A delightful visit to historic Charleston

Charleston may well be the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen after decades of travel around the world. I try to convey some of that here.

Charleston flowersI just returned from my first visit to Charleston, South Carolina, and I have to say that I’m in love. I have traveled through most of Europe, whether western, northern, southern or central; wandered around the Baltic and the North Sea; dipped into North Africa; traversed the British Isles; spent time in Israel; and visited sizable parts of Southeast Asia; and even spent time traveling around here in the U.S., but I have to say that I’ve never seen a more beautiful city than Charleston.  Whether the buildings are from the 18th century, the 19th century, or the early 20th century, they are just breathtaking. The erupting spring foliage is breathtaking. The harbor is breathtaking. And of course the history is fascinating.

Here’s a very quick history of this place. The city was founded in 1670 thanks to a land grant that King Charles II of England gave to eight lords proprietor to run as a corporation — hence the original name of Charles Town. Thanks to its large harbor, and thanks to its rice, indigo, wood, Native American supplied deer skins, naval supplies, and (sadly) slave trades, it quickly became one of the richest cities in America.

Although most people think of Boston, Philadelphia, and Virginia as the major players in the Revolutionary War, more battles were fought in South Carolina than in any other colony. One of the first major battles protected Charleston from a British sea-borne invasion. A few years later, though, the British wised up and attacked the peninsula from the land side while blockading the harbor. Eventually, the Charleston citizens opted to surrender rather than have their city completely destroyed.

Within three years of war’s end, Charleston was right back to trading with England as if the war had never happened. The indigo trade, which Britain had originally subsidized, was over, but with the addition of cotton and other supplies in the mix, Charleston was a money machine again. More gorgeous buildings went up.

And then the Civil War came along. Charleston was physically removed from most of the war, but the British boycott and the cost of the war itself drained its wealth. Then, at war’s end, as part of Sherman’s march through the South to bring it to its knees, the Union Army gave Charlestonians a choice: surrender or burn. With the war obviously over, Charlestonians surrendered, thereby preserving their city.

What seriously attacked the city’s fabric was what I think of as a San Francisco export: an earthquake. In 1886, a huge earthquake struck Charleston, causing damage to around 2,000 buildings, including in the beautiful historic districts. By then, though, Charleston was slowly recovering from the Civil War and was able to restore the damaged buildings. After that, Charleston’s economic history was the economic history of the South: a slow recovery from War, hampered by the moral obscenity and economic idiocy of Jim Crow.

In the 1990s, Conde Nast publications discovered Charleston and kept nominating it as one of the world’s top tourist destinations. Money poured in. It’s now a wealthy, sophisticated city that’s kept in exquisite condition and that, at least in the historic districts, is beautifully maintained. Even as San Francisco becomes known as the poop capital of the world, in Charleston, you’ll be fined over $1,600 for failing to pick up after your dog. Draconian, yes, but in a small city such as Charleston, with lots of dogs . . . well, it’s one way from becoming San Francisco.

Rather than write more, here are some of the pictures I took there, as well as at Cowpens, which we visited too, along with information about them.

I always take pictures of flowers. These extravagant flowers right by an old building . . . well, I couldn’t resist:

Spanish oak is everywhere:

Here’s a tree with blossoms in two different colors. I was not the only tourist snapping away:

I know I mentioned in a previous post that I love old cemeteries. This one dated back to the 1600s and was part of St. Michael’s church. That’s old enough for me.

I mentioned that I take pictures of flowers, right? These were in the cemetery.

And one more cemetery and flowers picture. It is a very peaceful place for those laid to rest here.

I loved the chaotic windows on this old house, plus the Spanish moss dripping down from the Spanish oaks, plus the old brick wall. There are views such as this one everywhere you turn in Charleston.

After the revolution was won, in 1791, George Washington was a party guest in this house:

At every corner, you see these gorgeous Georgian buildings:

This was tenement housing. It’s very expensive now, but once upon a time, it was Charleston’s version of apartment living.

Here’s another lovely building:

This house, built around 1740, is the William Vanderhorst house and is one of the earliest examples of a single family home.

This is another house from around 1740, with the piazza added in the years before the Civil War. As you’ll see in other pictures, it was very common for mid-19th century homeowners to add the fashionable piazzas to their Georgian residences. The house is partly built from Bermuda stone, a form of coral limestone, which makes it fairly unique amongst surviving Georgian houses of that era.

