The historic single house at the southeast corner of Stoll's Alley and Church Street often perplexes onlookers with its unusual arrangement northside windows. The staggered location of windows at five levels belies the fact that the house is only three floors, but is actually very typical of a lighting necessity that provides and optical illusion.
Single houses, built with a one room width facing the street, have a central hall that separates the single rooms front and back. Those built on North-South streets typically are entered by a door on the South side, that divides the single front and back rooms by a the a central hall, while those built on East-West streets are typically entered by a door to the central hall on the East side.
The central hall leads to a stair that climbs halfway between the floors to a landing on the opposite wall, then turns 180 degrees to climb to the next floor. Where the landing turns, builders traditionally placed windows to light the staircases, and depending on the number of floors, single houses can have one or two staricase windows. Thus the Stoll's Alley corner is notable for the odd arrangment that features windows on each of the three floors, as well as two staircase windows in between.
Gentle fall showers have sprung to life one of Charleston most distinctive perennials, the Lycoris Radiata, better knon as the Hurricane or Red Spider Lilly. The member of the Amaryllis family grows to about 18 inches in height, with bright red flowers and curved reddish stalks that resemble the legs of a spider.
Like so many Charleston flowers, it is a native of Asia, intoruduced by colonial botanists who found that our temperatae subtropical climate was ideal for exotic plants and trees. The bulb of the Lycoris Radiate lies dormant until late September, when it sprouts majestically in places such as historic St. Michael's churchyard, addding a delicate border to weathered gravestones that date to the 18th century.
The color of the flowering extremities lasts only a matter of days before it turns to a leafy green, and the bright red color was considered by some to be a signal of stormy hurricane weather. Fortunately, the continental high pressure systems of 2010 have made hurrican season virtually non-existent, as it has been for several decades, and the warning reds will fade into a soothing green along with milder fall temperatures that typify the delightful October season in Charleston
The seaport area in colonial Charleston extended as far as today’s Carolina yacht Club, whose south driveway was once the path of a riverside wharf. The high ground of the peninsular reached only as far as the East Bay Street sidewalk in those days, and beyond was marsh and shallow water.
To provide docking areas deep enough for sailing ships to load cargoes of rice, timber and indigo, city merchants came up with an unusual construction method. Palmetto trees were felled, tied together as rafts, and floated on the high tide away from the high land, then covered with ballast stones and debris and sunk several hundred feet away out into the river. This provided a surface platform above the water level that was then connected to the main land by filling a narrow space in between. Animal carcasses, trash, tree limbs and oyster shells were among the debris used to create long, linear paths out into the Cooper River, that were initially known as “bridges” because they bridged the distance from the bank to the sunken platform.
Such names as Elliot’s Bridge and Rhett’s Bridge adorn Charleston maps as late as the 1730’s, and allowed tall-masted ships to sail right up to the eastern shore of the peninsula. Eventually, the “bridges” became known as wharves, and by the Civil War, more than twenty existed along the Cooper from Hasell Street to the foot of East Bay.
With the building of deep-draft iron cargo ships after the Civil War, the shallow old wharf areas provided insufficient draft, and rock formations under the river bottom were difficult to dredge effectively. Deeper riverside sections of the upper peninsula near Town Creek became to new home of seaport activity by the early 20th century, and all that remains of the old docking areas are the wharf names of historic streets that once were approaches to the shipping berths.
Chef Brett McKee of the Charleston’s Oak Steakhouse has recently displayed his exceptional talents on South Carolina Educational Television, as a featured segment of the show “Carolina Stories”.
McKee established the New York style steak house five years ago in an historic 1848 building at 17 Broad Street, where the delightful aroma of steaks adds a distinctive flavor to dark wooden paneling and an elaborate Italianate façade that were added during remodeling the early 1870’s.
In the television segment, McKee shows various methods of preparing the thick slabs of steak. He cooks one steak on a grill, another is singed “Pittsburgh style” in a heavy iron frying pan, while a third is caramelized with onions, peppers and shallots in a double-skillet method.
McKee expertly works the three preparations simultaneously, while explaining in detail the various ingredients used for marinades and rubs, the timing of heat sources, and the nuances of the targeted taste. He says that numerous steak orders will often come at the same time on busy nights, and that the restaurant professional must be able to multi-task while making sure each entrée is cooked to perfection.
As McKee evidences in the TV show, his ability to handle this steak challenge is masterful. The Oak Steakhouse has won such culinary awards as the “Best New Restaurant” from the Charleston City Paper; recognition in the New York Times and Bon Appetit magazine, while he was among the five finalists in Chef magazine’s national “Chef of the Year” competition in 2007, and was given the Culinary Legend Award and Charleston’s 2008 Wine and Food Festival.
A distinctive feature on many classic Charleston exteriors is the wavy ripple in historic, hand-made glass, which adds a subtle charm to windows of various sizes and shapes.
Glass making for much of Charleston’s early history was done by hand, heating combinations of silica and sand into molten globs that were then shaped by blowing through a blowpipe. Huffed and puffed into a flat circular-shaped mass known as a crown, the molten glass was then attached to a pole that as spun so fast that centrifugal force spread the crown into flat sheets that could be cut into panes.
The spinning motion is what causes the slight ripple in historic glass, and would also occasionally cause air pockets to appear. These were sometimes cut out and used as panes in lesser windows, along with the part of the glass were the spinning pole had been attached, called the “bullseye”.
A good example of these varying parts can be seen at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, whose second north side window still features a bullseye, two air pocket panes, and several others that ripple.
Although hand-made glass panes can still be created by artisans who continue to blow glass today, any breakage of historic panes are easier to replace with modern glass, which is also more durable and better insulation.
Cobblestone surfaces still adorn Chalmers Street, Maiden Lane, South and North Adgers Wharf, Gillon Street, and parts of Philadelphia Alley. As recently as the late 19th century, there were more than 10 miles of Charlestson street surface made from these hard, rounded stones. Cobblestones get their name from the old English word "cob", which means "lump", and the a mass of these lumpy stones was a cheap method of providing ballast for sailing ships during the colonial period. Piles of cobblestones placed in the ship's hull guaranteed it wouldn't capsize in heavy winds, but also subtracted from the amount of cargo that could be hauled.
Enterprising sea captains visiting colonial Charleston realized that the rich exports of rice, indigo and timber could be used to replace the weight of the ballast stones, thus Charleston eneded up with cobblestones dumped along its waterfront piers. Here on a peninsula that was interlaced with marshes and mud flats, Charleston was happy to receive these non-native stones to use for landfill, and tons were carted around the city to create more solid surfaces.
By the 1730's, the city was actively trading for ballast by offering ships freedom from taxes on goods in return for piles of cobblestones. Streets which once were muddy or paved in mushy layers of sand suddenly became firmer afoot with the new patina of hard stone.
Bricks, cut granite blocks, and finally asphalt spelled the end for most our cobblestone thorouhfares by the early 20th century, although a few still remain to show what a rough ride Charleston was long ago.