The Charleston Inheritance

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Charleston is and always will be a small town, the citadel of a “hereditary Nobility,” as its founders willed it to be. In its early days Charleston was a walled city, and in some sense it has continued as such, though the walls long ago vanished. The boundary markers of historic Charleston today are, in addition to its implacable sense of self, the Ashley and the Cooper rivers, which meet at the tip of the Charleston peninsula, and Broad Street, the third side of the triangle. Within this district, along the streets with their ancient names (such as Meeting, Tradd, Church, King, Legare), stands a high proportion of the important houses of Charleston—important because they are unique and beautiful, a national heritage. Many of them are older than the United States itself.

The best way to begin seeing the houses of Charleston is the simplest. Drive from the airport or the interstate down the peninsula to the very heart of things. Compared with the outskirts of most cities, the northern reaches of Charleston are orderly and presentable. You pass the hamburger stands and motels that you might expect, but here the drab artifacts of daily life are more than compensated for by the vivid sky, the small, neatly laced-up palmetto trees, the oleanders, and the tall crepe myrtles. Something is nearly always in flower, pink or white blossoms against the rich, variegated greens.

The distance downtown is short, and quite soon you run out of freeway and find yourself ejected into a seedy neighborhood on Meeting Street, the main thoroughfare, which runs north and south and probably derives its name from the meetinghouse, or church, farther on down. You pass the Charleston Museum, full of lovely things, and the oldest museum in America. You catch a glimpse, farther south, of the Confederate Museum in a seemly old Charleston building, and then, as Meeting crosses Broad, all at once you find yourself in another world. Like Dorothy when the tornado deposits her in the land of Oz, you may not know exactly where you have landed, but clearly this is not Kansas.

 
 

You are in a district so well kept, so freshly painted, so unequivocably of another century as to make you feel like an intruder in a private domain. A number of public buildings catch your eye: St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, with its Roman portico, its immaculate white steeple, and its air of authority both temporal and spiritual; the post office; the city hall; the county courthouse; and, farther down, another church with a neoclassical portico, this one for the Presbyterians. But what defines the cityscape as you proceed down Meeting Street are the houses, two or three stories tall, set so close to the sidewalks that you could put your hand through the windows, set so close to one another that they might be row houses with common walls. Then you see that, in fact, they stand apart from one another, separated by long, narrow gardens shut off at the street end by wrought-iron gates.

The doors to these houses, fitted out with highly polished brass and flush with the street, you might imagine would lead to entrance halls or even parlors. But as you walk past, you notice that many of these doors are not what they seem. If you knocked at one of them and were admitted, you would find yourself not inside the house but on the side porch (the piazza, as they call it here, with soft z ’s and no hint of the Italianate t ). You would go from the outside to another kind of outside. For newcomers to Charleston admitted to what they expect to be the inner sanctum, this is a pleasant shock, a kind of flirtatious, beguiling trait for a house to possess. And it is a trait peculiar to the houses of this city.

The district south of Broad is a kind of outdoor drawing room, carefully managed.

The streets, though a few are still paved with colonial cobblestones, are as pristine as the paint job on St. Min chael’s Church. Except for the occasional eighteenth-century carriage mount, or boot scraper, or hitching post, ordinary street furniture is curiously absent. There are, thank heaven, a few discreet fire hydrants, painted in agreeable colors. You will search in vain, however, for the pay phones, newsstands, coffee shops, and souvenir stands that both humanize and disfigure most cities, particularly those that live by the tourist trade. You cannot help sensing the presence of a female hand here. The ladies of the various preservation committees have completed their civilizing mission. Though Charleston is still a city with traffic in the streets and real people living in the houses, the district south of Broad is a kind of outdoor drawing room, carefully managed. The tidiness is all part of the charm, however, and may be taken as the essential quality of modern Charleston, if any such thing as “modern” Charleston exists.