The great Charleston earthquake of August 31st, 1886, was among the city’s most calamitous events, with a series of violent tremors that continued into November, killing at least 60 people, destroying or damaging thousands of buildings, and felt over 5 million square miles. Occurring before the Richter scale, geologists estimate the magnitude of the quake at 7.3, based on reports and pictures of damage.
Newspaper reports of the event mention what sounded like a massive locomotive running under ground, and giant fissures and sink holes appeared in the ground in many locations. Charleston had experienced earthquakes before and has since, but nothing has compared to the extensive damage that crumbled more than 10,000 chimneys and smashed historic buildings all over town.
The city Guard House at Broad and Meeting was so badly damaged that it was eventually razed and replaced by the Federal Post Office building that stands on the spot today. St. Michael’s Church was ripped with giant cracks in its walls and floors, and its steeple had been shaken so badly it was expected to collapse – but never did.
Open areas such as Washington Park filled up for weeks after the quake with frightened families rendered homeless by crumbling walls due to the shocks. Pulling mattresses, sheets and blankets into the public spaces that were safe from collapsing walls, Charlestonians carried on daily activites from these “tent cities”, which provided a business opportunity for my great grandfather, Paul E. Trouche, who was 19 at the time and started what would become a million-dollar retail business by selling sundry items such as handkerchiefs to those displaced in the parks.
We call the Romanesque Revival structure at the Northwest corner of Washington Park the Fireproof Building – even though it has actually caught fire.
The massive building with the Roman “tetra” style portico (that’s four columns) was designed by Charleston native Robert Mills as the winning entry for a city competition to create a non-combustible structure to house official documents. The area on which the Fireproof building was finished in 1827 had been home to a brick beef market, and had burned twice in 1796, and city officials simply left it open as a fire break. In 1801, an Adamesque style Federal bank was built on the site of the old beef market, but when it closed and was sold to Charleston, it became our City Hall in 1818, and the open area behind it was designated as City Hall Park.
An architectural competition ensued to build a structure on the park opposite the new City Hall that would be impervious to fire, and Mills’ design was the winner. He created a two-story building on a raised basement that would feature Neo-Classical features built of red sandstone, brick, iron and glass. As the Fireproof Building, the temple-like building famously survived through fire, bombardment, and earthquake as one of Charleston’s iconic structures, and became home to the South Carolina Historical Society after World War II.
Ironically, or woodenly, the building’s simple fire insurance policy was allowed to lapse, and sure enough, an office fire swept through its furnishings, paper and interior framing in 1955, scarring the old edifice.
The Fireproof Building survives today with name intact, but its legacy as a structure impervious to burning has certainly gone down in flames.
Performances at The Dock Street Theatre are held on Church Street at the original stage location on Queen Street – a confusing past with which I have a personal history.
The first American structure built for theatrical performances was opened in 1736 on a street originally known for its shipping docks, but two years before, the city had flattered King George II by redubbing the street in honor of his expecting wife Anne, but the theatre continued to be called by the old street name.
The term Dock Street lived on, but the building was short-lived, destroyed by fire in 1754. Rebuilt and damaged by fire again, the property was sold in 1809 as part of The Planter’s Hotel, whose entrance was around the corner on Church Street, but did include a small stage in keeping with other city taverns and public dining rooms of that era that often featured itinerant actors, singers and acrobats.
The hotel was refurbished during the mid 19th century with distinctive ribbed brownstone columns and an intricate second-floor balcony, on which Charleston horse-racing jet-set were known to gather after events for libations that local legend says included a concoction called Planters Punch.
With a fading post-Civil War economy and more modern hotel competition, the old structure entered the 20th century like many faded Charleston landmarks – dilapidated and ripe for demolition. A plan to revive the long-vanished theater would bring salvation in the form of a federal grant from the depression-era New Deal program, and in 1937, a The Dock Street Theatre reopened with a performance of The Recruiting Officer – the same play performed when the theatre first raised its curtains in 1736. The new theatre has performed far better than its original namesake, as home to local stage companies and host to musical and theatrical events for more than a century. First of these community companies was the Footlight Players, and as a “footlight” I played leading roles in five plays on the Dock Street stage, incuding this picture from “The Match Maker”. That’s me in the upper right, flanked by from left to right, Kit Lyons, Jo Anne Marcell, and Oliver Bowman.
The famous Sword Gates at 32 Legare Street offer one historic case in which misinterpretation of the English language proved to be Charleston’s blessing. In 1838, city authorities commissioned German-born ironsmith Christopher Werner to create a “pair of gates” for the old Guard House at the corner of Meeting and Broad streets.
