This picture from 120 Tradd Street shows earthquake plates at different levels along a belt course detail. All earthquake plates in Charleston are refits to existing buildings, and sometimes, the fir wasn’t easy to make. The technical name for these plates is “gib” plate, a technology that had existed long before the 1886 earthquake shattered Charleston walls with tremors measuring an estimated 7.3 on the Richter Scale (that’s because the Richter Scale didn’t exist until nearly fifty years later and all numbers are estimates). A gib plate is an adjustable metal brace, in which iron rods were connected by inserting through spaces between flooring and joining with a turnbuckle. To hold the wall in place theoretically, they were capped by a washer plate and bolted tight.
A belt course, like the one pictured, is an exterior detail made from extending the courses of brick at a certain point, then stuccoing over to create a spatial look between floors. It was less efficient to cut through the extra brick course than either above or below it, and if the brickmasons’ work was not level with the framing, the rod would be obstructed as it obviously was here, so either the separate rods go through at slightly different levels, or the belt course was removed and relaid between the plates, or they simply were cut to fit.
It was not uncommon to fix gib plates on damaged buildings were bricks had fallen and then re-brick over them, as can be seen from Stoll’s Alley on the Northwest corner of the house at 47 East Bay Street, whose corner “coin” had obviously come off during the earthquake, a gib plate affixed, then the coin rebuilt on top of the plate. So, if you look closely around Charleston, you will see the partial earthquake plate look in several locations.
On November 11, 1909, bids were accepted for the 8-story “People’s Building” in Charleston. The average bid was $250,000 to build Charleston’s first skyscraper with a brick, granite and terra cotta exterior. The name came from the People’s Bank of South Carolina, which moved its local headquarters from across the street at 15 Broad Street.
To erect the massive structure, an historic 19th century building with Greek Revival portico was sacrificed, and another was so badly damaged by the pilings that were driven that it was taken down as well. The idea of the big office building was the brainchild of former Charleston mayor Robert Goodwyn Rhett, who was president of the People’s Bank, and a firm advocate of modernizing the city at all costs. To help persuade Charlestonians that the new monstrosity was worthwhile, Rhett invited the newly-elected US President, William Howard Taft, to visit the city. Taft reportedly remarked that the view from atop the People’s Building was worth the construction, but what is really remarkable is that the new electric elevators were actually able to tote his 300-pound body to the upper floors of the building without breaking down. Admittedly, the 1912 roof top picture of the Great Gray Fleet of US battleships entering the Cooper River was a memorable shot from the People’s Building roof, but otherwise, the angular yellow building has stood out like a sore thumb since those bids were made so many years ago.
I am a proud member of the Carolina Yacht Club, which will celabrate its 130th anniversary next year. This grand old club has set an exemplary standard for Charleston sailing and society for many years. One of the most popular sailing events of the Summer season is the Carolina Yacht Club regatta, open to contenders of all ages and backgrounds in a wide variety of sailboat categories from youth-oriented “Optis” to spinnaker-laden keel boats. Among the grandest of social events is the annual Commodore’s Ball, with gentlemen in black tie and ladies in evening gowns enjoying a feast of music and spectacular culinary creations throughout the waterfront clubhouse grounds.
The club overlooks Charleston Harbor and the famous High Battery, and the oldest building is the legendary “back bar”, where members regale each other with sailing and hunting stories and raucous laughter abounds. The back bar is housed in a section of octagon-shaped brick that dates from the mid 19th century, when it housed cotton brokers’ offices along the old Southern Wharf. This expanse of wharf, warehouse, and cotton offices overlooking the Cooper River had closed after the War Between the States and found new life as a club that has charmed Charleston ever since.
Visitors to Charleston this time of year get a special treat with the blooming beauty of the small tree known as Confederate Rose. The species is actually of the Hibiscus family, not a rose, and is certainly not Confederate, considering it originates in Asia, but its florid petals look very much like roses, and were very popular in the antbellum South, thus the name. The Confederate Rose is scientifically known as Hibiscus Mutabilis, and as the name suggests, it undergoes a remarkable mutation, changing petal colors in the space of a single day. Flowers that burst forth lily white in the morning will turn light pink by day’s end, and eventually shrivel to blood red. Botanists are not in complete agrement as to what causes the change, but the catalyst appears to be a pigment enzyme in the petals that is triggered by sunlight.
According to Southern legend, the flower got its name from an incident during the War Between the States, when a wounded Confederate soldier clutched the flower as he lay dying, and his slowly-dripping blood changed its color from white to red. It is a great story and a great looking tree in bloom, and in Charleston’s sub-tropical climate, this Asian transplant grows as if it were native.
Defiance is a long-standing Charleston trademark, and many of the flags such as this distinctive one flown from downtown houses remind us of the city’s passion for independence. Charlestonians have actually declared independence three times – in 1719 from the Lords Proprietors who ran the early colony, in 1776 from the King that we had briefly acquiesced to royal authority, and in 1860 from the Union that we had joined with the idea that we were free to extract ourselves.
The flag shown here is the famous Gonzalez flag from Texas. Many South Carolinians had moved west in the 1820’s, and some became famous in the formation of Texan independence and statehood, such as William Barrett Travis, commander of the Alamo, and Francis Richard Lubbock, who would become governor of the Lone Star state.
In the 1830’s, the town of Gonzalez was largely settled by easterners, but was still under the authority of Mexico. Because of constant attacks by Indians, the townspeople asked the Mexican government for a cannon to defend the town. They got one, and then joined the fight for Texas independence, so the Mexicans demanded the cannon back. In defiance, the town raised the “come and take it banner” and never gave up their gun, becoming part of the new state in 1845.
