There is perhaps no better "happy ending" preservation story than the Joseph Manigault House at 350 Meeting Street located in historic, downtown Charleston. This grandiose example of Adam-style architecture was built in 1803, overlooking what was an open meadow that stretched to the north along the largely-undeveloped peninsula. Designed by Charleston architect Gabriel Manigault as a townhouse for his wealthy brother Joseph, the house features a delicately curved staircase, 12-foot ceilings, and large piazzas to catch cooling breezes. A layer of lime was inserted between the floor and subflooring to repel insects and rot, and the hosue is also distinguished by its "Temple Gate" overlooking the front garden. The Manigault family were descendants of French Huguenots who had left their mother country because of religious persecution, but had prospered greatly in a tolerant atmosphere of colonial Charleston. No doubt much of their welcome was based on the wealth that they brought with them, and which was quickly converted into rice plantations that created huge fortunes. By the time Gabriel was born in 1758, his family was very prominent, and he was sent to Switzerland and England to study law. His passion was architecture, however, and he designed some of the most notable structures in Charleston, including City Hall and the South Carolina Society. Some of his great buildings suffered as Charleston's fortunes waned in the late 19th century, after its economy was decimated by the Civil War. Joseph's old house was converted to a tenement, subdivided by floors for the sake of rent. By the early 20th century, the structure was decaying, and in a section of town that had become mostly commercial. It was a sure candidate for the wrecking ball until bought by the Standard Oil Company in 1922 for use as a filling station. Drivers who bought a full tank of gas got a free tour of the old house and the garden temple gate became the most city's most historic public restroom. The property was put up for auction in 1933 and fortunately was purchased by the Charleston Museum, whose board scraped up enough money to buy but not to restore, so it was leased to the federal government as a womens' USO club during World War II. It survived to become one of today's most featured "museum houses", and is a great tribute to its originator and those who saved it from destruction.
The Charleston Area Regional Transit Authority (CARTA) operates two free trolley routes seven days a week in downtown Charleston with fourteen stops in various places from Broad Street to Spring Street. The distinctive-looking trolleys are fashioned to look like the old street trolleys that once plied these historic streets for nearly eighty years Horses and mules were the pulling power for Charleston's first public transit system that opened in 1866 with trolley cars on tracks laid down the center of major thoroughfares such as King, Broad and Meeting streets. Most Charlestonians road the trolleys, whose numbers increased so that one added line took picnickers to Magnolia Cemetery on Sundays.
The first electric-powered trolleys were added to routes in 1897, and conductors were equipped with removable controls after several of the cars were “borrowed” by pranksters. Known as “iron donkeys”, the electric trolleys briefly shared tracks with horse-drawn cars that were being phased out, and there were several accidents in which animals came face to face with mechanized vehicles, and broke and ran with loads of passengers inside.
The automobile had arrived on city streets by the 1920's, adding to the confusion. Before traffic lights and stop signs came along in the 1930's, city ordinances were passed requiring motorized vehicles to stop for any mule or horse rider who put a hand in the air, and gave cars bound north to south priority over those traveling east and west – which worked if everyone had a compass.
The trolley tracks became obsolete in 1938, as Charleston's new “belt line” bus service was created. For many years, some of the old tracks were still visible when street gangs dug beneath the layers of asphalt.
Today, there are are still occasional confrontations with powered vehicles and draft animals, nowadays pulling tourist wagons, but you'll have to drive yourself to Magnolia Cemetery.
2011 will mark the 40th anniversary of the Scottish Games and Highland Gathering in Charleston, to be held September 17th at Boone Hall Plantation. This is no doubt one of the most enjoyable family events in Coastal South Carolina, and features some of the most unusual sporting competitions ever witnessed. There's loads of fun annually on this warm September Saturday, with bagpipes echoing among ancient oak trees of Boone Hall's plantation lawns. The food, costumes, dancing and merrymaking are a grand time unto themselves, but it's the skill of the strong men in their Scottish kilts that makes it all so worthwhile.
The most visually incredible competition is the caber toss, in which massive cypress logs are flung by individual competitors. As long as 22 feet, the caber can weigh hundreds of pounds, and the trick is to hold it cupped in two hands and heave it end over end. Only the most powerful and skilled can do this and brawn is only part of the equation. The stone clacknert is a lump of rock that is heaved similar to a shot put, and it is remarkable how far this massive can be thrown by much more massive performers. A typical Scottish Games competitor weighs in at the 250-300 pound mark, which is necessary in throwing 28 and 56-pound iron weights for distance, and spinning discus-like with arms outstretched to toss the long metal hammer.
The sheaf toss is a throwback to days on the Scottish farms, as competitors spear a heavy mass of hay bale with a pitchfork, and try to throw it over a pole set on supports high above the ground. The pole is set higher and higher until the highest throw wins, then it's a mad dash to the nearest ibuprofen bottle.
