Gilded Guardians

One of the noteworthy details that intrigues many tourists visiting #Charleston, and often catches the eye of guests on my walking tours are the interesting door knockers featured on historic entranceways all over the city. The door knocker became fashionable back in ancient Rome as a means of alerting residents that someone was requesting entrance to the building. Typically, these were made of iron cast in molds to create a heavy object that would resonate when tapped on wood or iron and leave no question that someone was at the door. Charleston’s early architectural details were largely fashioned after what was stylish in England and Europe, and in England, the evolution of door knockers came with some interesting symbolism. Certain shapes fashioned in iron might indicate the trade or authority of the home owner, but the most popular appear to be those that symbolize that the house was well guarded. The fox was a very traditional motif, suggesting the clever, watchful nature of the animal was present in the house, and the fox is very well represented in the door fronts of old Charleston. <img.src=”Charleston Curiosities” alt=”Historic Door Knockers”

Departed Detail

The structure at 50 Broad Street was completed in 1798 as the Bank of South Carolina, and is the oldest building in historic #Charleston used as a bank. The concept of banks was relatively new at that time, as most currency changed hands and credit was issued in custom houses and vendors offices, and much of the money used was English and Spanish coins of gold and silver. Early American banks issued their own paper currency, and quickly became a source of credit for the booming merchant class in Charleston after the Revolution. The new building was striking in appearance, featuring brick that was “rouged” with iron oxides for a bright red color, as well as details that included splayed lintels, belt courses, recessed edicules, and a protruding bracketed cornice along the roofline. The impressive building and its cache of coins and currency quickly caught the attention of a thief named Withers, who tried tunneling his way inside by digging through drain openings on Broad Street in 1801. The “Charleston Mole” was caught, and the bank went nearly another century without a significant loss until the earthquake of 1886. The violent tremors of the quake shook the building so hard that the cornice was dislodged, and with so little money in Charleston after the Civil War, there was no attempt to replace it. Today, the building houses city offices, and still is striking with the obvious marks of the missing cornice under the eaves. <img.src=”Charleston Architecture” alt=”Bank of South Carolina”

Welcome Wings

This time of year brings fluttering wings to historic #Charleston, as we see scores of butterflies darting through colorful gardens. The species we see most often on my walking tour of downtown Charleston are the yellow-winged Cloudless Sulphur, the Black and Yellow-winged Swallowtail, and the orange-winged Gulf Fritillary. These creatures thrive on the nectar of late Summer blossoms such as Lantana, probing with their needle-like probiscus as they flutter from petal to petal. There colors come from tiny scales that absorb the heat of the sun to provide extra energy for migrations that take these delicate bodies thousands of miles. Seemingly vulnerable to birds and other quick-moving predators, the natural color of the butterflies acts as an instinctive warning to other creatures, suggesting toxicity found in plants with similar colors that animals know to avoid. Fortunately, the color patterns provide enough defense to assure that these wonderful wings will provide an eye-catching spectacle each year. <img.src=”Charleston Natural Resources” alt=”Butterflies”

Resplendent Row

Each day on my walking tour of historic #Charleston, I take tourists past scenic Vanderhorst Row on East Bay Street. The impressive brick structure was built along Charleston’s waterfront circa 1800, when bustling shipping wharves stood nearby this residential edifice. There were actually two row buildings erected side by side, but the building to the north was destroyed in the earthquake of 1886, and now there is nothing there but a bland parking lot. Vanderhorst Row itself does exemplify the classic architecture that makes Charleston so unique, and although no more than a rectangular brick building, it is the exquisite detail that makes the structure so pleasing to the eye. The bricks are “rouged” to a deep reddish hue by iron oxides that were added to clays in the kilning process. Those bricks are laid in an attractive pattern called Flemish Bond, with vertical “soldiers” over doors and windows. Stone quoins, voussoirs, splayed lintels and lunette arches added considerably to the classic look of Vanderhorst Row, details that increased building cost, but made it so memorable. Unfortunately, modern architecture in Charleston is rarely distinguishing, as simple details such as those mentioned above are missing from what are typically just brick boxes. We can see so easily in Vanderhorst Row how simple it would be to make all buildings scenic and attractive. <img.src=”Charleston Architecture” alt=”Vanderhorst Row”

Famous Forging

On my walking tours of historic #Charleston, I typically take the group of visitors down Stoll’s Alley in the famous South of Broad district. One of the gates there was done by the Charleston’s most heralded 20th century ironsmith, Philip Simmons. I got to know Mr. Simmons in his later years, when he was still pounding hammer on anvil into his eighties. He got his start as a 13-year old apprentice in a blacksmith shop back in 1925, learning to forge iron axles and wheels for wagons and carts. He quickly found a fascination with the decorative ironwork found in old structures around the city that had been done in previous centuries by ironworkers such as Jacob Roh, Johann Iusti and Christopher Werner. Mr. Simmons decided at age 20 to start his own decorative ironwork enterprise and got his first commissioned job to do a gate on Stoll’s Alley in 1932. The gate pictured below is what he called his “billboard gate”, as he would ask potential customers to look at it and decide if they wanted to hire him. Decades of iron details and hundreds of gates later, the billboard gate was a testimonial to the talent and skill of Philip Simmons from the very first stroke he made on decorative iron. <img.src=”Charleston Gates” alt=”Philip Simmons Billboard Gate”

