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.

Battle of Longitude Lane

IMG_1910The 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.

Appalling Spalling

IMG_1849Charleston 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.

Very Victorian

IMG_1893The 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.

Subterranean Sights

IMG_1882Underground Charleston may seem like a misnomer for a city next to the ocean, but we do have some substantial subterranean sites. Such as this hydrant tunnel that was built beneath a cotton warehouse in the 1880’s to keep a ready supply of water in case of fire. The first hydrants in Charleston were actually wells dug in areas where they could be accessed by fire brigades, who would use hydraulic and steam pumps to spray on burning areas.
This tunnel was discovered just off East Bay Street between East Elliott and South Boyce’s Wharf streets about 15 years ago by developer Brownie Hamrick. He was replacing the old gas station there with the current condominium that is beautifully built to fit the historic street. The gas station was first built there in the 1920’s, replacing the old cotton warehouse that pre-dated the Civil War. Brownie said that the block-length masonry tunnel was fully high enough to stand up a walk through, showing how much water capacity was needed on hand in the event a cotton warehouse and its valuable goods caught fire.

Seafaring Heritage

IMG_1732Downtown Charleston is only three miles from the Atlantic Ocean, so it’s natural that sea-faring has always been a part of our past. Sadly, our maritime museum focuses only on World War II, when there has been so much naval history here since the 17th century. Many of Charleston’s citizens historically made their livelihood on ships, and such famous sea-farers as William Rhett, George Anson, James Misroon, Florence O’Sullivan, Francis Saltus would establish roots in a city where shipping is still the number one industry.
Symbols from the glory days of tall-masted ships still adorn grave markers throughout the historic city, but otherwise there is little minder that great sailing vessels were once built in local shipyards, and that daring commercial and military seafarers helped build this city by the sea.

Hampstead Memories

IMG_1875The Henry Faber House on East Bay Street is one of the grand structures from the golden era of Hampstead Hill. This low bluff overlooking the Cooper River was built up in the early 19th century by rice planters from Georgetown, including Faber, who added this Greek Revival building in 1836. Faber’s house was one of many used as a soldiers’ hospital during the Civil War, largely because it had a large cistern and was a long distance from the Federal siege guns on Morris Island. After the war, the area fell on hard times, and many of the old homes were destroyed as Hampstead was industrialized with a massive cotton processing factory built down the street in 1881. The factory was converted to cigar-making in 1907, and employed hundreds of blacks who had crowded into the Hampstead area after the Civil War. The Faber house property came under black ownership and became the Hamitic Hotel, where such notable figures as W.E.B. DuBois would stay. By the 1940’s, more buildings were cleared for housing projects, and after the Hamitic Hotel closed, the Faber House was marked for demolition in 1946, but was saved by preservationists and now stands a lonely sentinel over the faded glory of Hampstead Hill

Lowcountry Blues Bash

My good friend Gary Erwin is hosting the 23rd annual Lowcountry Blues Bash in February. It’s the best blues festival in the Southeast! A multi-day event (almost two weeks!) with more than 50 acts of traditional and contemporary blues performing at some 20+ locations (clubs, restaurants, public libraries, churches, etc.) throughout the city. Hear everything in blues music — electric, acoustic, solos, bands, legends and new talent. Many shows are free admission and open to all-ages.
Here is a list of events:
Wed Feb 6 BLUES JAM, Home Team BBQ, Charleston, FREE

Thurs Feb 7 CHRISTOPHER DEAN BAND / Home Team BBQ, Sullivans Island

Fri Feb 8 SHELLY WATERS, SWAMP POP PRINCESS (duo) / Med Bistro, FREE New CD out in February!

Fri Feb 8 NEROK ROTH PATTERSON, Home Team BBQ, Sullivans Island

Fri Feb 8, MOMMA & THE REDEMPTION BAND, Home Team BBQ, Charleston

Fri Feb 8 “blues” / Morgan Creek Grill

Sat Feb 9 SHRIMP CITY SLIM (solo blues piano) / Med Bistro, FREE
The new CD “Star Marina” out in February!

