Charleston’s Residential Pinnacle

IMG_2230The tallest residence in Charleston’s was the Francis Rodgers Mansion on Wentworth Street, now a hotel known as the Wentworth Mansion. Completed in 1887, the 14,000 square-foot, four-story home was built with lofty ceilings on a raised basement and included a rooftop cupola, and today stands over 100 feet.
The architect was Daniel Wayne, who also designed the first public fire houses in Charleston, all of which still stand, and were a passion of Rodgers. who was a city councilman in the 1880’s when the city fire department was organized. Wayne’s emplyer, Francis Rodgers, was a wealthy Charleston businessman who had a very large family, thus the big house, and who was obsessed with protecting the city from flames, thus the rooftop cupola. Rodgers apparently enjoyed viewing the city from his roof and surveying the landscape for any sign of fire.
During his residency in the house, which lasted until World War I, the biggest flame and smoke witnessed from the roof was the celebratory fireworks over at Colonial Lake, which was made into a public promenade in the 1880’s and became noteworthy for public events and spectacles.
Today the guest at the Wentworth Mansion can enjoy the same magnificent view from the old cupola, and look out over a city that greatly benefitted from the influence of Francis Silas Rodgers.

Gibbs Surrounds Us

IMG_2232The influence of 18th-century Scottish architect James Gibbs can be found throughout Charleston, although few in this city have ever heard of him or give him credit for his distinctive style. Gibbs, like many architects of his day, was dedicated to incorporating ancient Roman and Greek styles into his buildings, and became a proponent of Mannerism, which put great emphasis on symmetry and spatial relationships in parts of the buildings.
His classic work was St. Martin-In-The-Fields in London, which set the standard for American Anglican church architecture. Gibbs broke from earlier English tradition and placed his steeple behind the grand portico of the church to accentuate the spatial relationship between the upper and lower details of the building, and this steeple-portico arrangement can clearly be seen in St. Michael’s church in Charleston. It’s obvious that Gibbs’ 1728 book of architecture was used to copy the design for St. Michael’s exterior, and ironically, over at St. Philip’s church, the interior is a dead-ringer for St. Martin-In-The-Fields.
One of Gibbs’ trademark details is the space between elaboration in arches that is clear in St. Philip’s interior. This look of separate block details surrounding doors and windows is actually named after the famous architect, and is called a “Gibbs Surround”.
Look at classic buildings throughout historic Charleston, and you will find yourself literally “surrounded” buy the influence of James Gibbs, who, by the way, never visited Charleston.

Hidden Harleston

IMG_2218 Some of historic Charleston’s most beautiful architectural details can be found on streets rarely wandered by tourists. Over in Harleston Village, on streets such as Montagu, Bull, Smith, and Pitt, there are exquisite works in wrought iron, plaster, brick and wood that have stood silently for centuries in one of Charleston’s least-traveled locations. The neighborhood dates back to the 18th century, and was officially laid out as the Village of Harleston shortly before the Revolutionary War. At that time, the streets bordered the marshes of the Ashley River and Coming’s Creek, and opulent houses were built by planters and merchants hoping to enjoy the breezes and wetland scenery.
By the 1880’s, Coming’s Creek was a memory, filled in to create the thoroughfare now called Rutledge Avenue, and it’s easy to see the rise and fall of the street’s contour that follows the old wetland areas. Harleston Village fell on hard times after the Civil War, and many grand old homes fell into disrepair and some were lost. Others, such as the magnificent Isaac Jenkins Mikell house on Rutledge, barely passed the wrecking ball and survived as home to the Charleston Library Society from 1935-1960.
Since the 1980’s, Harleston Village has enjoyed a beautiful restoration, and the old homes are grand once again, and are an inviting spectacle for visitors wishing to see Charleston off the beaten path.

Not So Very Victorian

IMG_2186 People who tour historic Charleston often walk past grand houses that seem to date to the Victorian period. Common features include the high-hipped Mansard Roof and the bulging Oriel Window, both of which were very much in vogue at the turn of the 20th century. Yet many houses that seem Victorian, such as the one pictured, are actually much older buildings that were updated with external features in the Victorian era.
Charleston suffered a tremendous economic disaster in the Civil War, as the terrible toll in lost lives, commerce, money and infrastructure turned a grand city into a shabby shadow of its former greatness. Opulent houses that had been built during the city’s flourishing years still stood, but owners had little means of maintaining them, and much of Charleston fell into disrepair.
This would prove beneficial in the long run, because lack of money kept Charlestonians from tearing down old houses and replacing them with gaudy Victorian styles in the 1880’s and 90’s. The wave of urban renewal
that swept through the Northeast and led to the destruction of countless antebellum and colonial homes did not reach Charleston, and numerous old homes were spared solely because there was no money to replace them.
For those who did want to conform to Victorian styles, it was more economical to add details to the house exterior to give it the look of a brand new home, and thus Victorian architecture made a sizeable influence in Charleston, without replacing many of the other classic styles that came before.The house in the picture is a Georgian style dates to the 1770’s, and was altered in the 1890’s to give it the Victorian look.

