On my walking tours of historic #Charleston, I typically take the group of visitors down Stoll’s Alley in the famous South of Broad district. One of the gates there was done by the Charleston’s most heralded 20th century ironsmith, Philip Simmons. I got to know Mr. Simmons in his later years, when he was still pounding hammer on anvil into his eighties. He got his start as a 13-year old apprentice in a blacksmith shop back in 1925, learning to forge iron axles and wheels for wagons and carts. He quickly found a fascination with the decorative ironwork found in old structures around the city that had been done in previous centuries by ironworkers such as Jacob Roh, Johann Iusti and Christopher Werner. Mr. Simmons decided at age 20 to start his own decorative ironwork enterprise and got his first commissioned job to do a gate on Stoll’s Alley in 1932. The gate pictured below is what he called his “billboard gate”, as he would ask potential customers to look at it and decide if they wanted to hire him. Decades of iron details and hundreds of gates later, the billboard gate was a testimonial to the talent and skill of Philip Simmons from the very first stroke he made on decorative iron. <img.src=”Charleston Gates” alt=”Philip Simmons Billboard Gate”
The French Huguenot church in #Charleston is a very distinctive site that we pass each day on my walking tours. The structure, completed in 1845, is very noticeable for its rare Gothic Revival architecture, highlighted by the towering buttresses with their cast-iron finials spiraling heavenward. The church was designed by Charleston architect Edward Brickell White, whose structures are still some of the most noteworthy in the city, including the grand Market Hall on Meeting Street and the equally-impressive High School of Charleston building on Society Street, just to name a few. Although so much of the building’s character is easy to see at first glance, it took more than a century to observe one of its most impressive details. Old black and white photos showed the brick structure with its stucco veneer, but of course, any color was pure conjecture. Throughout the 20th century, the old church featured mostly the bland sand-colored stucco base. In recent years, the stucco was white-washed, and the church had a white exterior throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries. But in 2014, repairs were made on the back wall from damage that occurred in the earthquake and had never been fixed, and contractors found old stucco wedged between bricks that obviously dated to the 1840’s construction. With new microscopic technology, the old sand particles were closely examined, and coral-colored powdered pigments were found mixed in. From this it was determined by architectural historians that the original exterior color of the church was coral, and the facade was restored. <img.src=”Charleston Architecture” alt=”French Huguenot Church”
One of the most memorable legends here in historic #Charleston is the story of the famous Sword Gate at 32 Legare Street that we often pass on my walking tour. This wonderful example of hand-forged wrought iron was created by the German-born ironsmith Christopher Werner, who, in my opinion, was the most talented of the many great Charleston ironsmiths. According to the legend, Werner’s command of the English language was not that good, and he misunderstood when city officials commissioned him to create a “pair of gates” for the planned city Guard House at Broad and Meeting streets. Werner made two sets of double-sided gates, when the city’s intention was for the pair to be the two sides of the single gate, according to the legend, and when Werner presented his gates to the city officials, they only wanted one pair and the other was sold to George Hopley, who installed them at his house on Legare Street. I have waded through the hand-written city council minutes, and I discovered that on August 13, 1838, Werner appeared before the council with his plan, stating exactly what he would do and exactly what it would cost – $750, which was a lot of money then. So the “extra” legend is pure fiction, and obviously Hopley commissioned Werner to create a similar gate for his house as a separate undertaking. <img.src=”Charleston Legends” alt=”Sword Gate”
This image of Washington Square shows a much different look than the historic park today, and offers some clues as to the date of the picture. This perspective is looking west from the park with the 1820’s Fireproof Building looming to the right. The tall poles pictured indicate it was in the era of electricity, but looking at the one to the left standing over Meeting Street, there are no lines for trolleys, which were electrified in #Charleston in 1897. Also, the structure pictured across Meeting Street to the left of the Fireproof Buildings is one of the 18th century buildings that were remodeled into the Timrod Hotel in 1902. The statue of William Pitt behind the seated women was moved to the park in 1881, and the barely-discernible saplings in the picture are live oaks planted in 1882. Because there is no visible damage to any of the buildings, added to the fact that live oaks grow fairly quickly, I would place this image at roughly 1883 based on visual evidence. <img.src=”Charleston Parks” alt=”Washington Square”
One of the most interesting houses in old, historic #Charleston is the Tobias Bowles house at 143 Tradd Street. Visitors touring the city are often impressed by the grand structure that stands recessed from the street, as well as its very curious wrought iron gates. The gates are adorned with a series of crossed arrows, which give them a very distinctive look. Bowles had the house built in the 1790’s at a time when this location overlooked the marshes of the Ashley River. Like so many of Charleston’s famous historic houses, it was remodeled in the 1850’s by Solomon Legare, Jr. There has been some question as to the when the gates were added and who did them, but I believe I have the correct answer. Nineteenth century Charleston ironsmith Christopher Werner was the most prolific creator of wrought iron gates from the 1830’s through the 1850’s, and his gate at the Garden Walk off King Street features the exact same arrowhead shape. Also, the enterprising Werner had become involved in building restoration and remodeling by the 1850’s and is very likely the contractor chosen by Legare to redo the house and highlight the structure with a fashionable gate.