Werner apparently assumed that meant two separate gates, rather than two halves of the same gate. He diligently went to work with his apprentices, pounding out an incredibly detailed pair of wrought iron masterpieces that featured two large swords facing inward horizontally on either side, as well as spears pointing vertically on either side. Both motifs were old Roman symbols of strength and power, well-suited for the Guard House, which was home to the city police.
Upon presentation to the city, Werner was informed that there was only need for one set of “gates”, not two separate ones. One set was mounted at the entrance to the Guard House, and the other was put up for sale. Merchant George Hopley bought the extra gates for his home on Legare Street, replacing a large wooden gate that dated to the early 19th century, when Madame Talvande kept the house as an academy for young girls from elite families.
Hopley’s gates survive today as the most photographed and famed set of gates in a city renowned for wrought iron, and no doubt add significantly to the $23 million price tag on 32 Legare today. The original Guard House gates were removed from the Broad Street location after the building was severely damaged in the earthquake of 1886 that wrecked much of old Charleston. The police were moved to the Central Station on Hutson street in 1887, and the gates were put in storage, eventually to be remounted at the Citadel, when the military academy moved from Marion Square to its present site along the Ashley River. Today, those gates, painted gold, flank the entrance to the campus, but are not as imposing because they are separated by the street entrance.
As it turns out, the unwanted extra gates are by far the most noticed and famous today, all thanks to a slight misunderstanding in 1838.
The gleaming Spire of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church stands as a great testimonial to Charleston’s ability to survive disaster. The belfry on the 1761 church was used for many years as a fire lookout. A “steepleman” was posted in the open arcaded area, and if he saw evidence of a fire, would go down the narrow stairs to the “ringing room” and pull eight strokes on a rope attached to the largest bell above. This 1900-pound bell could be heard throughout the old city, and firemen on the old “engine companies” were trained to listen for the signal. From almost any vantage point, they could have seen St. Michael’s steeple, and the steepleman’s next job was to climb back up to the arcade, light a lantern, and hang it on a pole pointing in the direction of the fire. This method was used until the city put up separate fire bell towers in the 1880’s as part of Charleston’s first municipal fire department.
S. Michael’s steeple was also used during wars as a military look-out, manned by local soldiers during the Revolution and War Between the States to observe besieging forces around Charleston. By 1863, Union troops on Morris Island were bombarding the city regularly with rifled cannons that could easily hit the glaring target that St. Michael;s made, so the city painted church and steeple a slate gray so that it would blend in with the horizon from a distance.
Since the bombardment in the 1860’s, the steeple survived direct hits during the earthquake of 1886, when it was supported with huge beams to prevent its collapse, and when a 1938 hurricane struck on ironically, St. Michael’s Day, Sept. 29th.
As we approach the sesquicentennial of the firing on Fort Sumter and the remembrance of Charleston’s Confederate history, I’d like to clarify the popular names of famous Southern flags that are often confused. Many people have heard the name “Stars and Bars” and understandably associate that name with the famed Confederate banner that features the blue cross of St. Andrews on a red field, with white trim and white stars. In fact the “Stars and Bars” is the first national Confederate flag, created in March, 1861, featuring red and white “bars”, or stripes, and seven stars inside a blue field in the dexter corner.
There were four versions of the Stars and Bars, representing differing numbers of stars for states in the Confederacy, or sympathizing with the Confederacy at different times during the War Between the States.
The St. Andrews cross flag is the Confederate battle flag, which was first unfurled in November, 1861, as a soldier’s flag. It was created to distinguish Confederates from Union troops, whose Stars and Stripes and Stars and Bars looked similar when hanging limp from a flag pole. Originally, the army battle flag was square, with navy blue in its cross, or saltire, and the rectangular version was actually first created as a naval jack for ships, with a brighter blue saltire. But the rectangular flag became popular among many infantry units, and what is commonly flown today has the navy blue cross.
Among the many stories told about Charleston that have been greatly exaggerated over the years is the commonly misrepresented “compromise house” tale told of the property at 29 East Battery, the Porcher-Simonds house. In the first place, it should be pronounced as “Porshay”, and with a long “I” as “Seye-monds”. The hyphenated name for the house combines the surname of the man who had it built in 1856, Francis Porcher, and the owner who remodeled it in the 1890’s, John Simonds.
The story that is often told is that the structure’s unusual combination of semi-circular and rectangular piazzas were created as a compromise between husband and wife over shapes they wanted when the house was being built. In fact, when the house was built by Porcher, a wealthy cotton broker, it was designed as a “side-hall” single-house, featuring a single living room wide facing the street, flanked by an open piazza on the south side piazza and an entrance hall on the north side. Original pictures of the house show that it looked very much like the side-hall house next door at 31 East Battery.
