I 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!
The 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.
The 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.
Steam 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.
This 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.
Charleston 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
A 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.
The iron cannon at the West end of White Point Garden was once part of an historic battle in Charleston. No, it wasn’t the battle of Sullivan’s Island, or the firing on Fort Sumter, but the Battle of Longitude Lane. During construction of the old Tyler Cotton Press that opened on Longitude Lane in 1853, a Revolutionary War cannon was unearthed – a British 4-pounder. The old cannon barrel was put back into service as a barrier to cotton drays sneaking down the lane from the narrow East end. By placing it muzzle-down in the middle of the 11-foot lane entrance, the old gun guaranteed that cotton wagons would have to use the lane’s West end and not rub their axles against property on the narrower East side. In 1933, city officials used their usual tact and diplomacy to abruptly take the cannon and move it to White Point Garden as a public display, justifying the move by saying it was on public property, and thus belonged on the city. This did not suit the folks living on Longitude Lane, who besieged City Hall with complaints and threats of legal action, in what became the Battle of Longitude Lane. Predictably, the city won and kept the cannon, which is in a spot barely noticed by the public today, while back at Longitude Lane, the graceful space was replaced by a masonry post that gets considerably more scrutiny.
Charleston is graced by a considerable amount of brownstone in facades, sills and steps, as well as sidewalk “mounting blocks”. This sedimentary rock is truly a form of sandstone, made naturally in America’s Northeast by millions of years of the earth’s crust compressing sand particles into formations that percolate with iron oxides that give it distinctive color. Brownstone became hugely popular as an exterior veneer just prior to the Civil War, and most of Charleston’s brownstones are 1850‘s vintage, such as the 1853 bank building at 1 Broad Street. Brownstone cladding is typically a four-inch veneer joined by masonry to an inner wall of framing or brick, and is a stone that is easily cut because of its relatively soft nature. However, masons impatient to ship brownstone often cut it before it completely dried out, and to show off its color, it was often applied vertically, what is called “face-bedding”, both of which contribute to flaking (spalling) as water seeps through cracks and promotes breakage. Quite a few local brownstone window sills show evidence of spalling, probably due to the heavy dripping of water on stone that was hastily installed. The largest brownstone in the city is the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, begun in 1890 as a replacement for its predecessor, the 1853 Cathedral of St. John and St. Finbar, which was the largest stone building in the South. Brownstone was so expensive that the newer cathedral was not completely finished, lacking a steeple until 2010, when the belfry was completed with composite brownstone.
The improvements in circular and band saws by the late 19th century allowed for more intricate detail to be cut into wood, and many Victorian houses in Charleston are distinguished by their exterior elaboration. Although some Victorian architecture was borrowed from earlier Classical styles, it’s very easy to pick out certain signature details of the late 1800’s. One of the most common is the look of “fish-scale butts”, pictured here, which is a siding cut into small, protruding sections that look like shingles on the exterior frame. Another Victorian giveaway is the double bracket under a cornice or a double column on a porch, as the late 19th century was known for buildings that were bulky and ornate. Rusticated stone exterior was another favorite of Victorian builders, who often mixed stone and brick, or stone and wood for effect. Of course, the most common victorian style in Charleston are the high-hipped Mansard, or Second Empire roofs, and the rounded Oriel windows. If you like Victorian architectural details, Charleston is packed with them, and many were added to buildings constructed in earlier times.