Memories of the Dock Street Theatre

Cast of "Relatively Speaking"
Dock Street Theatre

Performances at The Dock Street Theatre are held on Church Street at the original stage location on Queen Street – a confusing past with which I have a personal history.

  The first American structure built for theatrical performances was opened in 1736 on a street originally known for its shipping docks, but two years before, the city had flattered King George II by redubbing the street in honor of his expecting wife Anne, but the theatre continued to be called by the old street name.

  The term Dock Street lived on, but the building was short-lived, destroyed by fire in 1754. Rebuilt and damaged by fire again, the property was sold in 1809 as part of The Planter’s Hotel, whose entrance was around the corner on Church Street, but did include a small stage in keeping with other city taverns and public dining rooms of that era that often featured itinerant actors, singers and acrobats.

   The hotel was refurbished during the mid 19th century with distinctive ribbed brownstone columns and an intricate second-floor balcony, on which Charleston horse-racing jet-set were known to gather after events for libations that local legend says included a concoction called Planters Punch.

   With a fading post-Civil War economy and more modern hotel competition, the old structure entered the 20th century like many faded Charleston landmarks – dilapidated and ripe for demolition. A plan to revive the long-vanished theater would bring salvation in the form of a federal grant from the depression-era New Deal program, and in 1937, a The Dock Street Theatre reopened with a performance of The Recruiting Officer – the same play performed when the theatre first raised its curtains in 1736.  The new theatre has performed far better than its original namesake, as home to local stage companies and host to musical and theatrical events for more than a century. First of these community companies was the Footlight Players, and as a “footlight” I played leading roles in five plays on the Dock Street stage, incuding this picture from “The Match Maker”. That’s me in the upper right, flanked by from left to right, Kit Lyons, Jo Anne Marcell, and Oliver Bowman.

Sword Gates

Sword Gates 32 Legare Street

The famous Sword Gates at 32 Legare Street offer one historic case in which misinterpretation of the English language proved to be Charleston’s blessing. In 1838, city authorities commissioned German-born ironsmith Christopher Werner to create a “pair of gates” for the old Guard House at the corner of Meeting and Broad streets.

  Werner apparently assumed that meant two separate gates, rather than two halves of the same gate. He diligently went to work with his apprentices, pounding out an incredibly detailed pair of wrought iron masterpieces that featured two large swords facing inward horizontally on either side, as well as spears pointing vertically on either side. Both motifs were old Roman symbols of strength and power, well-suited for the Guard House, which was home to the city police.

  Upon presentation to the city, Werner was informed that there was only need for one set of “gates”, not two separate ones. One set was mounted at the entrance to the Guard House, and the other was put up for sale. Merchant George Hopley bought the extra gates for his home on Legare Street, replacing a large wooden gate that dated to the early 19th century, when Madame Talvande kept the house as an academy for young girls from elite families.

  Hopley’s gates survive today as the most photographed and famed set of gates in a city renowned for wrought iron, and no doubt add significantly to the $23 million price tag on 32 Legare today. The original Guard House gates were removed from the Broad Street location after the building was severely damaged in the earthquake of 1886 that wrecked much of old Charleston. The police were moved to the Central Station on Hutson street in 1887, and the gates were put in storage, eventually to be remounted at the Citadel, when the military academy moved from Marion Square to its present site along the Ashley River. Today, those gates, painted gold, flank the entrance to the campus, but are not as imposing because they are separated by the street entrance.

 As it turns out, the unwanted extra gates are by far the most noticed and famous today, all thanks to a slight misunderstanding in 1838.

St. Michael’s Steeple

St. Michael's painted during Civil War

The gleaming Spire of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church stands as a great testimonial to Charleston’s ability to survive disaster. The belfry on the 1761 church was used for many years as a fire lookout. A “steepleman” was posted in the open arcaded area, and if he saw evidence of a fire, would go down the narrow stairs to the “ringing room” and pull eight strokes on a rope attached to the largest bell above. This 1900-pound bell could be heard throughout the old city, and firemen on the old “engine companies” were trained to listen for the signal. From almost any vantage point, they could have seen St. Michael’s steeple, and the steepleman’s next job was to climb back up to the arcade, light a lantern, and hang it on a pole pointing in the direction of the fire. This method was used until the city put up separate fire bell towers in the 1880’s as part of Charleston’s first municipal fire department.

  S. Michael’s steeple was also used during wars as a military look-out, manned by local soldiers during the Revolution and War Between the States to observe besieging forces around Charleston. By 1863, Union troops on Morris Island were bombarding the city regularly with rifled cannons that could easily hit the glaring target that St. Michael;s made, so the city painted church and steeple a slate gray so that it would blend in with the horizon from a distance.

  Since the bombardment in the 1860’s, the steeple survived direct hits during the earthquake of 1886, when it was supported with huge beams to prevent its collapse, and when a 1938 hurricane struck on ironically, St. Michael’s Day, Sept. 29th.

