Woodwork Wonders

IMG_1958The Victorian Period was typically a time of pinching pennies for Charlestonians. The Civil War had largely devastated the local economy, and the glory days of Charleston architecture seemed to have passed. But the coastal plain still had a wealth of timber, and with the new band and circular saw technology, some fairly basic Charleston house construction in the late 19th and early 20th century was decoratively enhanced.
For a look at at variety of very impressive Victorian detail, talk a walk west along Broad Street from Legare Street, then turn north on Franklin Street. This area had mostly burned in the great fire of 1861, and was not completely rebuilt until years after the Civil War. Much of the woodwork in doorways and along cornices is remarkable, yet these houses are generally overlooked by those who visit the city.

Pomegranates on Parade

IMG_2018Here and there throughout Charleston, you’ll see a stray Pomegranate blooming with bright orange-red flowers. The Punica Granatum comes from a family of trees native to ancient Persia that includes the Crape Myrtle, and grows very easily in sub-tropical climates like coastal South Carolina.
The name literally means “seeded apple”, and the Pomegranate is famous for its seed-filled fruit that has been widely used for cooking and seasoning throughout the Middle East, as well a major ingredient in the making of grenadine.
Like so many plants that have survived on this earth for centuries, the Pomegranate has natural medicinal attributes, and its fruit is considered a good remedy for intestinal disorders. Pomegranates are loaded with phosphorus and potassium, so they are also a good choice for blending as a energy source and revitalizer after exercise.

Hampstead Hill

IMG_2005In Charleston’s famed Washington Park, there are two monuments to people who were buried elsewhere in the city. One is to Captain John Christie, a master of Masonic lodges, whose marker says he was buried on “Hampstead Hill”. The other is to Elizabeth Jackson, mother of Andrew Jackson, who was “buried on a hill” just outside the old city.
Both are probably under a building or sidewalk on the East Side, which was developed in the post-Revolutionary period as the Village of Hampstead, on a hill overlooking the marshes of Town Creek.
In the colonial period, non-native Charlestonians were typically buried in “strangers’ graveyards” , which were located in forbidding locations near marshes in the upper regions of the peninsula, where disease would presumably not be spread.
Both Christie and Mrs. Jackson died of cholera, which was a mystery in the 1780’s when they died. Both were non-natives without a local church, so they were sent up to Hampstead Hill.
Today, the hill is still very evident, rising just west of East Bay Street at Cooper Street. The section of land along Drake Street between Blake and Columbus Streets is noticeably higher than the Town Creek area to the east, and is most likely where Christie and Mrs. Jackson lie today.

Werner It In Iron

IMG_2028IMG_1755I am frequently asked by tourists about “the man who did all those iron gates in Charleston” – a reference to the misconception that Philip Simmons is the only name to remember in local ironwork. Although Mr. Simmons was an excellent ironsmith, and has created numerous gates throughout the city, Charleston’s greatest ironsmith in my opinion was Christopher Werner. The German-born Werner created gates that are still marvels today, most famously the grand Sword Gate at 32 Legare. His incredible skill adorns numerous famed locations, such as the John Rutledge House, the Otis Mills House, as well as Hibernian Hall and St. Lawrence Cemetery. The Sword Gate is most notable as being a mistake, as Werner was commissioned by the city to add a pair of gates to the Guard House at Meeting and Broad in 1839. Werner understood that the two swinging halves constituted a gate, and made two full sets, while the city considered each half a gate, and only bought one set. The second was purchased by George Hopley, who added it to the large brick wall in front of his home at 32 Legare Street, where it has dazzled onlookers ever since.
Not bad for a mistake!

Pineapple Premiere

Charles-pineappleThe pineapple’s role as a symbol of hospitality can be traced to this 1675 painting of King Charles II. He is on the left, receiving a gift of the first pineapple grown in England by his royal gardener, John Rose (what a perfect name!).
The fruit originally came from the New World, and is known scientifically as Ananas Comosus, but looked so much like a pine cone, it got the common nickname, although it’s neither a pine nor a cone. It actually is a bromelid, and is in the same plant family as Spanish Moss.
Because of its healthful qualities as a cure for stomach issues, and its unusual look, this famously painted presentation helped inspire the placing of a likeness of the fruit on a gate post as symbolic of a welcome, hospitable gesture.
Today, the city of Charleston has an enormous pineapple-shaped fountain overlooking the harbor, symbolizing that Charleston welcomes people to the city.