Sat Feb 9 NICK MOSS & THE FLIP TOPS, Home Team BBQ, Sullivans Island

Sat Feb 9 BEN PRESTAGE / Home Team BBQ, Charleston

Sat Feb 9 “blues” / Morgan Creek Grill

Sun Feb 10, 11 am SHELLY WATERS & SHRIMP CITY SLIM trio, Unitarian Church, FREE

Sun Feb 10, 6 pm SHELLY WATERS & SHRIMP CITY SLIM trio, Unitarian Church, FREE-WILL DONATION


Sun Feb 10 BLUES JAM / Smokey’s Place, FREE

Mon Feb 11, 2 pm SHELLY WATERS & SHRIMP CITY SLIM duo filming for “Balcony TV” / Morgan Creek Grill, FREE

Tues Feb 12 (Mardi Gras), noon WANDA JOHNSON & SHRIMP CITY SLIM band / Medical University (horseshoe entrance drive, 171 Ashley Ave), FREE
Last shows before European tour!

Wed Feb 13 BLUES JAM / Home Team BBQ, Charleston, FREE

Thurs Feb 14 SCREAMIN’ JUNIOR & THE UTTER TUGGERS / (side project of John “Clam Chop” Etheridge, often seen on drums with Shrimp City Slim and Shelly Waters (on BOTH their new albums) / Smokey’s Place, FREE

Thurs Feb 14, 6-9 pm LUCKYMAN BEALL / Med Bistro, FREE

Thurs Feb 14 DAVIS COEN / Home Team BBQ, Charleston, FREE

Fri Feb 15, 5-8 pm SHELLY WATERS & SHRIMP CITY SLIM band/ Mad River Bar & Grille, $10 cash only at door

Fri Feb 15 ERIC CULBERSON / Home Team BBQ, Sullivans Island
Fri Feb 15 JEFF LIBERTY / Morgan Creek Grill

Sat Feb 16, 2-5 pm WANDA JOHNSON & SHRIMP CITY SLIM band, Mad River Bar & Grille, $10 cash only at door
Last shows before European tour!

Sat Feb 16, boards 7 pm, sails 730-930 pm “BLUES HARP BLOW-OUT” featuring JUKE JOINT JOHNNY and CHUCK “THE CAT” MORRIS backed by SHRIMP CITY SLIM band / “CAROLINA QUEEN” riverboat, $39.95 includes BBQ buffet,

Sat Feb 16 ERIC CULBERSON / Home Team BBQ, Sullivans Island

Sat Feb 16 ERIC JERARDI / Home Team BBQ, Charleston

Sat Feb 16 “blues” / Morgan Creek Grill

Sun Feb 17 BIG BILL MORGANFIELD / Home Team BBQ, Sullivans Island

Sun Feb 17 BLUES JAM / Smokey’s Place, FREE


Last but not least, we fondly remember CHICAGO BOB NELSON (Robert Lee Nelson) 1944-2013, swamp harmonica legend and wonderful blues torchbearer, who passed away last week. Like many blues artists, Bob never got his due in this world, but leaves us with a rich legacy of great music, good times, and rewarding friendship.


See you at the shows,

Gary Erwin
Lowcountry Blues Society (est. 1986)
Charleston, SC USA
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Classically Obvious

IMG_1832About 75 BC, a Roman scholar named Vitruvius published a book in Latin called De Architectura, or “On Architecture”, in which he spelled out the basic tenets of Classic architecture. Vitruvius wrote that buildings should be solid, useful, and attractive, and went into considerable detail as to the use of materials, methods, and concepts of buildings as a means of applying logic to construction. Vitruvius was particularly aware of the spatial order of buildings, and how the ratio of size, circumference and weight were all important to the aesthetic goal of construction. Thus, with adherence to Vitruvius’ ideals, Classic architecture remains a timeless pleasure. What is a perplexing question here in Charleston and throughout the world, is, why are modern architects, who have left comparatively so little work that is as pleasing as the classicists, so opposed to continuing and contributing to styles that have inspired so many for so long?
It isn’t called “classical” for nothing.