Simonds, a wealthy banker, remodeled the house in Victorian style in the 1890’s, and the combination of circular and rectangular piazzas was a popular Italian Renaissance Revival style that can also be found at 68 Meeting Street, another antebellum single-house remodeled to look Victorian on the outside. Simonds, whose grandson and I play cards every week, was a determined businessmen who rarely compromised with anyone, so the story is entertaining but bogus.
Since 1982, the house has been subdivided as three condominiums, but still has a wonderful look and a view of Charleston harbor that will never be compromised.
A famous old look on Charleston roof tops comes from the numerous chimneys “capped” with brick arches open on the sides. The look is distinctive, but the idea is very functional, keeping smoke from backdrafting down the chimneys in the pre-electricity days when ciy houses were heated by coal and wood-burn ing fireplaces.
The brick chimney cap was also sensible preventative against flaming embers that could easily ignite the layers of coal tar or creosote that would build up on the inner walls of the structure from hearths below.
Concern over the combustible capability of chimneys was considerable, and city ordinances in the 18th century created “chimney inspectors”,who had the power to enter private property for the purpose of determining whether chimneys were safe. These inspectors could compel property owners to have their chimneys swept, which was done until well into the 20th century by small boys known as “sweep boys”.
Sweep boys would crawl into fireplaces and squeeze their way up through the narrow chimney passages, scouring with bristled brushes to the roof. An ordinance in 1842 set maximum sweep rates at 6 3/4 cents per floor after a threatened strike by chimney sweeps actually prevailed over Charleston.
An unusual row of small structures stands mysteriously on lower Church Street, confounding Charlestonians for years as to its origin and purpose. Four masonry posts, made of limestone covered with stucco, protrude from the sidewalk south of Water Street like oversized stalagmites, raising the curiosity of all passersby. The four posts stand in front of the George Eveleigh house at 39 Church Street, which was built when Water Street was still Vanderhorst Creek. One plausible theory is that the posts were installed as docking bollards for flat-bottomed boats pulled up in the high marsh near the house. There is also a significant bend in Church Street in front of the Eveleigh house, and when the thoroughfare was being laid out, the posts also could have been put up as a barrier against horses and carriages going past, or equipped with rings for animals to be tethered. One notable oddity about the posts is that they lean to the west, an aspect that might be explained by a hurricane that severely the damaged the house in 1811, with wind and water surging from the east that may have affected the stand of the stones. Then again, the lean in each post is nearly uniform, suggesting that perhaps they were linked at one time with a metal bar or wooden slats that may have pushed them over from the force of the earthquake that struck Charleston in 1886. In any case, no one really knows why the posts are there, and like England’s Stonehenge, these posts from the past remain a mystery.
Misinterpretation of historic sites or names is understandable in a city with a past as extensive as Charleston’s. There are aspects of our history that are not well-docmented or obscured by legend, and any interpretation is worth considering if it is based on some precedent. One common mistake that is often repeated, however, is simply a matter of confusion over similarly-spelled French words. The subject of this confusion is the spiked metal apparatus that adorns several locations in the city, most prominently at the Miles Brewton house on King Street. The spikes were put up as a deterrent to house invasion after a city-wide scare of slave revolt in 1822. The infamous Denmark Vesey conspiracy was uncovered to reveal gruesome details for plans of mass murder, and many in the city continued to be fearful of plans to climb into their homes during the night.
To create an obstacle that provided protection, Charlestonians turned to a method made famous by Dutch armies in the 17th and 18th centuries during their battles with Spain. Because the Dutch could not counter the fearsome Spanish cavalry, they revived an idea used in the flat northern province of Friesland to hold back invaders – sharp wooden spikes protruding from logs.
The rows of pointed spikes proved effective in holding back the Spanish horses, and became known as “Frisian horses”, which, in the language of international diplomacy at that time (French), was called “chevaux-de-frise”. You can see this type of defensive position in Civil War pictures of trenches at various battlefields, and it also became known as “abattis”.
Charlestonians assumed what worked against horses would also serve against human beings, and for lasting protection, had the spikes wrought from iron to make them impervious to rot and fire.
The confusion over the old French name came much later, as tours went past old houses, and the term “chevaux-de-frise” was misinterpreted by some who translated “chevaux” as “cheveux”, which means “hair”, and mistakenly added an accent to “frise”, which makes it translate as “curly”.
Thus was born “curly hair”, which doesn’t have much story-telling appeal, so the translation became “spiked hair”, which is often heard on the streets of Charleston today.
Sorry folks, they didn’t wear spiked hair in 1822, and the true translation is “Frisian horses”.