There are numerous pictures of historic Charleston that are confounding as to determining when the image was taken. This picture of Washington Square is typical of one such, but although uncertain in date, there are clues that place its date and tell something about the park today. The first is the statue of William Pitt, which was placed in the park in 1891. But the dress of the women on the left is more in keeping with the late 1920’s and 30’s, and the Pitt Statue was removed in 1938 and replaced with George Washington,, so the image is probably mid-1930’s. Another telling aspect are the big trees in the picture, all deciduous, which is a vast contrast from the big, evergreen live oak trees at those same spots today. A tornado did ravage the park in 1938, after which new trees were planted, and what look to be centuries-old oaks there today are clearly not even close to 100 years old.
Guests on my walking tours are impressed with “ugliest building in town”, as the new U.S. Post Office building was jokingly called when it opened in 1896. What sets it apart from so much of Charleston’s historic architecture that typically featured wood or stucco exteriors, is that the courthouse cladding is blue granite. This unusual granite color comes from its igneous origins with particles of mica, feldspar and quartz, and was first mined in 1883 in Fairfield County, whose county seat is the town of Winnsboro. The colorful stone became very popular in construction projects at the turn of the 20th century, and in 1909, 5.3 miles of Charleston curb was laid in Winnsboro granite. Charleston architect John Henry Devereux designed the courthouse in a Renaissance Revival style in 1887, but the construction was held up by a stone cutters’ strike, and not finished until 1896. The bulky, rusticated nature of the stone raised enough eyebrows that, at first, it was considered ugly by local folks, but now a prominent landmark of the Four Corners of Law.
The first of the bi-annual blooms of out state flower, the Yellow Jessamine, are emerging to add to the colorful scenery in Charleston.. There are versions of this plant found in South America as well as the Southeastern US. It is a climbing vine, found usually on gates around historic Charleston, featuring a trumpet-shaped yellow flower and what botanist call “lanceolate” leaves. The scientific name for the plant is a curious combination of Latin, Italian and Turkish. The name “gelsemium” is a Latinized version of the Italian “gelsemino”, which means “jasmine”, which comes from the Turkish “yasemin”. Sempervirens is a Latin combination, meaning “always flourishing”. It is also known as Yellow Jasmine, Carolina Jasmine, Evening Trumpetflower and Woodbine. The flower was supposedly used for medicinal benefits centuries ago, but I wouldn’t advise trying it, as it contains strychnine-based alkaloids that a toxic, as well as a sap that can irritate the skin.
There have been attempts to revise the history of Charleston in recent years, largely based on assumption. One of the casualties of this trend has been the early artisans of Charleston, much of whose work, it is now commonly told, was actually done by slaves. This is verifiably not true, as there are records available that prove otherwise. The Pinckney Mansion on East Bay, built in the 1740’s and lost in the 1861 fire, is recorded as the mostly the work of such European-born artisans as John Pagett, James Hartley, Humphrey Sommers and Joesph Black. The mid 1700’s saw the emergence of a large artisan class in Charleston, that included Thomas Elfe, Samuel Cardy, Henry Bedon, William Carwither, Charles Warham, and Benjamin Baker. One of the most sought after was Scottish-born Robert Deans, who, according to records, did a great deal of the carving and joining work at St. Michael’s church, begun in 1752. Deans carved capitals, cornices, stairs, molding, finials, and a variety of detailed embellishments. Deans was also a close associate of John Drayton, whose plantation, Drayton Hall was constructed in years overlapping both the Pinckney Mansion and St. Michael’s. If there is to be assumption on who built the plantation, it would likely have been Deans and those who worked on the Pinckney mansion , as both were done in a very similar Palladian style. Slave labor was certainly used in many Charleston buildings, and there were very skilled artisans who were both free blacks and slaves, but the truth is that there were many hands from many backgrounds who built Charleston.
