Bending Bricks

I am often asked on the walking tour of historic #Charleston, SC, as to what the large pillars adorning so many grand buildings are made of. And when I explain that in most cases, they are brick covered with stucco, I am often asked how could historic artisans create the rounded circumference of the pillar with bricks that are typically rectangular. The answer is the shape in which they were molded into casts. By creating wedge shapes, the bricks can be laid in a rounded face, and pillars could also be tapered by making the molds slightly smaller. This method dates back to the ancient Greeks, who tapered brick and stucco columns to create an optical illusion that the roof line of the building was farther away, and you can see this technique applied throughout historic buildings in our scenic city everyday.  <img.src=”Charleston Architecture” alt=”rounding bricks”

Taft Tale

We typically pass by this 18th century row house on my walking tour of historic #Charleston, and I enjoy telling visitors the story about a former resident of the building, Helen Taft. She was wife of President William Howard Taft, and went by the nickname “Nellie”. The couple came to Charleston on several occasions in the early 1900’s, and became good friends with a number of local citizens. After her husband’s death in 1930, Nellie briefly lived in Charleston at this residence on Tradd Street. She and her husband had been know for lavish social events before and during the era of Prohibition, and taking a drink was very much in the Taft protocol regardless of the law of the land. The story related to me by an older man whose parents were part of the Taft inner circle here in Charleston was that when she had a dinner party during the Prohibition years, she would simply call down to the Charleston police headquarters and tell the sergeant how many cases of confiscated bootleg whiskey she needed and they would send police cars to the house with boxes full. Here’s to you, Nellie! <img.src=”Charleston Folklore” alt=”Mrs. Taft’s Tippling”

Heckled Hext

The Hext tenement on Tradd Street has one of the great ironic histories here in #Charleston. The 18th century two house that we often pass on the Charleston Footprints Walking Tour has been beautifully restored and its grounds exquisitely manicured, and passing crowds are very impressed and take pictures of the building out of the inherent attraction it seems to convey. What a startling contrast to passing crowds in 1765. That was the year the Stamp Act was passed by British Parliament placing a tax on anything made of paper in the American colonies. To each colony, the British sent boxes of stamps that would be affixed to taxed items, as well as assigning local tax collector to oversee the process. The collector in Charleston was George Saxby, and his residence was at the Hext tenement. And after a series of events that led to mass protest and calls for independence, a crowd of Charleston residents marched on Saxby’s house and ransacked the building looking for him and the stamps, neither of which were there. How ironic that a building so reviled then is considered to be so esteemed today. <img.src=”Charleston History” alt=”Hext tenement and the Stamp Act”

Scintillating Symmetry

The gardens of historic #Charleston are blooming this time of year with the fabulous blooms of the Camellia Japonica, and each day on the Charleston Footprints Walking Tour, we pass by the natural beauty throughout this scenic city. This asian shrub was introduced to America by French botanist Andre Michaux here in Charleston in 1786, and has been a winter favorite ever since. What is striking about camellias blooms besides color is their noticeable symmetry in the growth of the petals. The exactness of the growing blooms in relation to each other has been described as part of the “golden ratio” so cherished by the ancient Greeks in their architecture, and so evident throughout nature. Look at sea shells, pine cones, flower petals and even hurricanes, and the spiral shape is in the same proportion in each succeeding layer from the inner core. This is replicated throughout Greek architecture with similar proportions in height, width, and details of buildings. The Greeks considered this the perfect ratio in the shape of any object, and that perfection recreates itself in Charleston every year.  <img.src=”Charleston Gardens” alt=”The Golden Ratio”

Lost Light

One of the most intriguing stories in historic #Charleston is that of the Morris Island Lighthouse, built in 1876. The 161-foot lighthouse was decommissioned in 1962, but has stood, remarkably, against tides and winds ever since. As land eroded around the lighthouse, it became surrounded by water at high tide, and fears that it might collapse led to a “save the light” movement that has bolstered its base. The great irony here is that there is no light to save. The Morris Island light had been equipped with a Fresnel Lens, invented by French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel in the early 1800’s. The unique feature of the lens is that it uses vast layers of glass crystals in a myriad of layers to both reflect and refract light, a principle known as catadiotropic, and could capture more light from a light source in order to project it farther, in this case about 20 miles. The lens installed at Morris Island stands nearly 8 feet high and weighs well over a ton, but it doesn’t stand on Morris Island. Years after the lighthouse was decommissioned in 1962, and erosion seems to make its collapse imminent, the big lens was extracted and moved to the 1875 Hunting Island Lighthouse near Beaufort, which is the only lighthouse open to the public in South Carolina today. Fortunately, visitors don’t have to scale it’s 167 steps to see the sense, which stands just inside the ground floor entrance. <img.src=”Charleston Curiosities” alt=”Morris Island Lighthouse”