Hidden Hues

The French Huguenot church in #Charleston is a very distinctive site that we pass each day on my walking tours. The structure, completed in 1845, is very noticeable for its rare Gothic Revival architecture, highlighted by the towering buttresses with their cast-iron finials spiraling heavenward. The church was designed by Charleston architect Edward Brickell White, whose structures are still some of the most noteworthy in the city, including the grand Market Hall on Meeting Street and the equally-impressive High School of Charleston building on Society Street, just to name a few. Although so much of the building’s character is easy to see at first glance, it took more than a century to observe one of its most impressive details. Old black and white photos showed the brick structure with its stucco veneer, but of course, any color was pure conjecture. Throughout the 20th century, the old church featured mostly the bland sand-colored stucco base. In recent years, the stucco was white-washed, and the church had a white exterior throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries. But in 2014, repairs were made on the back wall from damage that occurred in the earthquake and had never been fixed, and contractors found old stucco wedged between bricks that obviously dated to the 1840’s construction. With new microscopic technology, the old sand particles were closely examined, and coral-colored powdered pigments were found mixed in. From this it was determined by architectural historians that the original exterior color of the church was coral, and the facade was restored.  <img.src=”Charleston Architecture” alt=”French Huguenot Church”

Classic Correction

One of the most memorable legends here in historic #Charleston is the story of the famous Sword Gate at 32 Legare Street that we often pass on my walking tour. This wonderful example of hand-forged wrought iron was created by the German-born ironsmith Christopher Werner, who, in my opinion, was the most talented of the many great Charleston ironsmiths. According to the legend, Werner’s command of the English language was not that good, and he misunderstood when city officials commissioned him to create a “pair of gates” for the planned city Guard House at Broad and Meeting streets. Werner made two sets of double-sided gates, when the city’s intention was for the pair to be the two sides of the single gate, according to the legend, and when Werner presented his gates to the city officials, they only wanted one pair and the other was sold to George Hopley, who installed them at his house on Legare Street. I have waded through the hand-written city council minutes, and I discovered that on August 13, 1838, Werner appeared before the council with his plan, stating exactly what he would do and exactly what it would cost – $750, which was a lot of money then. So the “extra” legend is pure fiction, and obviously Hopley commissioned Werner to create a similar gate for his house as a separate undertaking.  <img.src=”Charleston Legends” alt=”Sword Gate”


Past Perspective

This image of Washington Square shows a much different look than the historic park today, and offers some clues as to the date of the picture. This perspective is looking west from the park with the 1820’s Fireproof Building looming to the right. The tall poles pictured indicate it was in the era of electricity, but looking at the one to the left standing over Meeting Street, there are no lines for trolleys, which were electrified in #Charleston in 1897. Also, the structure pictured across Meeting Street to the left of the Fireproof Buildings is one of the 18th century buildings that were remodeled into the Timrod Hotel in 1902. The statue of William Pitt behind the seated women was moved to the park in 1881, and the barely-discernible saplings in the picture are live oaks planted in 1882. Because there is no visible damage to any of the buildings, added to the fact that live oaks grow fairly quickly, I would place this image at roughly 1883 based on visual evidence. <img.src=”Charleston Parks” alt=”Washington Square”

Pointed Perimeter

One of the most interesting houses in old, historic #Charleston is the Tobias Bowles house at 143 Tradd Street. Visitors touring the city are often impressed by the grand structure that stands recessed from the street, as well as its very curious wrought iron gates. The gates are adorned with a series of crossed arrows, which give them a very distinctive look. Bowles had the house built in the 1790’s at a time when this location overlooked the marshes of the Ashley River. Like so many of Charleston’s famous historic houses, it was remodeled in the 1850’s by Solomon Legare, Jr. There has been some question as to the when the gates were added and who did them, but I believe I have the correct answer. Nineteenth century Charleston ironsmith Christopher Werner was the most prolific creator of wrought iron gates from the 1830’s through the 1850’s, and his gate at the Garden Walk off King Street features the exact same arrowhead shape. Also, the enterprising Werner had become involved in building restoration and remodeling by the 1850’s and is very likely the contractor chosen by Legare to redo the house and highlight the structure with a fashionable gate.

Chilling Churchyard

One of the favorite things to do in the Summer for tourists with families in #Charleston is one of the many ghost tours. There are many tours and many creepy stories about ghostly activities in the city’s history, and much of what is told takes some willingness to believe what others have never seen. Yet one of the most chilling tales of the past is based largely on factual evidence and in the case of the notorious Lavinia Fisher, the real person was as haunting as any ghost. Lavinia was arrested in 1820, along with her husband and several accomplices, charged with the disappearance and robbery of patrons at the tavern the Fishers owned. Murdered bodies were never found, presumably buried by the Fisher gang, but stolen horses and goods of transient persons were, and in the 1820’s, this was “highway robbery”, punishable by death. For two years, lawyers argued over the case until Lavinia and her husband were taken to public gallows, where she shrieked and went into convulsions, terrifying onlookers before she was hanged. Before her death, the alluring Lavinia had used seductive powers to convince certain clergymen of her innocence, and at the Unitarian Church, where the tenets of the religion emphasize the value of every life, a gravesite was made available so that she did have to be cast into the pauper’s cemetery. Because of her reputation, which only grew more after her violent death, she was buried in an unmarked grave. Somewhere in this churchyard this murderous woman lies, adding a haunted aspect to the old stones of the Unitarian Churchyard.