The grandest architecture of the antebellum South is centered around Charleston and Savannah, which survived the Civil War a lot better than Atlanta -- which, of course, General Sherman burned to the ground.
The epitome of Southern graciousness, the plantation culture of Charleston, Savannah, and its surrounding Low Country spans 2 centuries that saw everything from a glorious antebellum past (for the landed gentry, not the slaves) to depression, decay, and the passing of a way of life.
The most remarkable buildings were constructed between 1686 and 1878 along the South Carolina coastal plain centered at Charleston.
Many of these once-elegant structures still stand today to enchant us, although they are in varying states of preservation, some no more than ruins. Only the camera has captured some of these stately Low Country manses for posterity. From churches to gardens, chapels to memorable homes, plantation houses to graceful frame structures, Charleston and Savannah have it all.
Charleston's Art & Architecture
All you need to do is walk down Broad Street in the center of Charleston to see three dozen ornately decorated and historic structures on the block between East Bay and Church streets. Much of what has been saved was because of an ordinance passed in 1931 that preserved whole sectors of town. Charleston was the first city in the world to adopt such a preservation law.
To many visitors today, the so-called historic core lies south of Broad Street. This sector is certainly one of the great districts of architecture in the Deep South. But the landed gentry in the heyday of the plantation era also built many superb homes and mansions in other sections of the city, such as Harleston Village and Radcliffeborough. Harleston Village lies west of the Historic District. Directly north of Harleston is the neighborhood of Radcliffeborough, beginning north of Calhoun Street. Some of the grandest Victorian manses stand around Colonial Lake. These neighborhoods deserve at least an hour of your time to walk around. Lacy iron gates, 19th-century ornaments, towering old trees, and private gardens make it worthwhile, even if you're not particularly interested in architecture.
The Georgian-Palladian style reigned supreme in historic Charleston, lasting over the centuries, and surely there are more columns in Charleston today than in a small Greek city in classical days. One of the finest Georgian mansions in America stands at 64 S. Battery St., dating from 1772 when it was built by William Gibbes, a successful ship owner and planter. He modeled it after English designs but was also inspired by Palladio. The house is not pure Georgian, however, as Adamesque features, such as wrought-iron railings, were added later.
The columned single house prevailed for 250 years -- there are some 3,000 such houses standing in Charleston today. Its most defining feature is its single-room width, and it is also set at right angles to the street. One of the most evocative examples of a Charleston single house is the Colonel Robert Brewton House at 71 Church St. The domestic structure of the single house is one of Charleston's greatest contributions to city architecture in America.
Some were more lavish than others, but even less-expensive dwellings were adorned with wrought-iron balconies or two-columned porches. Although much great architecture is gone, what remains is nearly 75 buildings from the colonial period, approximately 135 from the 18th century, and more than 600 built during the antebellum heyday.
Colonial to Adamesque -- In the beginning, roughly from 1690 to 1740, there was the colonial style, with such defining features as clapboard wooden siding, low foundations, and steeply pitched roofs. The John Lining House at 106 Broad St. is the most evocative building of that period. Coexisting for a certain time with colonial architecture was Georgian, a style that flourished between 1700 and 1800. Its defining features are box chimneys, hipped roofs, flattened columns, and raised basements. Nowhere is this style better exemplified than in the Miles Brewton House at 27 King St.
As colonial and Georgian faded, another style of architecture appeared, especially during a 3-decade span beginning in 1790. Although it was called Federalist architecture in the North, most Charlestonians referred to the structures of this era as "Adamesque" or "the Adam period," a reference to what Scottish brothers James and Robert Adam were creating in the British Isles. The best example of Federalist/Adamesque architecture in Charleston is the Nathaniel Russell House at 51 Meeting St., which is open to the public.
Constructed around the same time as the Nathaniel Russell House, the James Moultrie House, at 20 Montagu St., is an Adamesque treasure of delicate proportions. Although it was built by a planter, Daniel Cobia, it became more famous as the address of the Moultrie family in 1834. Dr. Moultrie, related to the Revolutionary War hero Gen. William Moultrie, was one of South Carolina's early physicians, founding its first medical school.