Roman Relic

The striking architecture of Market Hall is one of the best-known and least-understood in historic #Charleston. The building was opened in 1841, and designed by the prolific Charleston-born architect and engineer, Edward Brickell White. The 1840’s in America was a time of when architecture was greatly influenced by ancient Greek and Roman concepts, and Market Hall is strictly Roman in nature. Its dramatic portico is the four-columned “tetra” style favored by Romans, the columns are plain Tuscan, and the area behind the columns, the proneos, is the exact width of the cella, or building facade, also in keeping with ancient Rome. The ornate frieze below the roof eaves is the most misunderstood and incorrectly-explained part of the building. Tourists are repeatedly told that the images of ram and ox heads were there to show slaves that the building was a meat market. Well, the slaves, free blacks and everyone else knew where the meat market was, in the sheds behind the big building, where fish and vegetables were also sold. No, the frieze images are examples of bucrania, which is Latin for ox skull. Such images were commonly found on ancient Roman temples, where oxen and other animals were sacrificed to the gods. Market Hall is in effect, a replica of an ancient Roman temple, whose style has long been misrepresented and misunderstood. <img.src=”Charleston Architecture” alt=”Market Hall”

Easement Edification


One very common plaque we see on private hones as we tour historic #Charleston is that of the conservation easement. An easement is a legal instrument that protects certain aspects of the property from being altered. An easement is purely voluntary, created by the property owner, but stays in effect for perpetuity, attached to the deed, regardless of who buys or sells the property. Although the property remains privately-owned, the easement invests power either to a land trust, conservation entity, or local government to constrain all present and future owners to conform to certain conservation purposes expressed in the easement.

 One common purpose for houses in old Charleston is to protect interior details, such as historic mantels, staircases and molding, from being gutted, painted over or removed. In fact, the easement is the only way any interior details can be protected in historic Charleston, as the city authority over building alterations on covers the exterior through the power of the Board of Architectural  Review. 

 <img.src=”Charleston Architecture” alt=”Conservation Easements”

Sumter Sentiment

During my walking tours of #Charleston, our group strolls along the High Battery promenade overlooking Charleston harbor, where I point out Fort Sumter and its role in the Civil War. Most guests are surprised at how little there is to see of the fort from this perspective, as it only looks like a small, flat silhouette above the water 3 miles away. When it was the focus of opposing political and military forces in the 1860’s, it was originally much bigger. The fort was built to have three tiers of cannon firing at a variety of angles to protect the entrance to Charleston Harbor. There are numerous old images from the Civil War era like the one below that show the fort as it was intended to look. What changed it was bombardment than began in earnest in 1863 from Federal naval and shore batteries, and the brick and mortar facade crumbled under the onslaught of huge 11 and 15 inch cannon and their heavy shells that weighed as much as 300 pounds. By the end of the Civil War, the Northern troops besieging the city had still never taken Fort Sumter, but they had reduced it to a pile of rubble. Some of the Fort was rebuilt after the war, and some new additions made during the Spanish-American War, but the old fort was never rebuilt to its original height, and is still seems to be a small feature from distance today.

Pulchritudinous Pulpit

On most of my walking tours of historic #Charleston, we enter St. Michael’s Anglican Church. One of the many striking features inside is the old pulpit, hand-carved from mahogany in the 1750’s. Much of the pulpit work is attributed to the famed English-born furniture maker, Thomas Elfe, who was a member of St. Michael’s congregation. On the front piece of the pulpit is what’s known as a Christograph, with the Greek symbols IHS, and abbreviation of Jesus – Iota Eta Sigma – above the Star of David surrounding a circle with a triangle inside. This is symbolic of the Bible – Old Testament and New Testament. The pulpit was damaged in February, 1865 by Federal troops bombarding the city. The Union gunners did not distinguish between military and civilian targets, which today most likely would be considered inhumane, and sent a shell through the back wall that exploded inside the church. Fragments struck the pulpit, leaving scars that can still be seen today.  <img.src=”Charleston Landmarks” alt=”St. Michael’s pulpit”

Michaux Marvel

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Winter in #Charleston is the blooming of the Camellia Japonica. This Asian species was introduced to America here in Charleston by the famed French botanist Andre Michaux, who had traveled the world to discover a wealth of plant species. Michuax was intrigued by the climate of South Carolina when he was sent to America in 1782 as an emissary of French King Louis XVI. He came to Charleston in 1785 and quickly established a large botanical garden in which he favored the colorful blooms of the Far East. He introduced the Camellia in Charleston as a gift to the Middleton family at their Ashley River plantation, and Charlestonians then and now have marveled at the luxurious beauty of the Camellia’s cold weather blooms. <img.src=”Charleston Gardens” alt=”Camellia Japonica”