There is also a Border Collie Demo competition in which these classic dogs show their skill, and the day is not complete without a dancing of Scottish reels to pipes and drums.
Charleston has a very strong Scottish connection, and those of Scottish descent make up the largest European heritage in the city. More than 35 Scottish clans will be represented in 2011, as the games are a throwback to the days when these families gathered to assert their nationality and independence. The strength competitions date from an era when soldiers were chosen from the strongest and most skilled, and the event has not lost any of its luster in all the centuries since.
Visitors often ask for local advice as to enjoyable places to dine. Suggesting restaurants can be a challenge in Charleston, where we have so many good choices and interesting venues, so it can be difficult to narrow down to the select few. For various categories there are some eateries whose names seeming come up on a regular basis, so here goes.
For ambience, one of the most delightful is Fulton Five at 5 Fulton Street just off King Street. This cozy little restaurant has a small, single dining room and a few seats at its attractive bar. Tucked away on a shaded street in an historic building, the white linens and classic décor make for an exquisite atmosphere, and is reminiscent of old Europe. High Cotton Restaurant at 199 East Bay Street is much more commodious in size, but is tastefully arranged to feature an extremely comfortable décor. Located overlooking a busy restaurant section along historic East Bay, the restaurant gives the feeling of being part of the zesty public scene while at the same time elegantly situated. Hank's Seafood at 10 Hayne Street offers a dazzling first glance with its classic hardwood paneling, flooring and alluring wrap-around bar. The look and feel of Hank's conveys a mood of elegant openness, and is a place one feels comfortable to see and be seen.
For flavor and food, Blossom Café at 171 East Bay Street offers a great selection that includes spicy seafood dishes and hand-tossed pizza from brick ovens. Over at Cru Café on 18 Pinckney Street, sensational southern flavors include poached pears and buttermilk fried oysters. At Trattoria Lucca at 41 Bogard Street, Tuscan dishes are all the rage in Charleston these days, and just the name Gorgonzola Creamafacia suggests that the meal will be a treat. Southern tradition is the basic ingredient at Jestine's Kitchen at 251 Meeting Street, where collard greens and okra gumbo still have a decidedly strong appeal. Authentically French cuisine is always irresistible, and at Gaulart et Maliclet at 98 Broad Street, the flavors of France simmer in a cozy downtown setting.
For just plain old good times, it's hard to beat Cypress Restaurant at 157 East Bay Street, where the upstairs restaurant/bar is a great place to start an evening with appetizers such as the ginger half-shell oysters and a glistening seating area that uplifts the spirit. Side by side at 432 and 434 King Street are La Fourchette and Hall's Chop House, each with a markedly different appeal. Both Chef Perig at La Fourchette and the Hall family at the Chophouse are very personable and welcoming to all who enter. The Chop House has live jazz and an upbeat atmosphere of well-heeled aesthetes, while La Fourchette is romantically filled with music from old Paris in a candle-lit atmosphere that seems to fit a Bogard movie. The name gives away the location at 82 Queen Street restaurant, which has long enjoyed a reputation as a pleasurable locale, with its cozy room seating inside the historic 1870 structure, and a lush garden seating area ideal for those wonderful nights in Charleston.
For all the beauty and mystique of Charleston' famed floral sites, there is nothing quite as simply sublime as the aura of White Point Garden. This 6.5 acre area offers an interesting contrast of statuesque oaks trees and banks of azaleas, mingled among an array of historic guns and military monuments. This southern tip of Charleston's peninsula was mostly mud flat and sand bar in the colonial period, named for the oyster shells that bleached white at low tide. It was here that scores of pirates met an ignominious end on gallows meant to warn other offenders not to trouble Charleston from the sea, and fortifications were built to protect the city from incoming vessels. In 1834, the city dredged up harbor bottom to fill in the area as a public park, and a bath house was erected and bands played for a public eager to enjoy the cooling breezes and waters. In its early years, the park's soft grass and relaxing atmosphere were not for all to stretch their legs, however, and in 1853, turnstiles were erected and an ordinance issued prohibiting "cows, mules, horses and inebriates". Civil War turned the garden into a fortress again, with earthworks and guns replacing benches and flowers. So far from the blockading fleet outside the harbor, the White Point guns were sparsely used, and the most famous blast was from a cannon blown up by evacuating Confederates in 1865 that scattered one large piece into an East Battery Street attic where it lies today. Following the war, new trees were planted and the garden again became a popular gathering place, and after hurricanes damaged the bath house, it was removed and a central band stand built, where performers played regularly into the 1920's. Guns made a comeback too, but this time only for show. The accumulating arsenal included artillery from Fort Sumter, sea coast mortars, Revolutionary War guns, howitzers and rapid-fire guns, and the famous Keokuk gun, which had been retrieved from a sunken Union ironclad in 1863 and used by the Confederates. Nowadays, the big guns are irresistible to children who enjoy climbing, while parents wander the park reading inscriptions on eye-catching monuments dedicated to various defenders of the city from long ago. The old band stand has been fully restored and is now a popular location for outdoor weddings. From any of its benches or walking paths, people can view sailboats and ships passing in the harbor, getting a much more peaceful, pleasant reception in White Point Garden today.