Another lovely house from the mid-1700s:

This lovely home is from the 1760s:

And this gem is a gift a father gave his daughter in 1732:

Here’s another classic early Georgian house, from 1731. Note the piazza that was added over a century later:

This house is from 1774. You can see how the classical purity of the early Georgian houses is getting fussier. And of course, there’s that lovely piazza addition:

I thought this house, from around 1740, was gorgeous. It was built as a tenement, with one half of the building used for housing and the other half for an office. It was then used as a duplex, with two families each living on one side. By the 19th century, it was turned into a single family home. The brick work is Flemish bond and that cool roof is called a “gambrel roof with a jerkin-head gable.” It’s rare now, but used to be common in old Charleston. I find it very attractive.

Another lovely house from the 1730s:

Now this is an interesting building for it was home to Lewis Timothy. He was Benjamin Franklin’s apprentice and he came to Charleston in 1734 to publish The South Carolina Gazette. After Timothy died, his widow continued to run the newspaper, followed by their son, followed by the son’s widow, and eventually followed by Timothy’s grandson. The family publishing business ended only in 1802.

Now this is a very fascinating building, which is the second oldest in Charleston, with its construction finished in 1712. It’s pink color is not from paint. The building is made from ground coral. It opened as a bar and bordello, although now it houses a law firm. You can read more about it here.

Here’s the pink house in situ.

I have no idea what this building is. It’s just a gorgeous example of extravagant 19th century Charleston architecture:

And this is a charming example of less extravagant 19th century Charleston architecture:

These houses are north of White Point Park (so named for all the oyster shells) and look out over the harbor. White Point Park, by the way, was the preferred hanging place for the pirates that used to plague Charleston.

A closer look at the Spanish oak. The park has signs reminding people not to sit or climb on the limbs. I have to tell you that the temptation to do so is very strong.

Another duo of 19th century houses showcasing that extravagant architecture.

A short drive from Charleston proper you will find Drayton Hall. It’s an exquisite example of Palladian architecture, meaning that it’s perfectly symmetrical in all respects. It was built in 1738, and one branch or another of the Drayton family possessed it continuously until the 1970s, when a family member turned it over to a preservation society.

I’m actually of two minds about the society’s approach. It is indeed preserving it — in precisely the state in which it was left by the 1970s. The paint has the last vestiges of the old paint, the house has no furniture or wall decor, the floors are bare. I have no pictures from inside because it’s just a shell. You can see some of the original stucco and wood carvings, but overall, it’s not a home at all.

As I wrote in October 2018, I’m coming around to the point of view that there’s something to be said for allowing us to see things as they were meant to be seen by those who originally created them. John Drayton, who originally built the house, intended it to be a showplace, not a skeleton. It’s nice to see the construction details, given that everything is stripped to the bone, but it would be even nicer to see Drayton House as it was meant to be seen — and in which it was meant to be lived.

This is a lousy photo (as so many of mine are), but it does give you a sense of the exquisite symmetry that characterizes Palladian construction. I like symmetry. Maybe it’s boring and unartistic, but I find it very appealing and peaceful:

These views give you a sense of the scope of the property — which is only a small fraction of the land the Drayton family once owned:

Back in Charleston and admiring Rainbow Row

And just another example of the way in which every street is beautiful in old Charleston:

The harbor is lovely too, with its broad sweep:

Part of the Charleston trip included a visit to Cowpens National Battlefield. This was one of the most pivotal battles in the Revolutionary War. Not only was it a turning point in the war, but it also revealed Daniel Morgan’s skill as a military tactician. Rather than embarrass myself by trying to describe what happened there, I’ll direct you to this Wikipedia summary. Suffice to say that it drove the British out of South Carolina and directly to Yorktown — and you know how that ended.

In the pictures below, I try to show that this place, which was once a place of fear, suffering, defeat, and triumph, is now a gloriously beautiful mountain pasture, complete with scatterings of sunshiny flowers. This is very common for old battlefields. The passage of time wipes away the horror and leaves behind rather restful places that certainly don’t seem haunted.

And finally, at a gas station in North Carolina, they were selling real larvae and crickets. I at first thought they were candied versions (like Gummi worms), but no, they’re real. I am not an adventurous eater, so all I can say is ick.

Finally, don’t forget that the Charleston dance craze in the early 1920s was inspired by the music of Charleston dock workers. Here’s an outtake from Roxie Hart, which Ginger Rogers doing a beautiful version of that energetic dance:

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