A magnificent Adamesque mansion, built around 1802, was constructed at 60 Montagu St. The restored Gaillard-Bennett House, constructed by a rice planter, Theodore Gaillard, is famous for its fluted columns with "tower-of-the-winds" capitals, along with an elliptically shaped window in its portico gable and a modillion cornice, with other Palladian architectural motifs. In 1870, 5 years after the end of the Civil War, Robert E. Lee was a guest of the Bennett family, and he spoke to admiring well-wishers from the second-floor balcony.
Another stellar example of the Adamesque style is the Jonathan Lucas House, built around 1808, at 286 Calhoun St. Several generations of rice barons lived here, establishing rice milling as a big industry in the southeastern United States.
Greek Revival Versus Gothic Revival -- The Regency style came and went quickly in Charleston, filling in a transitional period between Adamesque and the Greek Revival style. The most evocative example of Regency is the Edmondston-Alston House at 21 E. Battery St., erected by Charles Edmondston in 1825. The purity of the original style was later altered by Charles Alston, a rice planter who added Greek Revival details. From its precincts, General Beauregard watched the attack on Fort Sumter in 1861, and Robert E. Lee once took refuge here when a fire threatened the Mills House Hotel where he was lodged. This historic home is open to the public.
The Greek Revival period flourished roughly from 1820 to 1875. Its defining features are heavy columns and capitals (often Doric), along with a hipped or gabled roof and a wide band of trim. One of the most solid examples of this form of bold architecture is the Beth Elohim Reform Temple at 90 Hasell St., the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the United States, first organized in 1749.
However, the most spectacular example of the Greek Revival style is at 172 Tradd St., built in 1836 by Alexander Hext Chisolm, who made his fortune in rice. The lavish capitals are copies of those designed in Athens in 335 B.C. The architect is thought to be Charles F. Reichardt of New York.
At the turn of the 19th century, Gabriel Manigault, a French Huguenot, was the biggest name in Charleston architecture. His greatest buildings have been torn down, but one that remains is City Hall, at the corner of Broad and Meeting streets. Constructed in 1801, this stellar example of Adamesque-Palladian architecture was originally a bank before becoming City Hall in 1818.
One of the few buildings that can be directly traced to the architectural drawing board of Manigault is the house at 350 Meeting St. that the architect designed for his brother, Joseph, in 1803. Many critics hail it as one of the most impressive Adamesque homes in America. Manigault's father, also known as Gabriel Manigault, was in his day not only the richest man in Charleston but also one of the wealthiest in the country. The Joseph Manigault House is one of the few historic homes in Charleston open to the public.
Another national landmark attributed to Manigault is at 18 Bull St., an Adamesque manse constructed at the turn of the 19th century by William Blacklock, a wine merchant. At its lowest point this mansion became a cheap boardinghouse and barely escaped bulldozers in 1958.
Robert Mills, who designed the Washington Monument, filled in when Manigault resettled in Philadelphia. But Mills was never as well received, although he left the monumental First Baptist Church (1819-22) on lower Church Street and the five-columned Fireproof Building (1822-26) at Chambers and Meeting streets.
When an 1838 fire destroyed a large part of antebellum Charleston, many districts were reconstructed in the Greek Revival style. Doric columns were particularly fashionable, along with rectangular shapes inspired by Greek temples, such as those found in Sicily.
A monumental "pillar" to Greek Revival is the columned Centenary Methodist Church, one of the grandest examples of a Greek Doric temple in America, at 60 Wentworth St., an 1842 structure by Edward Brickell White.
Along came Andrew Jackson Downing, the mid-19th-century arbiter of America's taste in architecture, who ridiculed Charleston's obsession with Greek Revival. The way was paved for the emergence of E. B. White, who brought in the Gothic Revival design, which prevailed from 1850 to 1885 and was characterized by pointed arches and buttressed stone tracery. The best example of Gothic Revival is the French Protestant (Huguenot) Church, at 136 Church St.
Charleston: Art, Architecture & Gardens
The best and most helpful practical guide -- virtually a street-by-street survey -- is Complete Charleston, A Guide to the Architecture, History, and Gardens of Charleston, by Margaret H. Moore, with photographs by Truman Moore. Sold all over Charleston, the book divides Charleston into 11 neighborhoods and takes you on a tour of each, a voyage of discovery of the city's world-class architecture and lush secret gardens.
Art and Landscape in Charleston and the Low Country, by John Beardsley, was published as part of the 21st season of the Spoleto Festival U.S.A.. The color photographs of Charleston and the Low Country alone are reason enough to purchase this guide.
