Classically Obvious

IMG_1832About 75 BC, a Roman scholar named Vitruvius published a book in Latin called De Architectura, or “On Architecture”, in which he spelled out the basic tenets of Classic architecture. Vitruvius wrote that buildings should be solid, useful, and attractive, and went into considerable detail as to the use of materials, methods, and concepts of buildings as a means of applying logic to construction. Vitruvius was particularly aware of the spatial order of buildings, and how the ratio of size, circumference and weight were all important to the aesthetic goal of construction. Thus, with adherence to Vitruvius’ ideals, Classic architecture remains a timeless pleasure. What is a perplexing question here in Charleston and throughout the world, is, why are modern architects, who have left comparatively so little work that is as pleasing as the classicists, so opposed to continuing and contributing to styles that have inspired so many for so long?
It isn’t called “classical” for nothing.

Curious Weapon

IMG_1839The peculiar-looking weapon at White Point Garden facing South Battery is not a version of the famous Gatling Gun, but a Spanish-made rapid fire gun taken as a trophy during the Spanish-American War. The gun is marked with the date 1886, and was fixed on a Spanish warship as armament. The ship was apparently captured or surrendered, and the gun was removed, but not donated to the City of Charleston until 1937, when it was placed at White Point Garden to complement the numerous military displays there.
The five-barrel was fired by a rotating cylinder that loaded and fired new rounds continuously, which is the same concept as the Gatling Gun. Considering the woeful record of the Spanish navy against the U.S., the gun probably caused few casualties, and like many of the weapons frequently climbed-on at White Point Garden, has surely contributed to more injuries in peace time than in war.

Crowning Cupola

IMG_1831The cupola is a distinctive architectural detail on several of Charleston’s Revolutionary-era buildings. The small. circular structure gets its name from Italian “little cup”, and was a popular Venetian ornamentation made popular in Neo-classical designs based on Andrea Palladio’s Four Books of Architecture. The cupola is designed for a dual purpose – to give a building beauty and to help ventilate the structure. The crowning little cup adds a delicate dimension to the architecture, and by opening cupola windows, warm air is released from within. Here in Charleston, the combination of looking good and keeping cool was always a major influence on architecture, and cupolas began to appear shortly before the Revolution in buildings such as the Old Exchange, the Josiah Smith house, and the John Ashe house. The cupola at the Ashe house once overlooked docks along South Bay, now South Battery and Murray Boulevard, and legend says that a light was used as navigation for ships.

Mosquito Fleet Memories

Mosquito Fleet Boat
The fishing industry in colonial Charleston was heavily dependent on the work of slave boatmen who were allowed by law to own their own vessels. Numerous accounts can be found of slave sales that advertise “skilled boatmen”, as well as plenty of stories about slaves who brought fish-catching and boat-handling skills from West Africa. Many of the early boats were hewn from large cypress logs and propelled by sails made from strips of home-made quilts and blankets. Launching from wharf areas along the Cooper River near the public market, these black boatmen sailed miles out to see without maps or compasses, but found their way by dead reckoning out to black fish banks to bring back hulls full of tautog, whiting, porgy and shark that was sold on the streets of Charleston. There was seemingly safety in numbers, and the fisherman would go out together as what became famously called “The Mosquito Fleet”. Long after emancipation, descendants of former slaves carried on the fleet’s tradition, but suffered severe losses in terrible storms in 1904 and 1915, which decimated their ranks. I interviewed one of the last of the Mosquito Fleet crew for a TV story in 1985, long after he had given up the fishing tradition. He told me that those generations of fisherman welcomed the treachery of open sea, which offered an unparalleled sense of freedom and accomplishment.

