We are so fortunate to have such a scenic city here in Charleston, with such a wealth of magnificent historic architecture, and visitors who join my walking tours are impressed with the photogenic locations throughout – but there could have been even more. We have lost some of our best buildings, not to fire or storms, but at the hand of short-sighted individuals who apparently had little appreciation for history or architecture. The most lamentable loss, in my opinion, was the Charleston Hotel. This magnificent classical structure was completed in 1839 with a grand two-story portico of Corinthian columns that stretched an entire block. Old pictures show that it was a showcase of the Meeting Street business district, but in 1960, it was torn down to build an ugly one-story motor court. A bank building was approved on the location years later, and at first there was hope that the grand old facade would be reborn, but instead we got a cheap-looking, scaled-down version of the original that looks almost as bad as the motor court.
One of the great scenic visuals on my walking tours of historic Charleston is the Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. This Gothic-Revival brownstone structure was begun in 1890 to replace another brownstone Gothic Revival cathedral on the same site that was finished in 1854, but burned seven years later. Although the second church was designed by the same architect, Patrick Keel, it was not completed for more than a century because of lack of funds, and the steeple finally added in 2010 was 50 feet shorter than the 216-foot spire of the original.
Because Charleston has always been such an easy place to grow tropical and subtropical plants and trees, many non-native species introduced over the years have flourished. One that catches the eye of many visitors to our scenic city is the Triadica Sebifera, commonly known as the Popcorn Tree. This Chinese native was said to have been introduced to America by Ben Franklin in the 1770’s, and is so common now to be considered invasive in coastal areas along the edge of marshes and creeks. But in the old historic city, the tree is still quit popular, and we can see it in many places along the route I take for my walking tours. It’s most distinctive feature is the budding of tallow-covered seeds that look just like popcorn, and which are often harvested to be worked into wreaths that are sometimes spray-painted red at Christmas time.
People who join me on walking tours of scenic Charleston, SC, are typically very interested in architecture and buildings methods from the city’s past. I point out that many of the historic buildings date to the 18th or early 19th century, when wooden framing was done in the post-and-beam style, building progressively vertically. This type of construction required little use of nails, as timbers were fitted with mortise and tenon joints that were pegged together. This is a very sturdy type of construction, and many of the early houses are better built that those that came later. After 1830, the popular style was “balloon framing”, in which the entire frame was assembled before the inner joints were added.
On my walking tours of scenic Charleston, visitors on vacation often ask which is the oldest building we pass, and are usually surprised that it’s made of wood – the John Lining house at 106 Broad Street. The house was built shortly after the lot was purchased in 1692, and has survived fires, earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes. It has been home to a variety of people and businesses, once used as a newspaper office and for many years as a drugstore. But it is famously linked with Scottish-born physician John Lining, who was vastly head of his time in his meticulous study and understanding of fevers, electricity, climate and botany.
Two parallel streets in Charleston’s Charleston Village area are Beaufain and Montagu, with the latter just above the former crossing the historic peninsula. What an irony it is that Montagu was literally atop Beaufain in 1769, when Lord Charles Grenville Montagu, then Governor of the royal colony, sailed to England standing on the deck of the sloop Beaufain, named for Hector Berenger de Beaufain, who had been the collector of ships’ duties for years here in the city. Another irony is that these names, so close in proximity and seemingly in national origin, represented an Englishman (Montagu), who was despised by local townspeople for supporting the Stamp Act, while Beaufain was French, an became very popular with local merchants with his fair dealings toward all.