Lighting Charleston

Morris Island Light 1860
It has been 50 years since the Morris Island Lighthouse was decommissioned, but it still stands strong against waves and wind near Charleston Harbor. The 161-foot lighthouse was built in 1876, and is the third beacon on Morris Island. The original light built on the uninhabited island was constructed in 1767 by the same man who undertook the building of historic St. Michael’s Church, Samuel Cardy. That structure was remodeled in 1838 to build it higher and more sturdy, and stood until December 20, 1861, when Confederates blew it up. Abraham Lincoln had declared a blockade of Southern ports in 1861, and the defenders of Charleston did not want a light that could fall in Northern hands. Blockade runners that brought needed supplies and medicines in through the blockade depended on darkness, and the less light, the better.
The 1876 structure, like the two that preceded it, was built well inland on the island, and was manned by a light keeper whose house was nearby. Since construction of the harbor jetties in the 1880’s, hydrodynamics have changed on Morris Island, and more than three-fourths of the original island has washed away, including the land around the lighthouse. A cofferdam was added in 2010 to protect the structure’d base from erosion, and the old beacon is still a familiar sight to mariners who come and go into Charleston.
Morris Island Lighthouse

Marking the First

Tartan Marker First Scots
Charleston’s original Presbyterian congregation held prayer services at the old White Meeting House on the site of the present Circular Congregational Church, sharing the meeting house building with other “Dissenters” (Protestants who did not accept the supremacy of the Church of England). In 1731, they moved to their present location at the corner of Meeting and Tradd streets, bulding a wooden “kirk” at the southeast corner of the lot. Being the initial group of Presbyterians to establish an independent congregation, they called themselves First Scots Presbyterian, but because of size restrictions in the old wooden church, a second group pf Presbyterians estalbished another congregation farther up the peninsula in 1809, consecrating their current structure in 1811 as the Second Presbyterian Church. The old wooden “kirk” was replaced in 1814 by the church used by the First Scots congregation today, so technically, the First is the third, and in a literal sense, the Second is the first in age and the First is second. Today, all that remains from the actual First are four tartan cloth markers in what is now the graveyard, marking the four original corners of the church.

Charleston’s Forgotten Church

St. Peter's Churchyard
At the beginning of the War Between the States, there were 10 Episcopal churches in downtown Charleston, but only two were located in the fabled South of Broad area – St. Michael’s and St. Peter’s. St. Peter’s, which was located on the east side of Logan Street between Broad and Tradd, burned in the great fire of December, 1861, and there are no photographs or historic descriptions. Because the congregation was organized in the summer of 1834, and the church consecrated on December 30th, 1835, it’s construction was presumably not as grand as St. Michael’s, but similar to St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church on Anson Street, which was built in 1836. The original congregation included both black and white parishioners, and ascribed to the Oxford Theology movement that began in England the 1830’s, which was a “high-church” Anglican theory of being a branch of Catholicism on par with the Roman church. Prominent Charleston families such as the Barnwells and deSaussures were among the St. Peter’s faithful, but all was lost in the great fire that swept through the western extent of the city in 1861.
Today, a rather unattractive condominium stands on the old St. Peter’s location, surrounded by graves from the antebellum church yard, that is still kept, squeezed in a narrow space south of the condo.

Truth of the Triglyph

Triglyph and Guttae
The triglyph is a common architectural detail on historic Charleston buildings fashioned in classical styles. This curious but distinctive-looking form, usually made from plaster or wood, is typically found on the section between a column and roof or floor, known as the frieze. It looks roughly like the Roman numeral three, and has small, dot-like elaborations at its base, which are called guttae. The triglyph comes from ancient Greek and Roman architecture, and can be seen on structures that date back thousands of years. Although its origin is not completely certain, it is generally believed to be a symbol of order in architecture that was the essence of the Greek and Roman styles. The legs of the triglyph are supposed to represent the end section of wooden beams, cut in funnels to shadow their rough edges, and the guttae represent pegs that joined them. This is derived from the Roman architectural historian Vitruvius, whose Ten Books on Architecure were written about 15 BC. Vitruvius believed that there was a higher purpose in architecture than just putting up a roof and walls, and that all buildings should possess three qualities – strength, utility and beauty. Perhaps that is what the three columns of the triglyph truly represent.

Murray Boulevard Memories

Tristram Hyde House
The avenue along Murray Boulevard is graced with grand houses that seem historic, but actually are not very old at all. The entire area was nothing more than a mudflat called South Bay until 1909, when construction began on a grand boulevard that would link the Ashley and Cooper Rivers. The project initially involved draining and filling acres of land by building a retaining wall and dredging mud to create a 47-acre area 8.5 feet above mean low tide. The land fill was completed in 1911, but it took an ensuing series of projects that lasted until 1925 to finish the 4000-foot paved drive that was named after one of the chief financiers of the effort, Andrew Buist Murray, as Murray Boulevard. During the First World War, several of the houses that grace the area were completed in NeoClassical styles, including the new home of Charleston mayor Tristram Hyde in 1915. Hyde was the epitome of the Charleston mayor in the early 1900’s, desperately trying to drag the city into the 20th century by whatever means necessary. It was Hyde who pushed for the building of the monstrous Francis Marion hotel in the 1920’s, when he allegedly helped finance the project with payoffs from local bootleggers who ran some very profitable speak easies in town during Prohibition. Whether by hook or by crook, the South Battery-Murray Boulevard area is a vast improvement over old. muddy South Bay.

