The Charleston Inheritance


Like other great houses of America, the houses of Charleston stood for something—a web of values and beliefs, uncounted hours of care and labor, a culture with an impossibly high melting point. Catastrophes of every kind hit this small city. Fires, particularly in colonial times, would swallow up half the buildings in one gulp, and one of the worst conflagrations occurred in 1861, while the city was at war with the United States. Earthquakes have come with terrible regularity, the worst perhaps in 1812 and 1886, and hurricanes and floods have not spared Charleston either. But after the fires the city was always rebuilt, and after the earthquakes the citizenry patched their houses and pulled the frames together with giant bolts, whose blunt ends ornament many a side wall and facade today. After the hurricanes people mopped up the mud and repaired the damages and went on. Perhaps the worst disaster, psychologically as well as physically, was the Civil War, during which the city was besieged and battered with heavy artillery. However, Gen. William T. Sherman did not have time to raze Charleston, and thus the city was spared the devastation wrought on the South Carolina capital at Columbia.

No society that could build such houses could long be satisfied to take orders from overseas.

No visitor admiring Charleston’s fragile-looking little houses today—the lacy balustrades, the tea tables, and the drawing rooms—should forget that some part of the city’s soul is made of steel. Though its thoroughfares may be as exquisite as its architecture, Charleston retains its primeval toughness. “The civil defense people talk of a plan for evacuating Charleston, in case of nuclear attack,” a lady of Tradd Street observed recently. “But I wouldn’t have any idea of leaving Charleston. The hurricanes and earthquakes and the British and even the Northern invaders couldn’t put an end to us, and neither will any atom bomb.” One hopes she is right.