Visitors come to Charleston these days mostly by airline, car and ship, but in the 19th century, it was through the railroads. The old South Carolina Railroad Line first built in the 1840’s only came into the Charleston as far as John Street, out of fear that sparks from the locomotives might burn down older parts of the city, an you can still find segments of the old track line between King and Meeting streets. Shortly after the Civil War, a huge “roundhouse” was built along side the tracks between Columbus and Spring streets, to service the busy locomotives. By entering what essentially was a covered Lazy Susan, the locomotives could be uncoupled and pulled on auxiliary lines to a nearby foundry or a series of workshops, then a newly-repaired locomotive was maneuvered into position, and the train continued. The old wooden building was closed and obsolete by 1958, when it burned to the ground, and the property eventually was used to build the first Meeting Street Piggly Wiggly.
Often, people who visit Charleston and join my walking tours are very complimentary about my knowledge of a wide variety of subjects that they may be curious in relation to the city’s history. In fact, we’ve always had very bright Charlestonians. When the High School of Charleston opened on Society Street in 1849, young students were taught a curriculum that would seem incredibly difficult by today’s standards. Besides reading the Latin and Greek texts of Horace, Homer, Virgil and Cicero, the studies included geography, algebra, chronology, trigonometry, physiology, botany, anatomy, history, mammalogy, composition and declaration. The 118 students that year received as fine an education as any in America, keeping alive a legacy of very well-educated Charlestonians, such as Edward Brickell White, who studies engineering and architecture at West Point, and designed the school building that still stands today.
People who visit Charleston and go on my walking tours are usually surprised to learn that there is a lot of history beneath the surface here. Despite being so close to the sea, we have lots of underground cellars and tunnels from centuries ago. One of the most interesting things below us are the “water traps” along the edge of the Cooper River. With so much cotton stored in waterfront warehouses in the 1800’s, fire was a huge threat, so in 1838, the city began digging reservoirs of salt water, stating officially that these offered, “proper provision for such a supply of water as may be equal to the prompt and speedy suppression of fire”. This was long before pressurized water lines, and water for fire was pumped by steam and hydraulics, so the supply had to be contained and close. The water traps had underground doors that would push in with high tide and close when the tide turned, filling the spaces, and it’s interesting that the most significant waterfront fire didn’t occur until 1955, after the old traps were obsolete.
I have guests on my walking tours who often ask what is the grandest building in the historic city, and always on the list is the US Custom House on East Bay Street. Arguably one of Charleston’s most magnificent structures, it was intended to be much more magnificent, but literally came up short due to Civil War. New Hampshire architect Ammi Young created the design of the Custom House, which in his original plan, called for four great columned porticoes, topped by a massive cupola, as shown in the drawing below. The work began in 1852, requiring the hammering of 7,000 pilings by steam engine into former waterfront, and hauling in stone and brick in amounts much greater than any other Charleston building at that date. The picture shows how much was completed at the outbreak of the Civil War, and afterward, the Federal government cut funds, which altered the design to exclude the side porticoes and the cupola.
A number of visitors to Charleston have asked me where they can find the group of buildings is known as “The Three Sisters”. My response is, “in a scrap book or library file”, because The Three Sisters are long gone. This group of 19th century single-houses once stood on the South side of Calhoun Street, bordering East Bay Street, and were known for their similarity. Sadly, that part of the city declined in the early 20th century, and by the 1960’s, the old houses were empty and tattered, and were torn down.
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.
How interesting that only days after I posted this about the Daguerrotype process, a story appeared in the local newspaper about daguerrotypes – in this case a dated story about some images of African-American slaves done in Columbia in the 1850’s. But the story was not about daguerrotypes, it was the endlessly recurrent theme of racial victimization and exploitation that dominates the paper and this writer’s articles. By dragging in references to George Floyd and a presumed interpretation of what Charlestonians thought of something John C Calhoun wrote in 1837, this writer suggests a collective guilt and a sense of shocking depravity over the nude images. In fact, nude daguerrotypes were quite common in the 1850’s, and nudes as both an art form and a scientific depiction have been common since ancient times. Leonardo DaVinci was famous for his sketches of nudes, and Pablo Picasso’s heralded “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” is nude art based on African themes. In Africa, the cultural tradition of depicting nude forms has a long history as well, so the 1850’s images should not be such a shock.