No Such Thing as “Compromise House”

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.

Porcher-Simonds house

Chimneys & Sweep Boys

Capped Chimney

  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.

Charleston’s Stonehenge

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.

Peculiar posts

Chevaux-de-Frise

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”.

Chevaux-de-Frise

Sullivan’s Island Halves and Half-Nots

Sullivan’s Island was crossed by trolley lines beginning in the 1860’s and was connected to Mount Pleasant ferry boat landings by a cove bridge in 1898. There was an express trolley that went to the newly-created amusement park on Long Island, whose name was changed to the Isle of Palms, and a local trolley that stopped at “stations” located on perpendicular roads that were gradually developed as the island grew. The first group of stations were Mount Pleasant stops, with the first island stop at station 8 across the bridge. The old trolley bridge was replaced with a vehicle span in the 1920’s, which was removed with the creaton of the Ben Sawyer span in the 1940’s. The trolley service ended as well, but the old “station” designations would be revived in the 1950’s as streets were renamed with the station numbers. Today, the first perpendicular station street is number 9, with whole numbers continuing to the island’s north end at Station 32, with several “half stations” at 9 1/2, 14 1/2, 16 1/2, 18 1/2, 20 1/2, 22 1/2, 26 1/2, an 28 1/2. So the correct answer to how many halves  and half-nots at Sullivan’s Island would be 8 and 24, respectively.

Pete and Harry’s

Pete and Harry's After Renovation

People on my tours are amazed to look at the exquisitely-beautiful pre-Revolutionary house at 58 Meeting Street and realize that it once home to a drab, dimly-lit grocery store. The house was built the same year Ludwig von Beethoven was born, 1770, and featured the popular “single house” construction of invidual rooms on each three floors, divided by a central hall. The orginal lot faced Tradd Street with a perpendicular facing on Meeting, so there was never a piazza, but it did include a substantial carriage house on the Meeting Street side and a small garden between it an the adjacent Tradd Street lot. When it was sold to grocer John Doscher in 1872, Charleston was mired in post-Civil War economic decline, and any commercial advantage of a building was first priority. Doscher remodeled the front and side facades with store front windows and placed simple central entrance doors on both Tradd and Meeting Street. Charleston zoning was reletively non-existent in those days, and it was quite common to have a business on the first floor of a residence, with living quarters above. Doscher’s Grocery was sold in 1917 to Greek immigrant Peter Christantou, who with his brother Harry, ran the business for more than sixty years. Before World War II, Pete and Harry raised fighting chickens in the back garden, and patrons could pay to see cock fights. Inside a store marked by wooden shelves piled with canne goods, you could buy a single cigarette or linger drinking beers as Pete and Harry kept tab. Over the years, the ancient cash register became too much of a bother for the brothers, who preferred making change from jingling pockets filled with coins. By the sixties, when I was growing up, we called them “Mr. Pete” and “Mr. Harry”, and venturing into the old store was like walking into a museum. Soft drinks and beers were chilled in an open water cooler that lay on aging, crisscrossed electrical wires, so each reach to grab a cold one had the distinct possibility of a shock. As 16 year-olds, we looked at Pete and Harry’s as a the most logical answer to our craving for under-aged beer, and found a fool-proof metho by enlisting tall neighborhood friend Demmy Howard to make the purchase. Although Demmy was underaged as well, Pete and Harry couldn’t see very well by then, and saw only the silhouette of the six-foot-two Howard and assumed he was old enough. The old gentlemen died and the store finally closed for good by the late seventies, and the house has since been restored beautifully to its 1770’s grandeur, but we teens of the sixties will never forget the days spent at Pete and Harry’s.

“Madeira City”

One of Charleston’s nicknames from long ago was the “Madeira City”, referring to the inclination of residents to pull a cork. Archeological digs at various locations around the old city have verified that indeed the liver was an overworked organ, as artifacts often have included a wealth of wine and liquor receptacles. Among the prominent citizens known for an astounding drinking capacity was “two-bottle” John Rutledge, who found time between cocktails to preside twice as Governor of South Carolina, sign the Constitution, and be appointed Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Much of the political discourse of the colonial period was hashed out in the convivial atmosphere of private parlors, where it was a common practice for elite barristers and administrators to gather late in the afternoon and imbibe until the wee hours.

  Charleston is one of the few cities able to boast that it thwarted two different Prohibition periods. During South Carolina’s Dispensary era from 1893-1907, liquor was lawfully sold only from state-approved locations in official bottles. Charleston’s answer was the “Blind Tiger”, in which patrons supposedly were paying to see an exotic animal show at a place of business that sold bootleg drinks in back rooms. During the federal Volstead Act of 1919-1933, Charleston wharves did a brisk trade in homemade hooch disguised in fishing and vegetable boats. The greatest testimonial to Charleston’s boozing determination can be found under police reports in early 1900’s city directories, in which thousands of gallons were confiscated by patrols and supposedly dumped down drains at the old Hutson Street station. The police captain who signed these reports was named Duffus, and anyone who believes the stuff was all disposed of is entitled to that name as well.    

 In defense of the drinking legacy, Charleston’s water supply was suspect for most of its history. There was no sewer system until the 1890’s, and the thousands of outhouse “privies” were constantly leeching pollution into the soil and water table. Cholera and typhoid fever were deadly water-borne diseases very common to the city, so pulling a cork was not only enjoyable, but often healthier as well. Today, we happily carry on the chuggling tradition – but only for the sake of history and our health, of course.

Ropemakers Lane

Old Rope Walk

Many strollers notice the small lane off Meeting Street between Tradd Street and St. Michael’s Alley with the name Ropemakers. It actually was the site of Charles Snetter’s Rope Manufactory from the 1790’s until 1803. In the era before industrialization and steam power, rope was made by hand along long such “rope walks”. Workers would push an apparatus on wheels that would “lap” the long lengths of hemp and fiber, twisting strands into thick sections of ship rope or fishing net. In this method, the stress on the rope was dispersed evely among the twisted mass of strands, and to create length an mass suitable for hauling sails or ocking ships, workers would walk the equivalent of six or seven miles a day up and down the narrow lane. Much of the raw material used in the colonial period was hemp from the cannabis plant, which is better known as marijuana, and the same stuff they were working on Snetter’s walk was beig smoked in pipes at local taverns. The practice of making rope in this manner faded with steam-powered mechanisms that could do the work faster an more efficiently. Snetter did not live to see the day that his rope work would be made obsolete, and although he died in 1803, Charleston has “knot” forgotten him.

The “squeak” of Sweetgrass

 

SWEETGRASS BASKETS

Among the distinctive sounds so fasmiliar to historic Charleston is the short, sharp squeak made by pressing thumbs along stretching palmetto fronds, as sweetgrass basket makers knit creative designs as they have for centuries. Waeving cominations of the aromatic sweetgrass with colorful patterns supplied by bull rush and long-leaf pine requires a binding stitch, and the tradtional binder is the flat, long leaf of the palmetto. Lowcountry families have carried on this ancient art whose genesis was in West Africa, and generations of descendants work meticulously on single baskets for hours, even days, to keep this cultural connection alive. What was once a functional creation meant for holding goods and food is mostly decorative today, but the common thread of ancestral history makes sweetgrass basket weaving much more important than just pleasing the eye.  Sweetgrass baskets will never be mass produced, and are one of the most original and timeless forms of South Carolina art work. There is a great deal of skill and affection that goes into each basket, and each new weaving echoes with the sounds of an honored past.