Okay, Listen Here

Okay, Listen Here

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.


  1. Charleston is one of my favorite cities. Gorgeous pics! I know you had a good time. Charleston was the setting for my paranormal romance, Watchkeeper. The gentleman pirate, Stede Bonnet, was my hero.

  2. My ex used to be a federal auditor and had an audit in Charleston back in 1974. Because it was winter, we were able to rent a house on Sullivan's Island for nothing. And that year they had the warmest February, March and April they'd had in years. We were on the beach constantly. It was also the year of the gas shortage and long lines at the pumps, but we could take the bus into Charleston and rent bicycles to ride all over town. I haven't been back to Charleston since September 1999, which was 10 years after Hurricane Hugo slammed into it. It's still a grand old town. If you liked it, you need to go to Savannah. Lots of history and old homes too.

    I want to visit the New England states. My sister and I are mumbling about doing a girl's trip there this fall.


  3. Hey Debra. It makes sense for Charleston to be the setting of a paranormal. We took a ghost tour and it was fun. One of the things the guide told us about was the woman who tricked a man into marrying her. Well, he had the last laugh. Immediately after the wedding, he put her in a carriage and sent her to HER home on Tradd Street. He continued living in his own home. They never lived together. But, if you are near her house, the guide said you can hear the carriage going to his house for a party (appearances) and smell the horses. Hubby and I were near her house the next day looking around when the distinct smell of a sweaty horse sort of overpowered us. We looked at each other then up and down the street - no carriages on this street and certainly no horses. Kind of freaked me out a bit but it was cool to experience! Hey wasn't Stede Bonnet the one they hanged at the battery with thirty of his men? Seemed sad to me because they didn't bury the pirates.

    Marilyn, can I go to New England too? I have so many things there that I want to see! Where do you want to go? I want to see Boston. My next trip is to go to Savannah. My hubby is already groaning - more houses and museums!! Yes, Charleston is a grand town, sort of a clean New Orleans. I liked it.

  4. Read "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" by John Behrendt before you go to Savannah. It'll make the town even more interesting. And there's a Midnight in the Garden tour too along with ghost tours and upteen other tours.

    Yeah, Boston for sure. But I'd like to see Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Connecticut too. And the LL Bean Factory Store!

  5. So beautiful, Cheryl! Thanks for posting all the pictures. I've always wanted to visit both Savannah and Charleston. Maybe one day...

  6. I love Charleston. We went there for our honeymoon during the spring tour. I saw lots of houses. I bought a very small sweet grass basket and it still sits on my dressing table. We drove around the Citadel. 'The Lords of Discipline" by Pat Conroy is one of my favorite books.

  7. Oh! I love Charleston, Cheryl, and have always wanted to visit/tour. Now it is a must do on my list of future trips. ;)

    I've always heard that the architecture was fabulous in Charleston. Very cool about the links to North and South. The city also looks like much of what was seen in the movie The Patriot. I imagine there is so much history based on the Revolutionary war too.

    Thanks for providing all the pictures, Cheryl! I'm glad that you had a great time. ;)

  8. Sorry to be late to the party...Cheryl the trip sounds like so much fun. I haven't been to Charleston but it is on my bucket list.

    Thanks for the great pictures!