Horsing Around

The horse has been a common sight on the streets of Charleston since its colonial beginnings. Carriages, sulkies and trolleys were common conveyances for people throughout the city’s history, and there were also an assortment of ice wagons, garbage carts, cotton drays pulled by both horse and mule for centuries. In fact, there were livery stables throughout the old city at the turn of the 20th century, and numerous buildings found on Queen, Tradd, Church and Chalmers streets today stand were liveries were in business a century ago.
With the combination of wealth, ample land and idle time, many early Charlestonians got hooked on horse racing, and the first regularly-scheduled races were held at the New Market Race Course in the city neck. The area that is now roughly bounded by Blake, King, Huger streets and Morrison Drive offered thoroughbred racing for the first time in February of 1760, and proved so popular that, within the decade, race grounds were created in Jacksonborough, Beaufort and Srawberry.
Horse breeding became a major business with stock from around the world, primarily Arabian mixes from England, and highly-advertised races brought immense bets between local planters and equestrians from overseas and other colonies. Some contests were sprints distancing four miles, with wagers well over 2,000 pound sterling. The Revolution proved the value of South Carolina stock, as Francis Marion, William Washington and other mounted patriots overcame tremendous odds on fast, powerful horses.
After the war, the Washington Race Course opened at what is today Hampton Park, and had a long, heralded tradition of racing that only died out with the destruction and stealth of horses during and after the War Between the States.

Daniel Ravenel House

The house at 68 Broad Street is typical of the post-Revolutionary single-house style commonly built in Charleston. But what is particularly unusual about the house is that the structure begun by Daniel Ravenel in 1796 is still owned by Daniel Ravenel. Although several families in Charleston still hold on to houses owned or built by their ancestors, the lot at number 68 bears the distinction of being in the same family the longest – 303 years since 1710 when it was purchased by Isaac Mazyck. Mazyck’s daughter Charlotte married planter Daniel Ravenel (the older one), and he built the current house on the lot after the fire of 1796 destroyed the home that was there before.
Ravenel’s plantation lands in St. John’s Parish included portions near the old Santee Canal that were distinguished for outstanding old-growth forests, and colonial-era advertisements show sales of tracts that produced a wealth of oak, hickory, ash and pine. It was the excellent wood from these ancient forests that built many of Charleston’s houses that still stand strong today, including the framing of the Ravenel house. Reading of the sales of land by Ravenel in the 1790’s is fitting, considering the current Daniel Ravenel name is among the most well-known in old Charleston real estate today.

Roper House Curiosity

No Ghosts, Just Guns In This Attic
This fabulous Greek Revival mansion hides a very peculiar piece of history in its attic – a 500-pound piece of a Confederate cannon. The William Roper House at 13 East Battery was accidentally bombarded by the fragment of a weapon blown up near the end of the Civil War to keep it from being used by the Federals, and where it’s located now, there will be no more salvos. The original cannon was a monstrous weapon invented by British Captain Theophilus Alexander Blakely, whose creations were purchased by the South to defend seaports because of their accuracy and range. The huge cannon was mounted at the northeast corner of White Point Garden when that area was built up as an artillery battery, but was too big for the Confederates to relocate when Charleston was evacuated in February, 1865. To keep the 5-ton cannon from falling into Union hands, it was packed with black powder and exploded. Part of the muzzle flew over the DeSaussure and Ravenel houses to the South, and into the 1830’s
home of cotton merchant William Roper. Today the Roper House is beautifully preserved, and to accommodate the big cannon section wedged in among the attic joists, a small door offers a glimpse of this fascinating anecdote to history. Unfortunately, it is a private home, and the view is not open to the public, but I have had the good fortune to have seen it, and the cannon section is preserved very well.


Rusticated Facade
A fairly common architectural detail found in Charleston is exterior “rustication”. The Latin origin of the word is “of the country”, referring to something that is less polished, more natural in look. Typically a detail in stone facades, the rusticated look is rough-hewn, uneven surface that adds more dimension when built with deep-set joints. It provides a striking contrast to flat facades, and is often built in combination with smooth areas to highlight the rustication.
Created by cutting back the edges of stone blocks while leaving the inner sections broken and jagged, rustication dates back to ancient Persia, and was used by both the Romans and Greeks. The look was revived by Renaissance architects and found its way to England in the 17th century, and enjoyed a brief period of popularity in America during the Victorian period, featured prominently in Richardson Revival architecture popular in the 1880’s.

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.