These old friends come out each year at 60 Meeting Street. I tell folks on the tours that they are the original builders of the 1771 house and like to “bone up” on their skills every Halloween. The corner structure is typical of so many Charleston buildings from the antebellum and colonial periods that were “Victorianized” in the late 1800’s. Charlestonians were property-rich and cash-poor in the decades after the War Between the States, and when new Victorian styles became popular in America by the late 1880’s, few Charlestonians had the money to ter down old houses and build new, so they simply added details that made the buildings seem new. The house at 60 Meeting was redesigned with both Oriel windows and a Mansard Roof in the 1890’s. The term “Oriel” is latin for “golden”, and refers to a protruding bay window typically on an upper floor. The Mansard roof comes from French architect Francois Mansart, whose high-hipped design became the rage in France during the reaign of Emporer Louis Napoleon, and is also known as Second Empire Style. If there are any other questions about the structure, feel free to ask the old builders who are still hanging around.
Samuel Finley Breese Morse came to Charleston in 1818 as a portrait artist and had a gallery on Broad Street whose rear area faced St. Michael’s Alley. Morse, who would later become world-famous as the creator of the telegraph signal code that still bears his name, was known as “Finely”, and came from Charlestown, Massachusetts in hopes of making a start in Charleston, where a booming cotton economy made for a wealth of potential patrons. Morse did well enough that he was chosen by the city council to paint president James Monroe’s portrait when Monroe visited Charleston in 1819.
Morse’s talent is evident in numerous other portraits, but he became fascinated with electro-magnetism, and in 1845 opened his Magnetic Telegraph Company with lines between major cities. The Morse code would be a standard for communication until the advent of the radio in the early 1900’s.
The old privy vault here facing St. Michael’s alley was typical of the old outhouses, with its cap-and-pan tile roof that helped keep the hot sun from pounding on a flat surface. American history benefitted from Morse’s business skill, and is this perhaps where he took care of other important business?
During the War Between the States, Charleston was under attack from Federal ironclads called monitors, but in later years monitors were a welcome sight in Charleston harbor. After the war, the monitor design was modified with newer engines and bigger guns, and by the turn of the 20th century, the monitor was similar to a battleship. In 1900, the US Navy built a new class of monitors called the Arkansas class. One, the USS Nevada was built 252 feet long, with a crew of 220 officers and men. It was armed with two 12-inch guns. What made the monitors unique was their low free board which harked back to Swedish inventor John Ericsson’s original monitor design in the 1860’s. Theoretically it made them harder to hit by enemy shells, but also proved more susceptible to heavy seas, so the Nevada was relegated to duty as harbor defense and as a tender to the first submarines created by the US Navy. By 1908, the navy decided to build a bigger battleship class and name them after states, so the Nevada’s name was given to a ship which would go on to be bombed at Pearl Harbor. Because an historic feature of the Civil War monitors was giving them Indian names, such as Passaic, Weehawken, Patapsco, etc., the old Nevada was renamed the Tonopah, an as the USS Tonopah served in Charleston before World War I, before eventully being decommissioned in 1920.
We see Spanish Moss all over coastal South Carolina, but few people really know exactly what it is or why it’s there. The plant is actually not a moss, but an angiosperm, scientifically known as Tillmandsia Usneoides. It gets its name from English settlers who thought it looked like the beards of Spanish explorers. The plant uses trees as platforms from which to absorb nutrient from the air – it’s not a parasite, it’s an epiphyte. From its perch in large live oaks, which are ideal platforms for the Spanish Moss, it absorbs water and minerals (mostly calcium).
During the northern blockade in the War Between the States, Confederate supplies were stretched so thin that southerners began weaving blankets out of Spanish Moss. If soaked in water for long periods of time, the outer gray cortex of the plant will separate from its inner fiber core, which is strong enough to weave into garments.
Another great story, which has never been verified, is that Henry Ford sent workers south to gather tons of Spanish Moss to stuff into Model-T seats. The plant had to be removed, so the story goes, because people were complaining about itching backsides. Spanish Moss is often crawling with itching mites call “chiggers”, so be warned, don’t pick it up and stuff it in your pocket.
A very common architectural detail in Charleston is the “quoin”. The word is derived from the French word “coin”, pronounced “cwahn”, and means “corner”. The idea in architecture is to add a heavy corner structure to help support a building’s walls. The ancient Romans and Greeks figured out that load-bearing must be stabilized at certain points, otherwise walls could collapse, so heavy granite blocks were built in corners to create that stability.
The quoin also gives a building a very distinctive, decorative look, and as classic architectural styles influenced Western Europe by the 17th century, quoins became all the rage. This idea came to Charleston in a variety of forms by the 1720’s, with new Georgian styles in buildings that usually mimicked the stone corner with sections of brick that were built to protrude, then covered with stucco to resemble a solid block.
Some expensively-built buildings, such as the 1801 City Hall (built as a Federal bank), feature true stone quoins, but the vast majority of quoins around the city are brick beneath, stucco on top.
As a young boy growing up on Legare Street, I learned the gret value of quoins to downtown residents who had locked themselves out of the house. A quoin is a fairly easy climb to get to a second floor piazza, and was most notably used at our old family house in 1985. My brother was getting married in Columbia, two hours away, and after the ceremony, was to fly off to his honeymoon. He realized, leaving the church, that his and his new bride’s passports were sitting back on Legare Street. So, we called a neighbor, she climbed up the quoins to the second-floor piazza, let herself in the house, grabbed the passports, and sent them by courier to Atlanta, where the flight was departing. The passports got there, the honeymoon was a success, and it all was made possible by the ancient idea of the quoin.