Greek Revival style after the Charleston fire of 1838. One of the greatest buildings in Charleston history was built just down the street in 1839 – the grand Charleston Hotel. That exquisite structure, with its 14 two-story Corinthian columns on a massive raised basement, was destroyed in 1962 to build another “innovative” building, the squat brick Heart of Charleston Motor Hotel.

The old city should have learned a lesson then.

Compelling Charleston

IMG_2110Charleston SC is blessed with just about everything appealing to visitors, and is a great place to tour in October. The beaches and barrier islands are beautiful this time of year with Monarch Butterflies and sea oats swaying above sand dunes. Golfers love the championship courses that have views of ocean front, tidal creek and maritime forest. Excellent restaurants are everywhere and not as crowded this time of year, there are outstanding hotels and inns, such as the Rutledge House Inn(pictured) at 116 Broad Street, once home to Constitution signer John Rutledge, and the Simmons Bed and Breakfast at 15 Church Street, located in a wonderful antebellum house that was once home to noted Charleston philanthropist Amarinthia Yates Snowden. Of course, it’s a great time to see plantations, museum houses and local parks, and all are hopeful that government issues get sorted out to reopen the gates at Fort Sumter National Historic Site. The Preservation Society of Charleston is currently hosting its annual Fall Tour of Private Homes and Gardens, and the Dock Street Theatre is offering a Charleston Stage production of Sherlock Holmes.

With moderate temperatures and long days of sunshine in this shoulder season, it’s an ideal time just to wander the scenic streets of this elegant, historic city. Enjoy the Fall blooms such as Cassia and Plumbago, watch the talented Sweetgrass weavers work their magic with colorful baskets, marvel at the grand church steeples, the intricate wrought iron, the fables cobblestones, and the distinctive piazzas and porticoes.

There are miles of contiguous historic district with opulent houses and flourishing gardens, a grand waterfront promenade along the famous Battery witnessing Charleston Harbor filled with dolphins, sailboats and pelicans, and a welcoming attitude among Charlestonians known for their gracious Southern hospitality.

Charleston’s Residential Pinnacle

IMG_2230The tallest residence in Charleston’s was the Francis Rodgers Mansion on Wentworth Street, now a hotel known as the Wentworth Mansion. Completed in 1887, the 14,000 square-foot, four-story home was built with lofty ceilings on a raised basement and included a rooftop cupola, and today stands over 100 feet.
The architect was Daniel Wayne, who also designed the first public fire houses in Charleston, all of which still stand, and were a passion of Rodgers. who was a city councilman in the 1880’s when the city fire department was organized. Wayne’s emplyer, Francis Rodgers, was a wealthy Charleston businessman who had a very large family, thus the big house, and who was obsessed with protecting the city from flames, thus the rooftop cupola. Rodgers apparently enjoyed viewing the city from his roof and surveying the landscape for any sign of fire.
During his residency in the house, which lasted until World War I, the biggest flame and smoke witnessed from the roof was the celebratory fireworks over at Colonial Lake, which was made into a public promenade in the 1880’s and became noteworthy for public events and spectacles.
Today the guest at the Wentworth Mansion can enjoy the same magnificent view from the old cupola, and look out over a city that greatly benefitted from the influence of Francis Silas Rodgers.

Gibbs Surrounds Us

IMG_2232The influence of 18th-century Scottish architect James Gibbs can be found throughout Charleston, although few in this city have ever heard of him or give him credit for his distinctive style. Gibbs, like many architects of his day, was dedicated to incorporating ancient Roman and Greek styles into his buildings, and became a proponent of Mannerism, which put great emphasis on symmetry and spatial relationships in parts of the buildings.
His classic work was St. Martin-In-The-Fields in London, which set the standard for American Anglican church architecture. Gibbs broke from earlier English tradition and placed his steeple behind the grand portico of the church to accentuate the spatial relationship between the upper and lower details of the building, and this steeple-portico arrangement can clearly be seen in St. Michael’s church in Charleston. It’s obvious that Gibbs’ 1728 book of architecture was used to copy the design for St. Michael’s exterior, and ironically, over at St. Philip’s church, the interior is a dead-ringer for St. Martin-In-The-Fields.
One of Gibbs’ trademark details is the space between elaboration in arches that is clear in St. Philip’s interior. This look of separate block details surrounding doors and windows is actually named after the famous architect, and is called a “Gibbs Surround”.
Look at classic buildings throughout historic Charleston, and you will find yourself literally “surrounded” buy the influence of James Gibbs, who, by the way, never visited Charleston.