Stars and Bars/Battle Flag

Stars and Bars
Confederate Battle Flag

 As we approach the sesquicentennial of the firing on Fort Sumter and the remembrance of Charleston’s Confederate history, I’d like to clarify the popular names of famous Southern flags that are often confused. Many people have heard the name “Stars and Bars” and understandably associate that name with the famed Confederate banner that features the blue cross of St. Andrews on a red field, with white trim and white stars. In fact the “Stars and Bars” is the first national Confederate flag, created in March, 1861, featuring red and white “bars”, or stripes, and seven stars inside a blue field in the dexter corner.

There were four versions of the Stars and Bars, representing differing numbers of stars for states in the Confederacy, or sympathizing with the Confederacy at different times during the War Between the States.

The St. Andrews cross flag is the Confederate battle flag, which was first unfurled in November, 1861, as a soldier’s flag. It was created to distinguish Confederates from Union troops, whose Stars and Stripes and Stars and Bars looked similar when hanging limp from a flag pole. Originally, the army battle flag was square, with navy blue in its cross, or saltire, and the rectangular version was actually first created as a naval jack for ships, with a brighter blue saltire. But the rectangular flag became popular among many infantry units, and what is commonly flown today has the navy blue cross.

No Such Thing as “Compromise House”

Among the many stories told about Charleston that have been greatly exaggerated over the years is the commonly misrepresented “compromise house” tale told of the property at 29 East Battery, the Porcher-Simonds house. In the first place, it should be pronounced as “Porshay”, and with a long “I” as “Seye-monds”. The hyphenated name for the house combines the surname of the man who had it built in 1856, Francis Porcher, and the owner who remodeled it in the 1890’s, John Simonds.

  The story that is often told is that the structure’s unusual combination of semi-circular and rectangular piazzas were created as a compromise between husband and wife over shapes they wanted when the house was being built. In fact, when the house was built by Porcher, a wealthy cotton broker, it was designed as a “side-hall” single-house, featuring a single living room wide facing the street, flanked by an open piazza on the south side piazza and an entrance hall on the north side. Original pictures of the house show that it looked very much like the side-hall house next door at 31 East Battery.

  Simonds, a wealthy banker, remodeled the house in Victorian style in the 1890’s, and the combination of circular and rectangular piazzas was a popular Italian Renaissance Revival style that can also be found at 68 Meeting Street, another antebellum single-house remodeled to look Victorian on the outside. Simonds, whose grandson and I play cards every week, was a determined businessmen who rarely compromised with anyone, so the story is entertaining but bogus.

 Since 1982, the house has been subdivided as three condominiums, but still has a wonderful look and a view of Charleston harbor that will never be compromised.

Porcher-Simonds house

Chimneys & Sweep Boys

Capped Chimney

  A famous old look on Charleston roof tops comes from the numerous chimneys “capped” with brick arches open on the sides. The look is distinctive, but the idea is very functional, keeping smoke from backdrafting down the chimneys in the pre-electricity days when ciy houses were heated by coal and wood-burn ing fireplaces.

 The brick chimney cap was also sensible preventative against flaming embers that could easily ignite the layers of coal tar or creosote that would build up on the inner walls of the structure from hearths below.

  Concern over the combustible capability of chimneys was considerable, and city ordinances in the 18th century created “chimney inspectors”,who had the power to enter private property for the purpose of determining whether chimneys were safe. These inspectors could compel property owners to have their chimneys swept, which was done until well into the 20th century by small boys known as “sweep boys”.

 Sweep boys would crawl into fireplaces and squeeze their way up through the narrow chimney passages, scouring with bristled brushes to the roof. An ordinance in 1842 set maximum sweep rates at 6 3/4 cents per floor after a threatened strike by chimney sweeps actually prevailed over Charleston.

Charleston’s Stonehenge

An unusual row of small structures stands mysteriously on lower Church Street, confounding Charlestonians for years as to its origin and purpose. Four masonry posts, made of limestone covered with stucco, protrude from the sidewalk south of Water Street like oversized stalagmites, raising the curiosity of all passersby. The four posts stand in front of the George Eveleigh house at 39 Church Street, which was built when Water Street was still Vanderhorst Creek. One plausible theory is that the posts were installed as docking bollards for flat-bottomed boats pulled up in the high marsh near the house. There is also a significant bend in Church Street in front of the Eveleigh house, and when the thoroughfare was being laid out, the posts also could have been put up as a barrier against horses and carriages going past, or equipped with rings for animals to be tethered. One notable oddity about the posts is that they lean to the west, an aspect that might be explained by a hurricane that severely the damaged the house in 1811, with wind and water surging from the east that may have affected the stand of the stones. Then again, the lean in each post is nearly uniform, suggesting that perhaps they were linked at one time with a metal bar or wooden slats that may have pushed them over from the force of the earthquake that struck Charleston in 1886. In any case, no one really knows why the posts are there, and like England’s Stonehenge, these posts from the past remain a mystery.

