We cross several cobblestone surfaces during the tour, which once spread across more than ten miles of city streets. Cobblestones are lump-shaped rocks weathered by erosion, and should not be confused with cut stone surfaces known as Belgian Block. Cobblestones are not native to coastal South Carolina, but come from places such as New England, where sailing ships built during the colonial era needed heavy ballast in their hulls to keep them upright in strong winds.
The piles of cobblestones were an easy solution to the ballast needs, but took up space that could be used for cargo. So when ships came to old Charleston to load bales of cotton or barrels of rice, there ballast was often dumped on our wharves to make room for the weighty goods. The new stone was ideal for paving Charleston’s sandy muddy streets, and for building foundations for fortifications, and providing landfill for mudflats and marshes. By the 1720’s, Charleston customs officers were offering freedom from taxes and duties on goods in return for tons of ballast, and long stretches of street benefitted from the layers of stones.
In old pictures, it is hard to see some of the cobblestones buried in soil and sand, and it has been erroneously written that many of our streets were dirt up through the War Between the States. Cobblestones were and still are rough, however, and Belgian Block, vitrified brick, and creosote planks were also used to make some streets less teeth-chattering. By the end of World War I, many city streets had been paved in the new synthetic surface of asphalt, and the cobblestone streetscape was greatly diminished.
Only five driveable thoroughfares are paved in cobblestone today – Chalmers Street, Maiden Lane, South Adgers Wharf, North Adgers Wharf, and Gillon Street. There are some still scattered in place such as Longitude Lane and Philadelphia Alley, but in areas primarily for walking. Many cobblestones survive as pavement in private driveways, obviously “borrowed” over the years from the aging streets.
Each day on my tour, I typically show people the work of Sweetgrass basket weavers such as Betty Manigualt and Marilyn Dingle. Both Betty and Marilyn learned this ancient African weaving method as children, carrying on a long-standing tradition that has been handed down among local families for many generations. I have also been fortunate to have as friends the Wigfall family out in Six Mile, and have been invited on several occasions to document their interesting work in keeping this art work alive. The Wigfalls showed me how they gathered sweetgrass by hand in wetlands on Dewees Island, where they had to stoop over bundles of the wispy green plant and reach down into areas where cottonmouth moccasins often lurk. The key is to twist the bundles of sweetgrass above the roots and harvest it in a way that the plant can continue to grow. The grass has to be dried before weaving, and one of the more interesting methods that the Wigfalls used was to throw bundles up on a gable roof to dry in the sun without blowing away. We also cut some palmetto fronds and bull rush as well as picking up long leaf pine, all of which complement the sweetgrass in a typical basket.
I’ve learned from all the weavers that stitching all these materials together is a laborious process that take a great deal of patience and skill. I was particularly impressed that Betty and Marilyn learned to stitch as children using 10-penny nails and beef bones. Today, most weavers stitch with a broken fork or spoon handle that is filed down to a narrow point, and they still call the tool a “nailbone”, with the obvious reference to days when all their enslaved ancestors had to work with was a discarded nail or animal bone.
The Wigfall’s have a family Marilyn sets up along the sidewalk next to St. Michael’s church, where she weaves in front of passersby. She is a very good-natured person who has been weaving for 64 years, so I tell people on the tour that she started when she was two, which always gets a laugh out of her. Betty is also a very pleasant, engaging person who sets up in front of the Historic Charleston Foundation shop at 108 Meeting Street, where she weaves each day and sometimes includes her daughter and grand daughter. She always tells the tour group “come back and let’s make a deal!”
In buying sweetgrass baskets, it is a acceptable to barter, but people should remember that some of these creations are painstakingly done by hand stitch by stitch, and that some more elaborate baskets will take weeks to weave, working until hands get aching and weary. So I hope all will remember Betty, Marilyn, and the Wigfall family and that the sweetgrass tradition will remain in such good hands.
Charleston is famous for stories of ghosts who supposedly haunt houses, graveyards and alleys. One of the most often-told tales is about the “Ghost of the Whistling Doctor” at 59 Church Street. After the Revolutionary War, upstairs rooms in this house were offered for rent, and a New England physician named Joseph Brown Ladd became a tenant. Dr. Ladd quickly became a recognized figure in Charleston, writing popular poetry for local publications under the pen name Arouet. The doctor was known as a pleasant individual who whistled as he walked to his office down the street, where his practice included free medical treatment for the poor from two hours each morning.
Doctor Ladd did not get along with everyone, however, and was embroiled in a heated personal dispute that ended in a deadly duel. On October 19th, 1786, a Charlestonian named Ralph Isaacs wrote a scathing public letter denouncing Dr. Ladd as a fraud and accusing him of assault with a pistol. Two days later, Ladd and Isaacs squared off with pistols behind the old barracks at the site of the present College of Charleston. Dr. Ladd was shot in both knees, which was a particularly cruel and vengeful thing for Isaacs to do. The doctor was carried back to his room at 59 Church Street, where he died of infection two weeks later.
In a story published shortly after his death, it was written that Dr. Ladd’s “soul serenely seems to soar”, and since then 59 Church Street is legendary as being haunted by Doctor Ladd’s ghostly whistling as he comes up and down the stairs and down the street. On a recent tour, a nice family from New Jersey took a picture of the house while I told the tale, and the interesting image appeared. I have always said that I know why the house is haunted. The plaque near its door tells the story, but has Dr. Ladd’s name wrong, and I think he’s just whistling in an attempt to get his name right when people pass by and read.
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.