Baker Sanitorium

Baker House Today
As late as the early 20th century, most Charleston women were giving birth at home. But in 1912, Charleston gynecologist and surgeon Dr. Archibald Baker opened a 60-bed hospital and medical teaching center that afforded women a safer, more antiseptic opportunity to have babies. The Baker Sanitorium was the first private hospital in Charleston, and literally stood out in its prominent location overlooking Colonial Lake with its unusual Mission Revival design, which was influenced by the old Spanish missions in California. The four story structure featured overhanging cornices and arched passages designed to catch the prevailing westerly breezes off the Ashley River.
Dr. Baker also used the hospital as a teaching center, and three of his sons would also become physicians and work at the hospital, which moved from the location in 1981. Today, the Baker House is a condominium, and still stands majestically over Colonial Lake, although not quite as high as what was located near that spot in the early 1800’s. Wyatt’s wind saw-mill was built in this area during the 1790’s, and once stood more than
75 feet high, with giant canvas arms turning in the wind. Steam power would make wind mills obsolete by 1817 in Charleston, and the old structure was long gone before photography was born.

Partial Plates?

Partial Earthquake Plate
This picture from 120 Tradd Street shows earthquake plates at different levels along a belt course detail. All earthquake plates in Charleston are refits to existing buildings, and sometimes, the fir wasn’t easy to make. The technical name for these plates is “gib” plate, a technology that had existed long before the 1886 earthquake shattered Charleston walls with tremors measuring an estimated 7.3 on the Richter Scale (that’s because the Richter Scale didn’t exist until nearly fifty years later and all numbers are estimates). A gib plate is an adjustable metal brace, in which iron rods were connected by inserting through spaces between flooring and joining with a turnbuckle. To hold the wall in place theoretically, they were capped by a washer plate and bolted tight.
A belt course, like the one pictured, is an exterior detail made from extending the courses of brick at a certain point, then stuccoing over to create a spatial look between floors. It was less efficient to cut through the extra brick course than either above or below it, and if the brickmasons’ work was not level with the framing, the rod would be obstructed as it obviously was here, so either the separate rods go through at slightly different levels, or the belt course was removed and relaid between the plates, or they simply were cut to fit.
It was not uncommon to fix gib plates on damaged buildings were bricks had fallen and then re-brick over them, as can be seen from Stoll’s Alley on the Northwest corner of the house at 47 East Bay Street, whose corner “coin” had obviously come off during the earthquake, a gib plate affixed, then the coin rebuilt on top of the plate. So, if you look closely around Charleston, you will see the partial earthquake plate look in several locations.

People’s Building Always An Eyesore

The People's Building
On November 11, 1909, bids were accepted for the 8-story “People’s Building” in Charleston. The average bid was $250,000 to build Charleston’s first skyscraper with a brick, granite and terra cotta exterior. The name came from the People’s Bank of South Carolina, which moved its local headquarters from across the street at 15 Broad Street.
To erect the massive structure, an historic 19th century building with Greek Revival portico was sacrificed, and another was so badly damaged by the pilings that were driven that it was taken down as well. The idea of the big office building was the brainchild of former Charleston mayor Robert Goodwyn Rhett, who was president of the People’s Bank, and a firm advocate of modernizing the city at all costs. To help persuade Charlestonians that the new monstrosity was worthwhile, Rhett invited the newly-elected US President, William Howard Taft, to visit the city. Taft reportedly remarked that the view from atop the People’s Building was worth the construction, but what is really remarkable is that the new electric elevators were actually able to tote his 300-pound body to the upper floors of the building without breaking down. Admittedly, the 1912 roof top picture of the Great Gray Fleet of US battleships entering the Cooper River was a memorable shot from the People’s Building roof, but otherwise, the angular yellow building has stood out like a sore thumb since those bids were made so many years ago.

Legendary Mutation

Hibiscus Mutabilis
Visitors to Charleston this time of year get a special treat with the blooming beauty of the small tree known as Confederate Rose. The species is actually of the Hibiscus family, not a rose, and is certainly not Confederate, considering it originates in Asia, but its florid petals look very much like roses, and were very popular in the antbellum South, thus the name. The Confederate Rose is scientifically known as Hibiscus Mutabilis, and as the name suggests, it undergoes a remarkable mutation, changing petal colors in the space of a single day. Flowers that burst forth lily white in the morning will turn light pink by day’s end, and eventually shrivel to blood red. Botanists are not in complete agrement as to what causes the change, but the catalyst appears to be a pigment enzyme in the petals that is triggered by sunlight.
According to Southern legend, the flower got its name from an incident during the War Between the States, when a wounded Confederate soldier clutched the flower as he lay dying, and his slowly-dripping blood changed its color from white to red. It is a great story and a great looking tree in bloom, and in Charleston’s sub-tropical climate, this Asian transplant grows as if it were native.

Defiant Tradition

Gonzalez Flag
Defiance is a long-standing Charleston trademark, and many of the flags such as this distinctive one flown from downtown houses remind us of the city’s passion for independence. Charlestonians have actually declared independence three times – in 1719 from the Lords Proprietors who ran the early colony, in 1776 from the King that we had briefly acquiesced to royal authority, and in 1860 from the Union that we had joined with the idea that we were free to extract ourselves.
The flag shown here is the famous Gonzalez flag from Texas. Many South Carolinians had moved west in the 1820’s, and some became famous in the formation of Texan independence and statehood, such as William Barrett Travis, commander of the Alamo, and Francis Richard Lubbock, who would become governor of the Lone Star state.
In the 1830’s, the town of Gonzalez was largely settled by easterners, but was still under the authority of Mexico. Because of constant attacks by Indians, the townspeople asked the Mexican government for a cannon to defend the town. They got one, and then joined the fight for Texas independence, so the Mexicans demanded the cannon back. In defiance, the town raised the “come and take it banner” and never gave up their gun, becoming part of the new state in 1845.