Tuesday, May 24, 2011
The Past is Not Dead...
The past is not dead. It isn’t even past. – William Faulkner
If you’ve ever been to Charleston, South Carolina, this quote personifies the residents and the city. I thought we, in the DEEP SOUTH, clung to our heritage like a lifeline but Charlestonians take it to a new level. They live, eat and breathe their birthrights as Southerners.
When we arrived in downtown Charleston, I was surprised to see so many lovely homes. Not just the ones you always see in the photos that sit on the Battery looking across the bay at Fort Sumter, but more elegant and refined homes tucked away in spots all over the city. My first choice to visit was the Aiken-Rhett House (Rhett seems to be an old city name – hence maybe Rhett Butler?). The house, built in 1818, is still intact as it existed. No additions, no change in the interior. The actual wallpaper and paint, though faded and damaged by Hurricane Hugo, was there for you to inspect. It actually felt like you had stepped back in time. This was what the citizens call an Urban Plantation. The term meant that the back yard contained a stable, a henhouse, a cow shed, a laundry and a spot for a small vegetable garden – all a self-contained little world. I loved the place even though other visitors thought it shabby. My favorite part was the grand entry hall made of marble, such elegance! It portrayed how those houses actually looked in their original form.
The next house we visited, The Nathaniel Russell House, was built in 1808, by a Rhode Island merchant who amassed a fortune in Charleston.
The house is built in a Federal Style, not much to look at from the exterior, but oh, when you pass through the front door, through the business parlor and into the family house, it is magnificent. There is a free-flying staircase that rises for three stories. The home has been conserved and painstakingly restored to what it was like in Russell’s time. The colors and the plasterwork are simply amazing. This is the house I would live in, hands down.
One house, which some of you might recognize from “The Notebook” and the mini-series “North and South”, is the Calhoun Mansion.
The guide, standing on the expansive steps, told us that he called this the “OMG” house. When he opened the beveled glass doors allowing us in, the first words out of my mouth was “OMG!” The dwelling is twenty-four thousand feet. It took five years to build and was completed in 1876. George W. Williams, a wealthy banker and merchant, was also a blockade-runner during the Civil War, amassing a great wealth, which he promptly put in English banks. Disliked because of this, his home was still the place to go for dinners for the impoverished gentry of Charleston. His wife, a staunch Methodist, abhorred drinking and gossip but loved to show off her house to guests. Louis Comfort Tiffany was a frequent guest and one time made a mistake of giving her a Japanese Saki set. Even though she refused the gift, Tiffany (who had done quite a bit of work in the mansion), asked what she would prefer. A chandelier for the main drawing room, she declared. Six months later, a crate arrived with the chandelier. Imagine Mrs. Williams’s horror to see that the saki set had been incorporated into the Tiffany Chandelier. If you go to the house’s website, www.calhounmansion.net, and look at slide 34, that is the chandelier (we weren't allowed to take pictures inside but do look at this slideshow to see true opulence). Evidently she knew superb craftsmanship even if it did have a saki set integrated into it because it's still hanging there. The current owner, a lawyer and avid collector, has filled EVERY available space in the house with priceless items. The pictures in the slides do not show this – I mean every square inch is covered in some type of antique glass, furniture, picture or something. It’s actually overwhelming.
Wandering around on Meeting Street you will see what looks like decorations on the sides of the houses. Some are ornate, some just plain bolts with a plate. I finally asked someone what those things were. Earthquake bolts.
It seems Charleston was hit by a devastating earthquake in 1886 which damaged quite a few of the homes. A long iron rod was inserted through the floorboards of the houses and anchored through the walls with a washer device call a gib plate. The bolt was then tightened and the house was squared up. I don’t know if this actually works but it is interesting. The person also told me that only the houses pre-1886 has them. One more minutiae I could garner.
We took a carriage ride and gawked at the beautiful houses, especially what Charlestonians called Single Houses. These houses are narrow, one room wide and have sweeping porches which they call piazzas.
The entrance is a door on the street that leads to the porches where the real door is located. Our carriage driver said that if the door was closed back in the day that meant “Do Not Disturb.” Now the owners have to keep them closed, too many tourists.
Further up the street is a lovely hotel called the Mills House Hotel. We ate lunch in its garden and thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere.
The thing that struck me, which may just be a tale that Charlestonians tell, is one about General Robert E. Lee. He stayed in the hotel at the beginning of the war and was standing on the balcony over looking Meeting Street smoking a cigar. He saw a horse and rider coming down the street at what he called a buck-trot and hailed the rider. General Lee told the rider that he had seen a similar horse back at a fair in Virginia and had almost bought it. The rider said that he had bought that horse at that fair. General Lee told him to take care of that horse. Later, in the war, the rider was wounded and couldn’t take care of the horse. He had it sent to General Lee. The horse’s name was Traveller. Ah, the romance of such a story even if it might not be true.
We wandered on to the City Market. It has gaudy items and touristy things to purchase. There are also sweetgrass baskets made by the Gullah women of the area. Very expensive at the market. I had been told to go up Highway 17N and there were stalls along the road where the baskets could be purchased at a better price. These baskets, woven from sweetgrass and stitched with palmetto leaves are quite beautiful. I came away with three.
In the main building of the market is a grand structure owned by the Daughters of the Confederacy. I had to see the inside.
The museum had many fine examples of clothing, uniforms and arms from the war. But the thing that impressed me the most was they possessed a lock of General Lee’s hair and a lock of Jefferson Davis’ hair. Those ladies in there were quite helpful and answered any question I had. At the foot of the building as I was leaving, I bought palmetto roses for my blog buddies – these were given to the soldiers as they went off to war as a sign of fidelity and the soldier was to bring it home to his sweetheart when the war was over.
And, of course, what trip to Charleston would be complete without taking the boat out to Fort Sumter?
This is the 150th anniversary of the shots fired at the Union Troops occupying the fort. The bombardment from Fort Johnson (not located in Charleston but across the bay) started at 4:25 a.m. on April 12, 1861 and continued for 34 hours. At the time the bombardment started, the fort rose three stories above the water. After, the fort was greatly diminished. (One fact Charlestonians won’t tell you is that the first shots were actually fired on January 9, 1861, by Citadel cadets at a ship trying to enter the harbor to supply Fort Sumter).
During the bombardment, the citizens sat on the piazzas, sipping drinks and enjoying the fireworks, heedless of the horror that was to later come. The Civil War took 640,000 Americans before it ended almost four years to the date it started.
I enjoyed my visit to Charleston. It’s a lovely city and I learned quite a few things while I was there.
Have you ever visited Charleston? What city would you like to see? Do you have any favorite spots to vacation? Tell us about them.