Charleston's historic district is dominated by brick houses, which account for about 65 per cent of the residential construction. Although blessed with abundant pine and cypress forests nearby, the early city favored brick construction because of its fire deterrent capabilities, and after several fires swept the city during colonial times, "brick ordinances" were passed compelling that material for new construction. The coastal plain around Charleston was also a natural source of clay and lime for brick making. Nearby plantations along the Cooper and Wando Rivers made fortunes by using slave labor to dig subterranean layers, then form them into loaf-sized sections, bake them in massive kilns to hardness. Large operations could turn out millions of bricks each year, and by the 1720's, Charleston was dominated by this construction. Uneven baking in kilns did create some problems, such as undercooked soft bricks that were notoriously known as "soakers" because they were so porous to water intrusion. To remedy that problem, brick exteriors were often sealed with layers of lime and sand called stucco, and the 1720-era Col. Robert Brewton house at 73 Church Street is considered to be the first house in Charleston adorned with decorative stucco. Still, brick was a staple in construction and in much demand. Most brick makers created standard sizes used in England, measuring 9 ½ x 4 ½ x 2 ½ inches. A typical two-story house would require as many as 100,000 bricks, laid in thicker courses in the foundation, tapering to thinner walls in the upper floors so as not to create top-heavy instability. An important ingredient to maintain the structural integrity of buildings standing in this hurricane and earthquake prone area was the heavily line-based mortar that joined bricks together. The lime mortar actually expands and contracts under pressure, providing a much-needed "give" in walls that might crack if too rigid. The most common brick displayed in historic houses is Charleston Grey Brick, so-called because of the drab-colored clay excavated along the coast. Baking in kilns imparts pigments from the burning wood, as well as creating a chemical change that turned finished brick into the mottled red color so dominant in Charleston today.
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 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.
People are often surprised to find out, considering how close Charleston is to the sea, that many downtown houses have full cellars. The historic peninsula has several distinct low ridges that provide ample space from the water table, and along these are underground spaces with a colorful past. Under the Old Exchange, for example, is a vaulted brick cellar built before the Revolution as a storage area for imported goods unloaded from nearby wharves. During the Revolution, the British captured Charleston, and used the Exchange cellar to “store” more than sixty patriots, including two signers of the Declaration of Independence.
One of Chareston's charming eccentricities is the "joggling board" a 6-8 foot section of wide yellow pine board that is pegged on eitgher end to wooden rockers. The lengthy contraption is said to have originated in the city back in the early 1800's, when an elderly invalid named Mrs. Huger was told that she could restore some of her health with regular mobility and exercise. Someone supposedly came up with the idea of a bouncing, rocking device that would provide the stimulus necessary. Whether Mrs. Huger ever took to the board is not known, but generations of other Charlestonians have ever since.
The joggling board is commonly found in yards and along piazzas, where it is ostensibly a conversation piece and children's plaything, but all any adult needs to do is put backside on board, and they'll be hooked – especailly with a glass of wine in hand. It's a pleasantly relaxing ride on a wodden perch that will not break, as the pliable yellow pine has been known to bounce with five or six adults riding.
Another old story about the joggling board is that it was favored by courting adults during prudish eras of yesteryear, when young gentlemen and ladies were not supposed to touch or hold hands during the intial stages of getting to know each other. the joggling board, which bends and sags in the middle, naturally pushes people from each side into the center, where they will end up touching, like it or not.
Many of downtown Charleston's historic homes feature beautiful clay tile roof shingles, that besides being very attractive, afford a cooling method for the entire house. This fashion dates back to colonial tims, when local clays were kiln-baked inside molded patterns that are distinctive by their undulating surface. This uneven, yet symmetrical surface deflects the sun's rays much more effectively than flat tiles, preventing the absorbing of heat during hot hours of the day. Typically these tiles have a thin patina of tar or pitch to prevent water intrusion, and the rounded surfaces patterns allow for passage of air through the roof top, adding to the cooling effect.
Some of the most attractive clay tile roof tops can be found along Tradd Street, in the heart of the historic district, which still boasts the largest concentration of pre-Revolutionary houses in America, with more than 50 on this one graceful street alone.
The fine Adam-style building at 77 Church Street is today a private residence, but as is the case of so many Charleston structures, originated as home to a grocery and liquor store. Ferdinand Danjou built the brick building in 1808 to house his burgeoning business in booze. Since then, it has seen service as an inn, and today is a private home. It features exquisite Flemish bonding, in which the courses of bricks are aligned in alternate "headers" and "stretchers" for maximum beauty and strength.
One of Charleston's most exquisite real estate listings is the Patrick O'Donnell house at 21 King Street, perhaps the city's finest example of the "side hall" construction style popular in Charleston's golden age prior to the Civil War. The side hall concept is a slight modification of the classic "single house", which faced sideways to the street with entry along a full-length porch, or piazza. The side hall motif created a separate entrance on the opposite sie of the house from the piazza, with a stairway that, unlike the single house, did not divide the house. This guaranteed an uninterrupted expanse of shaded exterior as well as contiguous interior chambers that could open into one another for a glorious ballroom spacial concept. No better scenario could ever exist for a formal reception or party, or for its outstanding visual and visceral effect.
The grand homes along Charleston's "Battery Row" have some great stories. The Roper House at #9 still has a large section of a Civil War cannon in its attic. The gun was blown up by evacuating Confederates in 1865, and a massive part of the barrel flew over two big houses and became a top-story fixture. The Roper House also has earthquake plates fashioned in the form of lions heads on its front facade. Next door at number 13(so numbered because these are double lots), the Ravenel House has a peculiar protruding basement. It once supported a two-story portico with Corinthian columns, which collapsed during Charleston's 1886 earthquake. One of the big column capitals, which is the top ornamented section for those of you architecturally-challenged, was not found after the earthquake and presumed lost, but when Hurricane Gracie knocked down a big sidewalk oak tree in 1959, the capital was there in the upturned roots, having been buried by the force of its fall 73 years earlier. More to come…