One of the great treats that those taking my walking tour get to enjoy, is a visit to the historic High Battery overlooking scenic Charleston Harbor. This is certainly the most photographed location in the city, with a breathtaking view in every location, whether it’s the harbor and Fort Sumter, or the grand houses known as Battery Row. There is a curios look to the old Ravenel House that many visitors ask about, wondering why it protrudes at the bottom. The answer is that the 1840’s mansion was built with an enormous two-story portico of Corinthian columns, all of which came crashing down in the earthquake that struck Charleston in 1886, and has never been replaced. <img.src=”Charleston Architecture” alt=”Ravenel House”
Touring historic Charleston offers a wide variety of impressive architectural sights, as the city is blessed with some of the grandest buildings in America. One of the most noticeable was the longest in construction – the U.S. Custom House on East Bay Street. The building was begun in 1852 in a location that had once been a wharf slip and was mostly landfill. Seven hundred pilings were driven by steam power into the marl to support the mammoth structure of granite, marble brick and masonry. Designed by New Hampshire native Ammi Young, the design was in the popular Greek Revival style of the period, and was meant to look somewhat similar to the Acropolis with Corinthian columned porticoes intended for all four sides. Work was halted with he coming of Secession and Civil War, and it wasn’t until the 1870’s that Congress was willing to devote money to its completion, and the design was scaled back with only from and back porticoes. The Construction was finally completed in 1879. <img.src=”Charleston Architecture” alt=”Custom House”
Those who visit scenic Charleston and enjoy activities such as my Charleston Footprints Walking Tour are typically taken by our pronunciation of certain historic names. One such is a location we pass on the tour each day, Vanderhorst Row. The 1800 Federal style tenement is striking in itself, but most are more curious as to why we say “vandross” rather than making it 3 syllables. In fact, that is the true Dutch pronunciation of the name, and the person who had it built and for which is named played a major role in city and state history, so we want it to be correct. Arnoldus Vanderhorst was born near the city in 1748, and became a successful planter and politician, adding to the voices for liberty during the Revolution, and serving in the American forces. After the war, he dedicated himself to civic deeds, twice becoming city mayor as well as Governor of the state in 1794. He was essential in reforming the court systems, that were made into the districts we have today as well as emphasizing education, and it was during his tenure as mayor that the College of Charleston was chartered, and is the oldest municipal college in America today. <img.src=”Charleston Architecture” alt=”Vanderhorst Row”
People who join my walking tours of Charleston are typically very surprised and interested to hear aspects of our unique history that they were not aware of. One such anecdote goes back to before World War II, and the planning of an aerodrome for international seaplane connections. In 1937, it was less than 10 years since Charles Lindbergh and flown across the Atlantic, and long-range travel in the air was not feasible. But seaplanes that could land on water offered a possibility, and that same year the city of Charleston entered a tentative agreement with a very surprising client. The German Air Command, then under the direction of Herman Goering and Adolf Hitler, proposed to finance a sea plane aerodrome in Charleston on the Ashley River next to the old West Point Rice Mill. This was during the depression, so Charleston needed the money, and it was before Hitler invaded other countries, and few in America understood how evil he was at that time. But Hitler couldn’t control himself and invaded Czechoslovakia in 1937, and with war looming, the plans were scrapped. <img.src=”Charleston Curiosities” alt=”Wes Point Mill”
Very few of those who join my Charleston Footprints walking tours are aware of the signifiant bombardment Charleston experienced during the Civil War. Federal troops besieging the city fired explosive shells into Charleston for nearly two years, one cannon alone firing 6600 shells in a two-month period. Much of the older historic areas were abandoned, as families under attacks moved to safer distances, but many scenic buildings took hits. At the time, the most prominent building in the city was old St. Michael’s Church, whose 186-foot steeple provided Union gunners with an inviting target. So to make it harder to hit and see, the city defenders painted the white steeple a slate gray to make it blend in with the clouds and sky. <img.src=”Charleston Architecture” alt=”St. Michael’s Church”
Many visitors to Charleston who join my Charleston Footprints walking tour ask about the iron horse head figures protruding from many sidewalks in the historic city. These are tethering posts from the horse and buggy era, to which drivers would tie horses while attending to other business. Electric trolleys came in the 1890’s, and automobiles by the early 20th century, but for most of Charleston’s past, the street traffic was horse-drawn. There were no traffic signals or stop signs until the 1920’s, and before that it was generally understood that at certain intersections, North-South bound horses and wagons had right of way over East-West. There are still horse-drawn wagons taking tourists on rides through scenic Charleston today, but a small reminder of the hoof traffic that once existed. <img.src=”Charleston History” alt=”Tethering Posts”
I tell visitors to Charleston who join my walking tours that many of the historic buildings they see in their travels around the city once had much different uses, and many for which they were not intended originally. Along scenic Ashley Avenue is a pre-Civil War chapel. The building was actually built in the 1820’s as a munitions storage shed for the United States Arsenal, which was located on this spot. After the Civil War, local clergyman Anthony Toomer Porter convinced Federal authorities to give him the property for use as a school for young men, which became Porter Military Academy. Porter changed the shed into St. Luke’s Chapel, which in recent times has been renamed St. Timothy’s Chapel, but no sign of ammunition inside these days. <img.src=”Charleston Architecture” alt=”St. Lukes Chapel”
One of the grandest of the many picturesque houses in scenic, historic Charleston is the South Battery structure known as the Villa Margherita. It was built in the 1890’s by Charleston banker Andrew Simonds, who made a fortune after the Civil War in finance and the timber industry. The Victorian-style Villa was a wedding present for Andrew’s bride, who lived through several husbands so that by the time she died, she had acquired an incredible name – Margaret Rose Anthony Julia Josephine Catherine Cornelia Breaux Simonds Gummere Calhoun. She was known as “Daisy”, and after Andrew died, she turned the house into a hotel called the Villa Margherita, the latter name meaning “Daisy” in Italian. The house today is a private residence.
Among the charming qualities that make Charleston such a desirable destination for those touring from all over the world, is the remarkable history of the city. Whether it’s Civil War, architectural or social history, there are considerable reminders in the form of buildings, forts, and museums. Sadly, some of the history has been lost with time and changes, and one of the common sights hundreds of years ago that has disappeared is that of the towering wind mills that dotted the landscape. The prevailing coastal sea breezes became an energy source 300 years ago when Dutch engineers built the first wind mill in Charleston to power a matrix of saws to cut lumber. The same technology was eventually used to winnow and polish rice, and by the late 1700’s, there were windmills up and down the coast. The coming of steam power in the 1820’s spelled the end for the windmills, all of which have disappeared and are today only found in paintings and property records.
Historic Charleston is always awash with vibrant colors, typically from the assortment of lush plants and trees that have made the city’s scenic gardens such a pleasure for those who tour and visit each year. But also this time of year, we begin to have several months of butterfly migrations, and colorful, fluttering wings add a special grace all their own. Butterflies are known scientifically as lepidoptera, a word derived from the Greek lepid, meaning “scales” and ptera, meaning “wings”. Butterflies like the Gulf Fritillary pictured have wings filled with slender scales that absorb sunlight. Not only does the sunlight provide the butterfly with energy, but the scales refract the light into brilliant colors that attract other butterflies for mating, and warn predators that the wings may be poisonous.