One of the favorite things to do in the Summer for tourists with families in #Charleston is one of the many ghost tours. There are many tours and many creepy stories about ghostly activities in the city’s history, and much of what is told takes some willingness to believe what others have never seen. Yet one of the most chilling tales of the past is based largely on factual evidence and in the case of the notorious Lavinia Fisher, the real person was as haunting as any ghost. Lavinia was arrested in 1820, along with her husband and several accomplices, charged with the disappearance and robbery of patrons at the tavern the Fishers owned. Murdered bodies were never found, presumably buried by the Fisher gang, but stolen horses and goods of transient persons were, and in the 1820’s, this was “highway robbery”, punishable by death. For two years, lawyers argued over the case until Lavinia and her husband were taken to public gallows, where she shrieked and went into convulsions, terrifying onlookers before she was hanged. Before her death, the alluring Lavinia had used seductive powers to convince certain clergymen of her innocence, and at the Unitarian Church, where the tenets of the religion emphasize the value of every life, a gravesite was made available so that she did have to be cast into the pauper’s cemetery. Because of her reputation, which only grew more after her violent death, she was buried in an unmarked grave. Somewhere in this churchyard this murderous woman lies, adding a haunted aspect to the old stones of the Unitarian Churchyard.
We pride ourselves in scenic #Charleston for being a genuine historic city, and on my walking tours, I want visitors to see and hear the factual aspects about the “Holy City”. We do however, have some instances in which history has been faked, and illusion has been substituted for fact . Such is the case of the infamous cannon barrel now found at White Point Garden. Many years ago, Longitude Lane’s narrow west entrance was blocked by a Revolutionary War cannon barrel buried muzzle down in the ground. Because it was city property, the city eventually decided to remove the cannon and display it in a more historically-accurate setting. Residents of Longitude Lane were upset and within a short period of time, a man came knocking on their doors offering to sell them another Revolutionary cannon to replace the original. Little did this man realize that many Charlestonians know their military history, and inspecting the cannon quickly noticed the piece of pipe protruding from the muzzle. Casting a cannon around pipe was a method once used, but not until long after the Revolution had ended, so the cannon is not what was claimed and the residents passed on purchase, but the city took it and displays the faked cannon today. <img.src=”Charleston Curiosities” alt=”The Fake Cannon”
One of the interesting buildings that we walk past on my tours of #Charleston is the Chalmers Street home of the Deutsche Freundliche Gesellschaft – the German Friendly Society. Although founded in 1766, this is not the oldest society in the fabled city, as that honor goes to the St. Andrews Society, formed in 1729, but the German Friendly is the most attended by far. Since the organization was founded by 16 German immigrants as a means of providing assistance for needy German residents of the colonial city, the group has met almost every Wednesday for 253 years, and count nearly 14,000 meetings of the society. The old joke in Charleston is that, if you have lots of Germans in your city, that it’s good that they are friendly, and all meetings are very convivial with a full dinner and cocktails. One great irony is that the 1820’s building that has served as the society’s home for more than a century was originally used by temperance organizations dedicated to stop the drinking of alcohol in Charleston. The German Friendly meetings have a tradition of singing old German drinking songs with cheers and salutes made with mugs of beer. <img.src=”Charleston History” alt=”German Friendly Society”
One of the most storied areas in historic #Charleston is White Point Garden at the southern tip of the peninsular city. This former sand bar was filled and converted to a public park in 1834. The pleasant surroundings were interrupted by the Civil War, when the Confederate defenders built the area into huge earthworks with big cannon. But after the war, the park was restored and oak trees planted that now give the area the feel of a grand outdoor cathedral. Summertime swimming in the 1870’s was done in the adjacent Ashley and Cooper rivers, and the bath house pictured was one of two such structures added before 1880. These were built on piles driven into the river bottom, and accessed by ramps from the garden area, offered changing rooms, smoking rooms, open-air verandas and refreshments to beat the Summer heat. It was a popular recreation until 1911, when a big hurricane destroyed the bath houses, and by then there were regular ferries and trolleys taking Charlestonians to the nearby beaches at Sullivan’s Island and the Isle of Palms, so the bath houses were never rebuilt. <img.src=”Charleston History” alt=”White Point Garden Bath Houses”
On my tours of historic #Charleston, I am often asked about plaques that adorn so many walls and houses around the scenic city. One of the most noteworthy is the symbol of the Society of the Cincinnati, a philanthropic organization begun after the Revolutionary War in 1783. The feeling among many of those who led America to independence was that they had done their duty for the country, not for their own personal gain, and that when their duty was done, that they become ordinary citizens again. The society name is based on Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a general in the army of ancient Rome, who had retired from his military career to his farm, but was called out of retirement by the Roman government to lead the army against invading hordes. Cincinnatus defeated the enemy and then went back to his farm, and this selfless devotion is in the society motto, “Reliquit Servare Republicam” meaning “He left everything to save the Republic”. There are fourteen chapters of the society in each of the original thirteen states and in France because of the help that country gave in winning US independence, and the society is often referred to as “The Fourteen”. <img.src=”Charleston Curiosities” alt=”Society of the Cincinnati”