Jenkins Orphanage Band

IMG_1887The Jenkins Orphanage Band became such an international sensation by the early 20th century, that the group was invited to play for King George of England. The jazzy genesis of the band came from orphanage director, Rev. Daniel Jenkins, who wanted to give the poor young boys some enthusiastic distraction from the tedium of life in the old building on Franklin Street. In the aftermath of the Civil War, most of Charleston was poor, and poor black children from broken homes faced little hope were it not for learning skills at the orphanage as cobblers and tailors, which were menial jobs nonetheless.
Re. Jenkins added a new inspiring spirit by asking Charlestonians to contribute used musical instruments, and getting former Citadel cadets to donate old uniforms. With bent horns and faded tunics, the little boys lit up Charleston with impromptu concerts on street corners – a fast-paced, brassy sound whose fame spread far and wide.
Several band members went on to fame playing for such orchestras as Count Basie and Duke Ellington.

Chariots of Fire

IMG_1888Steam fire engines like this were not used in Charleston until 1860, as most of the water pumping equipment for battling fires was done by hydraulics prior to that. In the late 19th century, the “steamer” had been advanced to the point that it was a very effective fire-fighting tool, with ability to raw water from wells with a suction hose, and then disperse it to effective heights and distances with a propelling hose. Charleston had no underground mains until the 1880’s, and water for fighting fire was created by digging wells near intersections throughout the city. A look the the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps of 1884 show Charleston’s downtown wells.
Steam engines were still being used well into the 20th century in Charleston, and this old apparatus is featured in the Main Fire House at 262 Meeting Street, as well as some early trucks that are part of a fascinating history of fire prevention in the city.

April Ironclad Attack

IMG_1890This Sunday is a major sesquicentennial event that has long been overlooked in the stories of the War Between the States. On April 7th, 1863, the U.S. Navy assembled its most powerful new ironclad ships for an all-out assault on the Confederate defenses of Charleston harbor. Led by the South Atlantic Squadron flagship New Ironsides, monitors Weehawken, Nahant, Montauk, Patapsco, Passaic, Catskill, Nantucket, and the double-turreted Keokuk, the mighty Federal flotilla bristled with 11 and 15-inch guns that were expected to reduce Fort Sumter and leave the city open to capture.
Well, it didn’t turn out that way, as the Confederate defenders hammered the Federal ships mercilessly with cannon fire, sinking one ship and putting four others out of action. Never again would the Federal navy try to test the guns of the Charleston defenders.

Gardens Galore

IMG_1943Charleston is flourishing with dramatic color early again this year. The Flowering Cherry Japanese Magnolia, and our state flower, the Yellow Jessamine, have been out for weeks. The Azalea, Red Bud, and Lady Banksia Rose are in full glory, and there are various flowerings of Crabapple, Pear, Rose, Galanthus, Tea Olive, Lugustrum, Photinia, and Star Magnolia.
This should come as no surprise in a city where such famed botanists as John Drayton, Alexander Garden, Andre Michaux, Joel Poinsett, and Philippe Noisette once lived, and where so many non-native species – such as the Azalea, Camellia, Crepe Myrtle, Mimosa, and Poinsettia found a comfortable home.
This week, the Historic Charleston Foundation begins its 66th annual tour of homes and gardens, which is one of Charleston’s most anticipated events, as dozens of historic private homes and gardens are made available for viewing for ticket holders. Charleston is famous for the “English Garden”, dating to the days when English gardeners came to America to lay out grand natural spaces to accentuate the beauty of the architecture , and considered an extension of the house, the old gardens were designed with separate “rooms” of differing colors, paths, levels and fountains.
The tour extends from March 21st to April 20th, and tickets can be reserved at 843-722-3405

Rope Rights and Wrongs

IMG_1951A common story told on the streets of Charleston is that the rope motif carved into doorways symbolized that the house belonged to a merchant. Who makes this stuff up!? The rope motif has been added as a decoration since ancient times, and is nothing more than elaboration and fine craftsmanship. Common motifs around doorways include acanthus leaves, fanlights, and coffering. To compare it to the rope motif stories, it would be just as accurate to say that these indicated the homeowner was a gardener, a chandelier-maker or an undertaker. The rope-like detail is a sign of excellent workmanship, nothing else, and it can be found on many houses around Charleston whose original owners were not merchants and whose homes were never used as businesses. Merchants did displayed symbolic signs historically, but these hung as shingles from iron brackets. Charleston had shops that displayed “the sign of the black horse head” for saddles, etc.; “the sign of the Franklin head” for a bookstore, the “sigh of the golden mortar” an apothecary: and, “the sign of the hand and ring” for jewelry. It’s all easily found in 18th century copies of the South Carolina Gazette.