After the Civil War -- Also dominating the 1850s, the decade before the Civil War, were the architects F. D. Lee and Edward C. Jones. Together and separately they began to change the cityscape of Charleston, creating, for example, the Moorish-style fish market, their most exotic invention -- alas, now gone. They pioneered the use of cast iron, which became a dominant feature in city architecture and can still be seen at its most prolific on the western side of Meeting Street, stretching from Hasell to Market streets.
One of the most talented of all Charleston architects, Jones designed the Trinity Methodist Church, on Meeting Street, in 1850. This impressive edifice has a pedimented Palladian portico of Corinthian columns. In just 3 years he shifted his style to Italianate, which remained popular until the dawn of the 20th century. The architecture is defined by verandas, low-pitched roofs, and balustrades. An evocative example of the style is the Colonel John Ashe House, designed by Jones, at 26 S. Battery St.
In 1853, Jones designed his first commercial building in the Italianate Renaissance Revival style: a bank at 1 Broad St. At one time this building was owned by George A. Trenholm, a cotton broker and blockade runner, one of several 19th-century power brokers in Charleston who were said to have inspired Margaret Mitchell's character of Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind.
Still one of the city's most magnificent landmarks, the columned building at 200 E. Bay St. is the most stellar example of the Italian Renaissance Revival style, built over a period of 26 years, from 1853 to 1879. This U.S. Custom House was the creation of Ammin Burnham, a Boston architect who'd created a similar building in his home city. Burnham was largely instrumental in launching the tradition of designing federal buildings, such as post offices, in a classical style. The Roman Corinthian portico of this splendid temple is much photographed.
About 20 years before Charleston got sucked up in the Civil War, all purism in architectural style vanished. Most architects and builders were more interested in a dramatic facade. This period saw the bastardization of a lot of Charleston's landscape. Architects reached out internationally for inspiration -- to the Moors, to Persia, to the Norman style of church, or even Gothic Venice, if they were fanciful.
The best example of this bastardized, though architecturally beautiful, style is at 67 Rutledge Ave., the home (ca. 1851) that Col. James H. Taylor ordered built "in the style of a Persian villa," with Moorish arches as ornamentation. This was once a famous address, entertaining the likes of such distinguished guests as the 19th-century politician, tastemaker, and orator, Daniel Webster.
And then came the Civil War, when all building ceased except for fortifications. Much great architecture was destroyed during Union bombardments, especially in 1863.
After the war, the Victorian style arrived in Charleston and would prevail from 1870 until the coming of World War I. This style did not predominate as much as it did in other American cities because many Charlestonians, wiped out economically from the effects of the Civil War, did not have money to build. Nonetheless, you'll see some fine Victorian manses in Charleston today, notably the Sottile House, with its wide verandas opening onto Green Street on the College of Charleston campus.
When Victorian architects did design buildings in Charleston, they often created "fantasies," as exemplified by the startling manse that stands at 40 Montagu St. Built by food merchant Bernard Wohlers in 1891, the house was restored in 1963. Its unique style combines Charles Eastlake with Queen Anne motifs.
Not all Charlestonians during the latter Victorian Age were building in the Victorian style. Albert W. Todd, for example, an architect and state senator, constructed one of Charleston's most magnificent private residences at 40 Rutledge Ave. in the Colonial Revival style at the turn of the 20th century. With its verandas and splendid columned portico, this house is worth a detour.
Rainbow Row (79-107 E. Bay St.) is one of the most celebrated blocks in the city. It got its name in the 1930s when the entire block was rejuvenated and then painted in colors used by the colonials. The architecture is mainly of the so-called British style, in that there was a store on the ground floor with the living accommodations on the floors above. Rainbow Row is the longest such Georgian block of buildings in America, and it inspired DuBose Heyward's "Catfish Row" in Porgy and Bess.
Although it's an arguable point, a Florida professor, Sigmund Heinz, once stated: "For all practical purposes, the Civil War brought an end to the grandeur of Charleston architecture. As for the 20th century, the kindest thing is not to mention it."
The Art of Charleston
As might be expected, Charleston is far more distinguished by its architecture than by its art. But it's had some peaks and valleys over the years, and today boasts a creative core of artists whose works are displayed at the Spoleto Festival USA and in museums in the city -- and often showcased in traveling exhibitions around the state.
