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.
Underground 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.
Downtown 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.
The 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
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, 2 pm ALL-STAR JAM AND OYSTER ROAST, with TOMMY THUNDERFOOT, SKYE PAIGE, JOHN PICARD & WHITT ALGAR, JOHNNY MAC & BOOTY RANCH / Home Team BBQ, Charleston
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, www.charlestonharbortours.com
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,
PEACE LOVE AND BLUES
Lowcountry Blues Society (est. 1986)
Charleston, SC USA
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About 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.
The peculiar-looking weapon at White Point Garden facing South Battery is not a version of the famous Gatling Gun, but a Spanish-made rapid fire gun taken as a trophy during the Spanish-American War. The gun is marked with the date 1886, and was fixed on a Spanish warship as armament. The ship was apparently captured or surrendered, and the gun was removed, but not donated to the City of Charleston until 1937, when it was placed at White Point Garden to complement the numerous military displays there.
The five-barrel was fired by a rotating cylinder that loaded and fired new rounds continuously, which is the same concept as the Gatling Gun. Considering the woeful record of the Spanish navy against the U.S., the gun probably caused few casualties, and like many of the weapons frequently climbed-on at White Point Garden, has surely contributed to more injuries in peace time than in war.
The cupola is a distinctive architectural detail on several of Charleston’s Revolutionary-era buildings. The small. circular structure gets its name from Italian “little cup”, and was a popular Venetian ornamentation made popular in Neo-classical designs based on Andrea Palladio’s Four Books of Architecture. The cupola is designed for a dual purpose – to give a building beauty and to help ventilate the structure. The crowning little cup adds a delicate dimension to the architecture, and by opening cupola windows, warm air is released from within. Here in Charleston, the combination of looking good and keeping cool was always a major influence on architecture, and cupolas began to appear shortly before the Revolution in buildings such as the Old Exchange, the Josiah Smith house, and the John Ashe house. The cupola at the Ashe house once overlooked docks along South Bay, now South Battery and Murray Boulevard, and legend says that a light was used as navigation for ships.
The fishing industry in colonial Charleston was heavily dependent on the work of slave boatmen who were allowed by law to own their own vessels. Numerous accounts can be found of slave sales that advertise “skilled boatmen”, as well as plenty of stories about slaves who brought fish-catching and boat-handling skills from West Africa. Many of the early boats were hewn from large cypress logs and propelled by sails made from strips of home-made quilts and blankets. Launching from wharf areas along the Cooper River near the public market, these black boatmen sailed miles out to see without maps or compasses, but found their way by dead reckoning out to black fish banks to bring back hulls full of tautog, whiting, porgy and shark that was sold on the streets of Charleston. There was seemingly safety in numbers, and the fisherman would go out together as what became famously called “The Mosquito Fleet”. Long after emancipation, descendants of former slaves carried on the fleet’s tradition, but suffered severe losses in terrible storms in 1904 and 1915, which decimated their ranks. I interviewed one of the last of the Mosquito Fleet crew for a TV story in 1985, long after he had given up the fishing tradition. He told me that those generations of fisherman welcomed the treachery of open sea, which offered an unparalleled sense of freedom and accomplishment.