Monday, January 23, 2017

Charleston, South Carolina: Telling the Story Through Preservation

By Jeff Burns

If you’re a history lover, Charleston is a great city for you to visit.  In colonial America, it was one of the most prosperous cities, and it was a leading city of the South well into the 19th century.  Of course, Charleston is also where the Civil War began, when South Carolinians opened fire on Fort Sumter, forcing its surrender.  Charlestonians are keenly aware of their history, and they have been for quite a while.  Charlestonians have been actively preserving and commemorating their rich history for well over a century. There’s history everywhere you turn in the city and surrounding area.  

A visitor to Charleston can not only enjoy this history and the gracious hospitality for which Charleston has long been famous, but also enjoy a lesson in historical preservation versus restoration. We’ve all been in beautifully restored homes and buildings where the trustees have gone to great pains to display the house as it might have been in its prime, carefully re-creating carpets, wallpaper and paint, and  furniture.  Some houses are even fortunate enough to have some of the original family possessions to display.  Charleston has a number of these houses, and they are great.  However, Charleston also has a couple of examples of another way of thinking, preservation.

Preservation is the idea that the buildings themselves tell an important story.  The mission of preservationists is to keep the building as close to its original condition as possible and to arrest any deterioration.  Therefore, when you enter a preserved house, you won’t see furniture or fineries.  Instead you’ll see faded paint, torn wallpaper and carpets, exposed boards, and even holes in the wall. 

There are two great preservation sites in Charleston.  First is Drayton Hall, first occupied in the 1750s and passed down through family members until it became a historic site in the 1970s.  It is a rarity on Charleston’s Plantation Road, virtually the only “big” house not destroyed by Union troops during the Civil War.  Legend has that it the occupant at the time, a physician, saved the house by flying yellow flags on the road, alerting Union troops to the smallpox cases being treated there.  Apparently, the plantation had been used to treat small pox among slaves, but historians still haven’t confirmed the story.

Drayton Hall is a can’t-miss sight in Charleston.  We were fortunate to have a guided tour from Mac, a young docent whose excitement about working at Drayton was clearly visible, as he led us from room to room.  Although the house is devoid of furnishings, Mac’s knowledge and stories helped us visualize life on the plantation over the years.  Two features stand out for being very evocative. One is the unmistakable set of fingerprints on one of the bricks in an interior wall, fingerprints probably belonging to a slave boy of 10 or so who was a brickmaker or an apprentice.  Most of the bricks used in Charleston construction were made by slaves on local plantations, of local clay. The second is the little hole cut into the bottom of the attic door, possibly the oldest extant cat-door in the United States, cut so that the cat could have easy access to attic rodents.  

In the city, there is another example of preservation.  Many of the plantation owners had townhouses as well, for entertaining and urban living.  One of these houses now owned by the Charleston Museum is the Aiken–Rhett House, built around 1820 and occupied by the same family for the next 142 years.  Not only do you see the house on the self-guided tour, but you also get a small sense of the life of the urban slaves who lived and worked in the kitchen, laundry, stable, and carriage house out back.

For more pictures, go to the Histocrats’ Facebook page and explore the Charleston album.

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