Finding a true to life glimpse of the past was not possible until the early 19th century, with the first inventions of primitive photographic methods. One that quickly became very popular in antebellum Charleston was the daguerrotype, which was essentially a method to produce a mirror-like image. Invented by Frenchman Louis Jacque Mande Daguerre in 1839, the creation of an image was a multi-step process of polishing sheets of silver-plated copper, injecting gas fumes that made the surface sensitive to light, then exposing it through an aperture to light. A person standing in front of the device would have their mirror image imbedded by then adding mercury vapor and a series of rinsing, drying and sealing to complete the process. By 1850, numerous daguerrotype studios had opened in Charleston, and the old adds are still very illuminating.
Visitors to Charleston find so many aspects of historical significance at every turn around the city, and one of these is the city burial grounds. I often have the chance to take guests on walking tours into some of the fabled graveyards, and there are many names they recognize that played a large role in American history. Over at my family’s church, St. Mary of the Annunciation, there are numerous stones in French, as the congregation was greatly influenced by French immigrants in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. One family name there is De Grasse, and the graves of Amelie Rosalie Maxime deGrasses, and her sister Melanie Veronique Maxime deGrasse, daughters of Admiral Francois Joseph Paul de Grasse, who greatly helped Americans win their independence. His victory over the British while commanding the French fleet at the Battle of the Chesapeake in 1781, allowed George Washington to achieve his great victory at Yorktown and end the war. The admiral’s daughters grew up in Saint Domingue in the West Indies, and migrated to Charleston in the 1790’s.
2021 represents the 205th year of La Societe Francaise de Beinfaisance (The French Charitable Society) here in Charleston, SC. This group that was formed to offer assistance to French immigrants such as my family, still provides humanitarian aid to those in need. We have an unusual French heritage in Charleston that encompassed three waves of immigration – French Huguenots in the late 1600’s, French Acadians in the 1750’s, and French Catholics in the 1790’s and early 1800’s.
The big Civil War cannon at White Point Garden are authentic guns that were actually used in combat, but they weren’t used at that location. These cannon were all military surplus that was moved to the garden in the late 1800’s to commemorate the defense of Charleston. I often lead walking tours that go past White Point Garden, and I point out to visitors that these great guns that caused so much destruction long ago have been silent for more than a century, but still lead to occasional injury when someone climbs on the cannon and falls off.
The Stevens-Lathers house on South Battery Street appears a good example of a common construction method in Charleston after the Civil War – but there is something different here. With fortunes lost and money scarce after the war, many Charlestonians could not afford to build anew in the ornate Victorian era styles that became so popular, so in a number of locations, Victorian details were added to the houses to give them the appearance of being new. The high-hipped Mansard roof was a very common and popular addition to older houses, and there are many in the city today on houses built long before the Victorian period. Such was not the case in the antebellum house purchased by Col. William Lathers in 1870. Col. Lathers had made a huge fortune in New York after the Civl War, and returned to his native South Carolina with the idea of restoring some of the former architectural grandeur. Certainly Lathers could have built a brand new mansion, but instead, preserved the 1840’s structure while giving it a dazzling multi-colored Victorian roof.
As Charleston passes into its 351st year, a good year end idea is to be thankful for this marvelous, scenic historic city unlike any other in America. We are truly blessed to have an architectural jewel that is largely preserved in its most glorious state, as well as stunning visual accompaniment from florid gardens, towering ageless trees and intricate ironwork. Add to all this a beautiful harbor and oceanfront barrier islands and a welcoming sub-tropical climate, and it’s no wonder that Charleston is ranked highly worldwide as one of the most desirable tourism location
I often take visitors to Charleston who join my walking tours down the street where I grew up in the famous South of Broad district. Legare Street was not such a pricey location when my parents bought a large 1850’s side-hall single house for less than $40,000. Back then, your average family could have afforded a house on Legare, which is one of the most picturesque and fabled in the historic city. Most of the scenic block between Tradd Street and South Battery are houses built in the 18th and 19th centuries, when it was quite common to have a residence that sprawled in excess of 8,000 square feet. The long years of decline after the Civil War showed in the aging houses, as most people who owned them back then had extra money for new paint or renovations. No, we just lived in the old houses, as did other families, and Legare was filled with children played in the streets every afternoon, and with the aromas of Southern cuisine being prepared in the old kitchens. Jus this past year, two houses on the street sold for more than $10 million, so times have changed, even though the old houses look pretty much the same.
I encourage anyone who is visiting Charleston on vacation to take one of the boat tours to Fort Sumter. Not only does the trip offer a wonderful view of the scenic city and a pleasant experience on our oceanfront harbor, but the story of the fort itself is a remarkable part of American history. The site is part of the Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie National Historic Park, and National Park Service rangers are on location to act as guides or answer any questions about the fort. Fort Sumter played such a crucial role in the Civil War, and when it held fast for four years against attacks by Confederate, and then Union forces. The original 3-story structure was reduced to near rubble by the end of the war, but was partially rebuilt and served as a defense installation until World War II. There are many historic Civil War cannon in the fort, as well as an amazing museum that explains the fort’s exceptional history.
Those visiting Charleston will find the scenic city to be an extremely enjoyable example of living history. My walking tours are an excellent way to experience the unique aspects of Charleston, as we wander through centuries-old parts of the city and witness its fabled architecture, stunning gates and gardens, as well as overlooking the spectacular oceanfront views from Charleston harbor. Among the heralded locations we walk past and view are Rainbow Row, The Four Corners of Law, Battery Row, The French Quarter, the High Battery and Fort Sumter. It’s a great introduction to a fabulous city.
One of the colorful aspects of Charleston’s scenic history is the city’s historic paving surfaces. Three are still common in the older parts of the city from long ago. Pictured here are Unity Alley, which features a combination of vitrified brick and Belgian Block. This type of brick, which was made in places such as the Catskill mountains, was densely pressed to hold up to the weight of vehicles, and popular in the early 1900’s. The Belgian Block, which many confuse with cobblestone, was cut from igneous quarries in the Northeast and was popular in the mid to late 1800’s. Pictured next is Chalmers Street, paved in true cobblestone, which was formed in riverbeds from the force of eroding water, and came from the Northeast and England, and became a common paving material in the late 1700’s. Come take one of my walking tours and find out about so many aspects that make Charleston a perfect place to visit on vacation.