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 that faced St. Michael’s alley is gone, but a replication shed shows what 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 the location 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 Civil War, 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.
In one of the city of Charleston tour guide lectures at the Dock Street Theatre, local guides were given a very informative account of the buildings history by the theatre director, but there was one issue that I believe was incorrectly portrayed. The group was told that “certain tour guides” mistakenly refer to the current ticket office as a former restaurant, and the director showed images from the turn of the 20th century showing that space to be a retail store.
I question that interpretation, having found an 1847 advertisement explaining that the hotel was expanded to include a “ladies’ ordinary”, which is a 19th century term for a restaurant. In addition, 1884 Sanborn Fire Insurance maps clearly show that the section that would become the retail store was part of the hotel. There is no other lgical place for the “ladies ordinary”, so I stand by the idea that the restaurant was in that spot.
It does show that history can be a very imperfect discipline, and that much of the past is not explicitly detailed, so that interpretation must be made by the best information available, which in this case, I’ve trusted first-hand documents.
The old sluice gate mechanism at Colonial is a reminder that the water comes from the Ashley River, and that the city’s largest inland wetland was once connected to its source naturally. Old maps of Charleston’ peninsula show that most of the western side of the city was originally marsh and tidal basin, and Coming’s Creek once stretched well into what is now the heart of Radcliffeborough. In the era prior to steam engines, these vast wetlands were impounded with man-made dikes, trapping water that could be used to power rice and timber mills. By funneling tons of water through successively-smaller pipe openings, there would be a great force that could push sawing and winnowing mechanisms. By the early 1800’s, the mill ponds were tapped for heating into steam power, and mills lined the western part of the peninsula. As rice and timber production waned after the Civil War, many of the old wetlands were filled for new neighborhoods, and by the 1880’s, the only significant area left was Rutledge Pond, a leftover recreation area bordering the Ashley River that had been established in 1768 as Colonial Commons.
The city continued its filling expansion beyond the pond, a enclosed the area in 1881 as the new Colonial Lake. Ringed with cement and bordered by landscaping and a walking promenade , the lake was at the heart of “ten acres of lake, lawn and terrace” that proved to be a blast during the Victorian-era with fireworks displays during the autumn horse-racing festival celebrated as Gala Week. A burst of new building in the early 1900’s along “water lots” near the lake added fashionable houses on Rutledge Avenue and Colonial Street, as well as Baker Hospital, the city’s first specializing in surgery.
By the 1920’s, the popular gathering place featured five-cent rentals of “swan boats”, propelled by foot pedals, and the beginning of an annual Christmas tree-lighting ceremony by illuminating a tree set on supports in the middle of the lake. Fed by tides through underground culverts, the lake has been home to fishing and fish tales, such as the Colonial Lake “monster” of the 1930’s, when a huge creature claimed to be seen lurking underwater. This underground gate still allowed a flow of water that has been used over the years for fishing an sailing tournaments, and each Christmas is illuminated with a lighted tree in the middle of the lake.
There seems to be some confusion over the interpretation of the plaques commonly displayed on Charleston houses, which reads, “Carolopolis”. I have heard people on tours being told that it is Latin for “Charleston”, but that is simply not true. The Latin word for city is “urbis”, and “polis” is actually the Greek name for city.
According to the Preservation Society of Charleston, which has offered the award since 1953, the name combines the Latin “Carolus”, which means Charles, with the Greek “polis”, which means city. Charlestonians historically were taught both Latin and Greek, and our famous architecture is largely a combination of revival Roman and Greek styles.
The Carolopolis Award is annually awarded to property owners who have restored, replicated or maintained historic architecture, and the distinctive round medallion also includes the year awarded and the term “Condita A.D. 1670”, referring to the founding of the city in “Anno Domini” 1670, which means “established in the year of our Lord 1670”.
Along with the Carolopolis Award, a number of historic properties display markers designating a preservation easement. These legally-binding attachments to the deed restrict future alterations to both interior and exterior, and often stipulate that the property will not be sub-divided into condominiums. A conservation easement is perpetual, so once attached to the deed, it cannot be changed.
Another common plaque on historic houses are “fire marks”, supposedly attached to buildings to show fire companies that a policy had been paid, otherwise they would not fight the fire. This is completely untrue, and most of the fire mark are reproduction fakes.
Charleston city fire ordinances required all fire companies to respond to any blaze, and although there was a reward system for the first companies on the scene, it was not paid by the fire insurance companies, but by the city. Plaques, such as the common “Mutual Fire Insurance Company” are nice to look at, but no such company existed in Charleston – it was a Philadelphia company, and the marks were made in the 1920’s, long after Charleston went to public fire service.