Peculiar posts

Chevaux-de-Frise

Misinterpretation of historic sites or names is understandable in a city with a past as extensive as Charleston’s. There are aspects of our history that are not well-docmented or obscured by legend, and any interpretation is worth considering if it is based on some precedent. One common mistake that is often repeated, however, is simply a matter of confusion over similarly-spelled French words. The subject of this confusion is the spiked metal apparatus that adorns several locations in the city, most prominently at the Miles Brewton house on King Street. The spikes were put up as a deterrent to house invasion after a city-wide scare of slave revolt in 1822. The infamous Denmark Vesey conspiracy was uncovered to reveal gruesome details for plans of mass murder, and many in the city continued to be fearful of plans to climb into their homes during the night.

  To create an obstacle that provided protection, Charlestonians turned to a method made famous by Dutch armies in the 17th and 18th centuries during their battles with Spain. Because the Dutch could not counter the fearsome Spanish cavalry, they revived an idea used in the flat northern province of Friesland to hold back invaders – sharp wooden spikes protruding from logs.

 The rows of pointed spikes proved effective in holding back the Spanish horses, and became known as “Frisian horses”, which, in the language of international diplomacy at that time (French), was called “chevaux-de-frise”.  You can see this type of defensive position in Civil War pictures of trenches at various battlefields, and it also became known as “abattis”.

 Charlestonians assumed what worked against horses would also serve against human beings, and for lasting protection, had the spikes wrought from iron to make them impervious to rot and fire.

 The confusion over the old French name came much later, as tours went past old houses, and the term “chevaux-de-frise” was misinterpreted by some who translated “chevaux” as “cheveux”, which means “hair”, and mistakenly added an accent to “frise”, which makes it translate as “curly”.

 Thus was born “curly hair”, which doesn’t have much story-telling appeal, so the translation became “spiked hair”, which is often heard on the streets of Charleston today.

  Sorry folks, they didn’t wear spiked hair in 1822, and the true translation is “Frisian horses”.

Chevaux-de-Frise

SOUTHEASTERN WILDLIFE EXPO

Michael Feeding Feline Friend

One of the Charleston’s most anticipated events is the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition each February, featuring world-class wildlife art, exciting live animal displays and exhibits, and some of the best parties on the planet.
Charleston is a natural for nature’s beauty, as our climate attracts an incredible array of wild indigenous and migratory species, and we have always had a kindred relationship with animals in the field.
Starting up above, we are blessed with winged creatures of every size, shape and color. Our official state bird, the Carolina Wren, is tiny, but emits a powerful whistling message that is distinctive and delightful on golden Spring mornings. Swamps and woodlands echo with the uplifting tomes of the Prothonotary Warbler, while marshes reverberate with the staccato sounds of the Clapper Rail.
Drifting high on warming thermals are a variety of birds of prey, from the imposing horizontal wing span of the Great Bald Eagle to the tilting V-shape of circling Vultures. Along the coast, great Blue Herons and Egrets stand statuesquely near tidal creeks, Eastern Brown Pelicans wing over for sensational dives into the sea, and lone Black Skimmers create long streaks in still waters with beaks that drag delicately inches above the surface.
Migratory and game birds abound aplenty in Charleston winters, from floating flocks of Trumpeter Swans and Canada Geese to formation flights of Mallard and Mottled ducks. Cold rivers swarm with American Coots that seem to walk on water as they dash in monstrous melees when startled, and woodlands come alive with gobbling Wild Turkeys, the state game bird, which is surprisingly swift for an animal better known as a dining centerpiece.

Formidable creatures linger in protected habitats, from massive American Alligators, our state reptile, that send shuddering calls during mating periods in the Summer, to graceful White-Tailed Deer, our state animal, that dart effortlessly through mazes of dwarf palmettos. Sightings have been frequently reported of Golden Panthers and Black Bears deep in area forests, and other less-frequently-seen species in the Lowcountry include the Fox Squirrel, the Grey Fox, and the Beaver.
A major star at SEWE has always been the retriever, whether it was a Labrador, a Golden, or a Boykin, which is our state dog, and some of the best athletes in town are the leaping four-leggers chasing Frisbees.

Sullivan’s Island Halves and Half-Nots

Sullivan’s Island was crossed by trolley lines beginning in the 1860’s and was connected to Mount Pleasant ferry boat landings by a cove bridge in 1898. There was an express trolley that went to the newly-created amusement park on Long Island, whose name was changed to the Isle of Palms, and a local trolley that stopped at “stations” located on perpendicular roads that were gradually developed as the island grew. The first group of stations were Mount Pleasant stops, with the first island stop at station 8 across the bridge. The old trolley bridge was replaced with a vehicle span in the 1920’s, which was removed with the creaton of the Ben Sawyer span in the 1940’s. The trolley service ended as well, but the old “station” designations would be revived in the 1950’s as streets were renamed with the station numbers. Today, the first perpendicular station street is number 9, with whole numbers continuing to the island’s north end at Station 32, with several “half stations” at 9 1/2, 14 1/2, 16 1/2, 18 1/2, 20 1/2, 22 1/2, 26 1/2, an 28 1/2. So the correct answer to how many halves  and half-nots at Sullivan’s Island would be 8 and 24, respectively.