1675 Deed for Kiawah Island

Cassoe TreatyCharleston businessman David Maybank III showed me this deed witnessed and signed by his ancestor (David Maybank) on March 10, 1675. The deed, handwritten in old English script, states that the Indians of “Cassoe” convey the island “Kyeawah” to the Lords Proprietors of Carolina, in exchange for “a valuable parcell of cloth, hatchetts, beads and other goods and manufactures.” What a deal!
The island is, of course, Kiawah Island today, and is worth quite a bit more.
The Indian name is probably a corruption of the Cusso or Coosaw, which was among a number of native groups living along the Carolina coast when the first European settlers arrived, all part of the larger Cusabo tribe.
Among the Cusabo groups were many names still recognized in the Charleston area today, given primarily to rivers, such as Edisto, Combahee, Ashepoo, Wando, Wappoo and Stono.
The deed is signed by seven of the English settlers on one side of the paper, and on on the other side are the marks of 29 Indians – the Cusso chief (cassique), three subchiefs, plus 14 women and 11 men who were of some rank in the tribe.
The Cusabo people were a great help to the early settlers of Charles Town,
and it was good initial relations and trade with the local Indians that helped the tiny original settlement of 57 people survive.
The Maybank name is also a classic South Carolina tradition, that has been included on lists of governors of the state and mayors of Charleston.
Ironically, the Maybank family gave an island back in 1993, bequeathing the 4500-acre Jehossee Island for a natural preserve as part of the ACE Basin Wildlife Refuge.

Simms’ Timeless Sentiments

The words below were penned by the great SC writer, historian and poet William Gilmore Simms in 1859, describing the alluring natural beauty of our coastal landscape, and are just as appropriate today.
“There is a wondrous charm in this exquisite blending of land and water scape. It appeals very sweetly to the sympathies, and does not the less excite the imagination because lacking in irregular forms and stupendous elevations. Nay, we are inclined to
think that it touches more sweetly the simply human sensibilities. It does not overawe. It solicits, it soothes, beguiles ; wins upon us the more we see ; fascinates the more we entertain ; and
more fully compensates than the study of the bald, the wild, the abrupt and stern, which constitute so largely the elements in that scenery upon which we expend most of our superlatives.
Glide through these mysterious avenues of islet, and marsh, and ocean, at early morning, or at evening, when the summer sun is about to subdue himself in the western waters ; or at midnight, when the
moon wins her slow way, with wan, sweet smile, hallowing the hour ; and the charm is complete. It is then that the elements all seem to harmonize for beauty.”

Historic Sullivan’s Island Stroll

IMG_2077Among the many enjoyable things to do in historic Charleston is a visit to Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island. The Civil War fortification is part of the Fort Sumter National Monument, and is administered by the National Park Service, and is one of the least expensive tickets in the area for a view of the old fort. There are also a number of displays near the fort that are absolutely free, such as the impressive row of seven giant cannons pictured, which stand just to the north of the old fort.
These guns range in size, but are all part of the formidable weapons used in Charleston during the Civil War. The big, bottle-shaped Dahlgren guns are smooth-bores, which fired round explosives and solid shot, and were the most effective guns at the start of the Civil War. Farther down, there are rifled cannons, which were grooved inside the barrels to fire a bullet-like projectile that spun with more more accuracy than the wobbling round shot.
The third one down is an especially unique gun, which was a Federal smooth-bore captured by the Confederates and converted to a rifled barrel.
Because rifled guns fired for greater distance, they were equipped with iron bands around the breech to keep larger gunpowder charges from ripping the gun apart, and you can just see the makeshift bands on the rifled gun. These were done by a local Charleston forge, the J.M. Eason Co., which also built an ironclad ship in Charleston harbor during the Civil War.
The Eason company markings can still be found on the gun, and all the guns have historic markings showing their muzzle sizes and places they were forged. The largest is a 15-inch Parrott Rifle, which could fire 200-pound explosive shells at distances more than 3 miles.
This is a fascinating place to wander by just outside Fort Moultrie, and nearby, there are other guns from the Revolutionary War era, when the fist fort was built on this location. Less than 100 yards away is a path to the beach on Sullivan’s Island, which at this point overlooks Fort Sumter and Charleston Harbor, and is a wonderful stroll any time of day.