Hidden Harleston

IMG_2218 Some of historic Charleston’s most beautiful architectural details can be found on streets rarely wandered by tourists. Over in Harleston Village, on streets such as Montagu, Bull, Smith, and Pitt, there are exquisite works in wrought iron, plaster, brick and wood that have stood silently for centuries in one of Charleston’s least-traveled locations. The neighborhood dates back to the 18th century, and was officially laid out as the Village of Harleston shortly before the Revolutionary War. At that time, the streets bordered the marshes of the Ashley River and Coming’s Creek, and opulent houses were built by planters and merchants hoping to enjoy the breezes and wetland scenery.
By the 1880’s, Coming’s Creek was a memory, filled in to create the thoroughfare now called Rutledge Avenue, and it’s easy to see the rise and fall of the street’s contour that follows the old wetland areas. Harleston Village fell on hard times after the Civil War, and many grand old homes fell into disrepair and some were lost. Others, such as the magnificent Isaac Jenkins Mikell house on Rutledge, barely passed the wrecking ball and survived as home to the Charleston Library Society from 1935-1960.
Since the 1980’s, Harleston Village has enjoyed a beautiful restoration, and the old homes are grand once again, and are an inviting spectacle for visitors wishing to see Charleston off the beaten path.

Not So Very Victorian

IMG_2186 People who tour historic Charleston often walk past grand houses that seem to date to the Victorian period. Common features include the high-hipped Mansard Roof and the bulging Oriel Window, both of which were very much in vogue at the turn of the 20th century. Yet many houses that seem Victorian, such as the one pictured, are actually much older buildings that were updated with external features in the Victorian era.
Charleston suffered a tremendous economic disaster in the Civil War, as the terrible toll in lost lives, commerce, money and infrastructure turned a grand city into a shabby shadow of its former greatness. Opulent houses that had been built during the city’s flourishing years still stood, but owners had little means of maintaining them, and much of Charleston fell into disrepair.
This would prove beneficial in the long run, because lack of money kept Charlestonians from tearing down old houses and replacing them with gaudy Victorian styles in the 1880’s and 90’s. The wave of urban renewal
that swept through the Northeast and led to the destruction of countless antebellum and colonial homes did not reach Charleston, and numerous old homes were spared solely because there was no money to replace them.
For those who did want to conform to Victorian styles, it was more economical to add details to the house exterior to give it the look of a brand new home, and thus Victorian architecture made a sizeable influence in Charleston, without replacing many of the other classic styles that came before.The house in the picture is a Georgian style dates to the 1770’s, and was altered in the 1890’s to give it the Victorian look.

1675 Deed for Kiawah Island

Cassoe TreatyCharleston businessman David Maybank III showed me this deed witnessed and signed by his ancestor (David Maybank) on March 10, 1675. The deed, handwritten in old English script, states that the Indians of “Cassoe” convey the island “Kyeawah” to the Lords Proprietors of Carolina, in exchange for “a valuable parcell of cloth, hatchetts, beads and other goods and manufactures.” What a deal!
The island is, of course, Kiawah Island today, and is worth quite a bit more.
The Indian name is probably a corruption of the Cusso or Coosaw, which was among a number of native groups living along the Carolina coast when the first European settlers arrived, all part of the larger Cusabo tribe.
Among the Cusabo groups were many names still recognized in the Charleston area today, given primarily to rivers, such as Edisto, Combahee, Ashepoo, Wando, Wappoo and Stono.
The deed is signed by seven of the English settlers on one side of the paper, and on on the other side are the marks of 29 Indians – the Cusso chief (cassique), three subchiefs, plus 14 women and 11 men who were of some rank in the tribe.
The Cusabo people were a great help to the early settlers of Charles Town,
and it was good initial relations and trade with the local Indians that helped the tiny original settlement of 57 people survive.
The Maybank name is also a classic South Carolina tradition, that has been included on lists of governors of the state and mayors of Charleston.
Ironically, the Maybank family gave an island back in 1993, bequeathing the 4500-acre Jehossee Island for a natural preserve as part of the ACE Basin Wildlife Refuge.