In the colonial period, the art decorating the antebellum homes of England -- most often landscapes or portraits of dogs and horses -- was imported from London and brought over by British ships sailing into Charleston Harbor. When families grew rich from rice and indigo, portrait painters, many of them itinerant, did idealized portraits of the founding father of a dynasty and his wife (always made out to be prettier than she was), or else the whole brood gathered for an idealized family portrait.
Out of this lackluster mess, one artist rose to distinguish himself.
Charleston's Renaissance Man
Born in South Carolina of Scottish descent, Charles Fraser became the best-known artist in Charleston for his miniature portraits, many of which you can see in the Gibbes Museum of Art. Although he was also a distinguished landscape painter, he is mainly known today for his miniatures.
When the Marquis de Lafayette came to Charleston in 1825, he sat for a portrait by Fraser. In turn the artist gave the marquis one of his miniatures as a gift. Lafayette later wrote that the portrait was a "very high specimen of the state of arts in America."
Fraser received his artistic training at the age of 13 when he studied with Thomas Coram. He was educated at the Classical Academy, which in time became the College of Charleston. For 11 years he was a lawyer before giving up his practice in 1818 to devote himself to art full time.
As a miniaturist, he captured the essence of many of the city's most distinguished citizens. His color was relatively flat, but his compositions were filled with linear detail, and he was known for his delicate, lyrical art.
Fraser had many other talents as well. He distinguished himself as a civil leader, and he was also a designer, having provided the plans for the steeple on St. John's Lutheran Church at 10 Archdale St. In 1854 he wrote a valuable history of the city, Reminiscences of Charleston.
The Charleston Renaissance
The long, dreary years of the Reconstruction era, when much of Charleston was mired in poverty, did not encourage the growth of great art. In the early 20th century, however, the "Charleston Renaissance" was born. This cultural movement spanned the decades between 1915 and 1940 on the eve of the U.S. entry into World War II. Fostered by artists, musicians, architects, and poets, the Renaissance rescued Charleston from the physical devastations of the Civil War and later from the deep mire of the Depression.
Laura Bragg, the director of the Charleston Museum from 1920 to 1931, presided over a salon in her home at 38 Chambers St. In time this parlor became as famous in the South as the salon of Gertrude Stein and her longtime companion, Alice B. Toklas, became in Paris. Much of the Southern literary world, including the novelist and playwright Carson McCullers from Georgia, dropped by.
Elizabeth O'Neill Verner (1883-1979) has emerged as the towering figure of the Charleston Renaissance artists. Charleston-born and -bred, she studied art in Philadelphia from 1901 to 1903 before returning to Charleston. When she found herself unexpectedly widowed, she turned to art to earn a living to support herself and her two small children.
Verner specialized in beautiful etchings and drawings of Charleston scenes, as exemplified by her Avenue at the Oaks. She chose such subjects as churches, beautiful homes, columns, porticos, and wrought-iron gates. But her forte was in depicting scenes of the vendors in the city market, none more evocative than her pastel on silk Seated Flower Seller Smoking Pipe. She was instrumental in reviving an interest in art in Charleston during the 1920s and 1930s. As she aged, she switched to pastels and worked almost until the time of her death at the age of 96.
Another major artist of the period was Alice Ravenel Huger Smith (1876-1958), a Charleston native who was intrigued by the Low Country landscape, with its acres of marshes, cypress swamps, palmettos, rice fields, egrets, herons, and lonely beaches. Her sketches were filled with imagery. After 1924 she worked mainly in watercolor, which she found best for depicting the hazy mist of the Low Country. One of her most evocative works is the 1919 Mossy Tree.
Another native of South Carolina, Anna Heyward Taylor (1879-1956) found her inspiration in Charleston, which she considered a city of "color and charm." Her paintings, in private collections and major galleries today, are steeped in the misty aura of the Low Country. Our favorite among her works is the 1930 Fenwick Hall in which she captures the rot, despair, and decay of this laconic plantation before its renovation.
Notable Michigan-born artist Alfred Hutty (1877-1954) began a lifelong love affair with Charleston when he was sent here to establish an art school for the Carolina Art Association. His greatest fame came as an etcher, although he was an accomplished painter as well. His works today are displayed in such institutions as the British Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. His White Azaleas-Magnolia Gardens, done in 1925, captures the luxuriant vegetation of the Low Country that was evocative of the Ashley River plantations.
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