Folly Beach actually offers three enjoyable day trips, each with a separate appeal. In the heart of the island community, which is nicknamed the "Edge of America", the Charleston County Parks Commission runs the beautiful Edwin S. Taylor fishing pier that stretches more than 1,000 feet into the Atlantic Ocean. Decked out with a tackle shop, rod rentals, and separate fishing stations with water basins, cutting and measuring boards, the massive pier also has a 7500 square foot mezzanine area ideal for spectacular views of the Folly surf. The pier, which is second largest on America's East coast, is host to a number of fishing tournaments throughout the year, in which anglers can land channel bass, tarpon and mackerel. The Mezzanine area is also host to various dance events, and Folly Beach has long been famous for the sound and sights of the official South Carolina dance, the Shag. From the convenient pier parking lot which has an all day fee of $7 per vehicle, there are shops, an Oceanside restaurant, restroom and shower facilities. Open until 11pm from April through October, the pier offers a wonderful opportunity for sunset and evening strolls to the sound of pounding surf and an island background known for its entertaining nature. Down on the South end of Folly Beach at the terminus of East Ashley Avenue, is Folly Beach County Park, which offers more serene surroundings in a setting that is completely unspoiled. Park entry is a flat $5 fee, for which there is simple open-space parking, one restroom hut, and an endless horizon of waves, sand dunes, and sea breeze. The South end of Folly Island stands over the confluence of Atlantic Ocean and Folly River, overlooking Kiawah Island. In between the islands, visible from the Folly park, is Bird Key, a small, uninhabited sand island where shorebirds flock and nest. On any visit to the park, visitors are guaranteed to see breath-taking avian activity – from diving pelicans to swooping black skimmers. The pristine waters provide a visual feeding frenzy, with dolphins splashing through shallows in search of schools of fish. At this remote spot, it is very likely that visitors can see one of the dolphin's most captivating behaviors, called "stranding". The dolphin will swim fast toward the beach, pushing a wall of water filled with fish in front of them on to the shore. The dolphin will literally come out of the water to eat the fish, then wiggle its way back into the water. Even without the continuous show of creatures, this undeveloped end of Folly Beach is worth a trip just for a great beach walk along foaming surf and towering dunes. Finally, there is the open area on the North end of Folly, which is also Charleston County property, but offers no facilities. This quarter-mile hike through scrub myrtles and oaks is rewarding in its magnificent views of the old Morris Island Lighthouse, standing surrounded by water in Lighthouse Inlet, just off the beach. The 1876 light is a famous landmark in Charleston, and has stood strong against storm and waves for more than a century, colorfully painted in white and black striping from its days as a marker for the U.S. Lighthouse service.
Summer nights in Charleston often echo with a soft, high-pitched buzz that many people assume are crickets in the distance. In fact, this background music on balmy evenings comes from the Cicada (pronounced Sikaduh), a curious-looking critter with a fascinating lifestyle. Charleston's version of this entertaining insect is called the Periodical Cicada, because it only appears periodically, after long stretches of incubation. Each Summer, female Cicadas dig into tree bark and lay eggs. When hatched, the molting “nymphs” burrow underground, absorbing nutrients for as many as 17 years before re-emerging as winged adults. The heat of the Summer stimulates the Cicadas into action, and they have only a matter of months to mate and start the process all over again.
The familiar sound is a mating sound made by the male Cicada, who rubs of section of vertebrae called tymbals in order to attract and court a female. Cicadas in 2011 have hatched by the billions, according to biologists, so the sounds are very distinct that lover is in the air. In a few months, all will be quiet, as a new generation has been deposited, and waits its turn in the line of years of nymphs ready to hatch.
Fortunately, Cicadas don't bite humans, and are typically more on the menu for birds and other creatures. Even though they have wings, they are not inclined to do much flying, and typically cling to trees to make their sounds. Just by virtue of the fact that billions are all around us, and yet we rarely see them, shows how unobtrusive they are and how much they're being eaten.
One very interesting aspect of the Cicada symphony that fascinates scientists is the variance of decibel levels and speed of the insects' noise generator. Increased levels of the chirping sound have been shown to correspond to increases in temperature, so the Cicada is in effect, a living thermometer.