Fritillary Fashion

IMG_2133One of the most colorful displays in the historic Charleston area this time of year is the Gulf Fritillary, a distinctive butterfly easily distinguished by its bright orange wings with black and white patterns and streaked veins. This tiny creature is native to this area, emerging from its caterpillar stage by late Summer to emerge with a fluttering frenzy in search of nectar from gardens, forests and roadside wildflowers.
Local gardeners plant shrub borders with Pentas, Lantana, and Honeysuckle, blooming with bright blooms that catch the Fritillary’s compound eyes, which can observe a 360-degree pattern without the butterfly having to move its head.
The tiny head has two sets of protruding sensors in the stub-like palpi and the long antennae, both of which can detect the scent of nectar being emitted by blooming plants.
With three pairs of legs to latch on to succulent blooms, the Fritillary loads its gas tank with a hollow protrusion called the probiscis, which sucks up the sweet nectar. Butterflies only ingest liquids, and will also lap up water, sweat, and even urine to absorb minerals and proteins.
The wings that make the Fritillary such an attractive creature are made up a thousands of paper-like scales. These are helpful in a number of ways: by absorbing heat the sun to give the constantly-moving butterfly extra energy; as a means of attracting other butterflies to mate; and, showing off color patterns that may warn predators in the natural world that the wings are toxic, as well as large, circular spots that can also deceive predators into observing the butterfly as something larger and more menacing.
So enjoy the Fritillary, it will be putting on this bright show for about another month.

Legare Street Lore

IMG_2114When sightseeing in the historic South of Broad district in downtown Charleston, tour visitors ask about Rainbow Row, the Four Corners of law, the Battery, and White Point Garden, but rarely ask to go by one of the most enchanting spots in the “Holy City” – 8 Legare Street.
This 1857 side-hall single house was built in Charleston’s antebellum heyday, and features the ironwork of the great Christopher Werner, as well as beautiful details in its stucco facade with grand, breezy piazzas.
It was home to a long line of traditional Charleston families, and in 1960, was purchased by a large family with many famous Charleston connections in the city’s storied past. The nearly 8500-square foot structure was just enough to hold the big family of nine, and among the children was a 7-year-old boy who was immensely curious about the nooks and crannies in the stately old house.
One day, he climbed through a dormer window above the third floor piazza, and walked out on the roof, over the crest of the gable and down to within inches of the 45-foot precipice on the northwestern edge of the house, which stretched down along aging brick and stucco, crafted by some pre-Civil War artisan into attractive quoins.
The young boy’s foot slipped, and he caught himself on the eave so high above, and nearly fell to his death. Fortunately, he did not, or you wouldn’t be reading this today, because I was that little boy, and part of the Trouche family which called the grand old house home for 30 years.
Sadly, after we’d all moved away as adults, the three-story climb of stairs to the master bedroom was too much for my father, and not needing so much house for only one couple, my parents asked if any of us wanted it. Even sadder, no one could afford the expense of such a monstrous structure, and it was sold to someone who’s name I’ve forgotten.

Cicada Chorus

IMG_2124A little information passed casually in an abstract way can actually be more confusing than helpful, and such it is with confusion over the Summer insect called the Periodical Cicada. This distinctive-looking creature, whose name is pronounced “Sikayda”, is better known for its shrill clicking sound that is made by males pounding their breast plates together, which attracts female Cicadas to mate. Swarming in large concentrations in oak and sycamore trees, these romancing little critters can emit an almost deafening sound.
Many people have heard about Cicadas, and are often told about the 17-year cycle in which eggs are laid in tree bark, hatch as larvae, and drop on the ground where the immature insects burrow beneath the soil to nourish themselves for a period of years before hatching as adults. There are actually a variety of Cicada cycles, with some lasting only a few years, but the common misconception is that these insects appear only once every number of years, which is absolutely untrue.
Even if all Cicadas were on 17-year cycles, the 1996 hatchlings would be coming out this year, the 1997 hatchlings next year, and so on. They hatch in huge numbers every Summer, and start the cycle all over again by digging from the soil and moving up into the trees, molting to from an outer skin to emerge as a winged, flying insect.
But there is little to the Cicada’s life besides making noise and making love, then laying eggs and dying, as everything quiets down until next Summer, when it starts all over again.