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.

Dutch Town

IMG_2036The central and western part of Charleston’s peninsula were inhabited after the old city wall came down in the 1730’s, and a surge of immigrants came, attracted by the wealth and opportunity derived from exports of rice, timber and animal furs.
Many of the new immigrants were from the German and states, where turmoil throughout the 18th century sent families packing for better horizons. Typically, they landed in the Mid-Atlantic colonies and worked their way South, entering old Charleston by the highway known as the Broad Path, now King Street.
They crowded into the area known as Mazyck’s Lands just west of the Broad Path, along Archdale Street, named for the South Carolina’s only Quaker governor. As with most newly-arrived foreigners, the Germans were at first very insular, retaining religious and linguistic customs with the city’s first Lutheran congregation and distinctive sounds of “Deutsche”
To the predominant English population, the German language was quite a mystery with its inverted sentence structure where the verbs come last, and
in their lack of understanding, they interpreted “Deutsche” phonetically, referring to the Germans as Dutch.
Thus Archdale Street became the center of “Dutch Town”, where the oldest graves, homes and church of the German settlers still stand.

True Charleston Blue Bloods

IMG_2051We have always talked about “blue bloods” here in Charleston, referring to distinguished, long-time families who have kept names and traditions intact. Yet, the truest blue-blood found in Charleston these days are the Horseshoe Crabs floating up on area beaches and sand flats.
The Horsheshoe crab is not actually a crab or crustacean, but a sea-dwelling anomaly closer related to spiders. Its circulatory system is laden with copper that turns the crab’s blood blue, and this blue blood is very valuable to modern science for its ability to bind to harmful bacteria and help prevent toxic reactions in various medicine.

The striking feature of the Horseshoe crab is its helmet-like carapace, from which extends a fierce-looking spiked tail called the telson. What looks
dangerous is actually very harmless, as the telson is simply used by the crab for leverage when flipping over. Underneath, the Horseshoe crab has five pairs of legs, used for eating, propulsion and, in the case of the males, for grabbing and holding females during summer mating.
Although the Horseshoe crab has ten optical appendages, it really can’t see very well, as I have found personally. I joined some biologists some years back who were collecting the blue blood from Horseshoe crabs who are easiest to find during mating season when they herd by the thousands into shallow water. In the near-sighted males’ frenzy to connect, they will latch on to anything, including human feet like mine, and I spent most of the adventure pushing the herd of helmets away.

Carolina Day

IMG_2034June 28th is the annual celebration of Carolina Day, the anniversary of the victory over the British at Sullivan’s Island in 1776. Shortly after South Carolina had declared independence from England, troops were sent to Sullivan’s Island to build a fort overlooking the entrance to Charleston harbor to protect the city from the English fleet that was sent to take it back. The fort, called Sullivan’s Fort, was built out of palmetto logs packed with sand, the most abundant materials on Sullivan’s Island. These proved advantageous when the British attacked, as the guns of the English ships found that their projectiles were smothered in the soft core of the palmettos and the sand. In the famous instance pictured, a British shell shot away the South Carolina regiment flag, and sergeant William Jasper jumped atop the log and sand parapet to restore the colors and rally the defenders to drive the attackers away. The flag was blue with a crescent in the Dexter corner that was copied from the crescent emblem on the regimental caps of the 2nd South Carolina. That crescent is copied from the throat-protector from knights’ armor called the gorget, which was a popular symbol of military protection in the 18th century.
The anniversary of the battle day is celebrated in Charleston with a parade of groups of men and women from various historic organizations dressed in period costume that begins at Washington Park and proceeds down Meeting Street to White Point Garden, where replica cannons are fired near the monuments to Jasper and Sullivan’s Fort commander Col. William Moultrie.
And by the way, Sullivan’s Island is Sullivan’s Island, not “Sullivan’s” as is currently the fashion among newcomers to Charleston.

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.