Simms’ Timeless Sentiments

The words below were penned by the great SC writer, historian and poet William Gilmore Simms in 1859, describing the alluring natural beauty of our coastal landscape, and are just as appropriate today.
“There is a wondrous charm in this exquisite blending of land and water scape. It appeals very sweetly to the sympathies, and does not the less excite the imagination because lacking in irregular forms and stupendous elevations. Nay, we are inclined to
think that it touches more sweetly the simply human sensibilities. It does not overawe. It solicits, it soothes, beguiles ; wins upon us the more we see ; fascinates the more we entertain ; and
more fully compensates than the study of the bald, the wild, the abrupt and stern, which constitute so largely the elements in that scenery upon which we expend most of our superlatives.
Glide through these mysterious avenues of islet, and marsh, and ocean, at early morning, or at evening, when the summer sun is about to subdue himself in the western waters ; or at midnight, when the
moon wins her slow way, with wan, sweet smile, hallowing the hour ; and the charm is complete. It is then that the elements all seem to harmonize for beauty.”

Historic Sullivan’s Island Stroll

IMG_2077Among the many enjoyable things to do in historic Charleston is a visit to Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island. The Civil War fortification is part of the Fort Sumter National Monument, and is administered by the National Park Service, and is one of the least expensive tickets in the area for a view of the old fort. There are also a number of displays near the fort that are absolutely free, such as the impressive row of seven giant cannons pictured, which stand just to the north of the old fort.
These guns range in size, but are all part of the formidable weapons used in Charleston during the Civil War. The big, bottle-shaped Dahlgren guns are smooth-bores, which fired round explosives and solid shot, and were the most effective guns at the start of the Civil War. Farther down, there are rifled cannons, which were grooved inside the barrels to fire a bullet-like projectile that spun with more more accuracy than the wobbling round shot.
The third one down is an especially unique gun, which was a Federal smooth-bore captured by the Confederates and converted to a rifled barrel.
Because rifled guns fired for greater distance, they were equipped with iron bands around the breech to keep larger gunpowder charges from ripping the gun apart, and you can just see the makeshift bands on the rifled gun. These were done by a local Charleston forge, the J.M. Eason Co., which also built an ironclad ship in Charleston harbor during the Civil War.
The Eason company markings can still be found on the gun, and all the guns have historic markings showing their muzzle sizes and places they were forged. The largest is a 15-inch Parrott Rifle, which could fire 200-pound explosive shells at distances more than 3 miles.
This is a fascinating place to wander by just outside Fort Moultrie, and nearby, there are other guns from the Revolutionary War era, when the fist fort was built on this location. Less than 100 yards away is a path to the beach on Sullivan’s Island, which at this point overlooks Fort Sumter and Charleston Harbor, and is a wonderful stroll any time of day.

Fritillary Fashion

IMG_2133One of the most colorful displays in the historic Charleston area this time of year is the Gulf Fritillary, a distinctive butterfly easily distinguished by its bright orange wings with black and white patterns and streaked veins. This tiny creature is native to this area, emerging from its caterpillar stage by late Summer to emerge with a fluttering frenzy in search of nectar from gardens, forests and roadside wildflowers.
Local gardeners plant shrub borders with Pentas, Lantana, and Honeysuckle, blooming with bright blooms that catch the Fritillary’s compound eyes, which can observe a 360-degree pattern without the butterfly having to move its head.
The tiny head has two sets of protruding sensors in the stub-like palpi and the long antennae, both of which can detect the scent of nectar being emitted by blooming plants.
With three pairs of legs to latch on to succulent blooms, the Fritillary loads its gas tank with a hollow protrusion called the probiscis, which sucks up the sweet nectar. Butterflies only ingest liquids, and will also lap up water, sweat, and even urine to absorb minerals and proteins.
The wings that make the Fritillary such an attractive creature are made up a thousands of paper-like scales. These are helpful in a number of ways: by absorbing heat the sun to give the constantly-moving butterfly extra energy; as a means of attracting other butterflies to mate; and, showing off color patterns that may warn predators in the natural world that the wings are toxic, as well as large, circular spots that can also deceive predators into observing the butterfly as something larger and more menacing.
So enjoy the Fritillary, it will be putting on this bright show for about another month.