House Tour

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I had visited Charleston, South Carolina, twice over the years, touring the great house museums that summed up the glory of the eighteenth-century city, ferrying out to Fort Sumter, and dining superbly on she-crab soup and platters of shrimp. Much of the time I would simply walk the uneven slate and cobblestone streets in the heart of the historic district, glancing into gauzily curtained windows and willing my feet not to lead me where they had no right to go, past some particularly enticing wrought iron gate into a stranger’s lush and shady garden. It seemed that however vigorously I toured the town, it always stayed hazily out of focus, remaining, like the hostess of some rarefied party, beautiful, gracious, and remote.

This is the view of Charleston many people take away, and it is probably its defense against a nearly year-round assault of tourists. More than fifty years ago a writer for the WPA guide noted that despite an “old fashioned courtesy…the real Charleston is seldom touched or discovered by the stranger.” And in a 1949 article in Holiday magazine, Henry and Katharine Pringle, insiders to the bone, suggested that only with a letter of introduction could the traveler penetrate the private Charleston.

So last spring, when a handsome brochure from the Historic Charleston Foundation came across my desk, announcing a “festival of houses and gardens”—private ones—it fell on fertile territory. This would open those gates, not only to the garden but to the living room, the dining room, even the kitchen. I was intrigued to learn that 1996 would mark the foundation’s forty-ninth open house, since it gave the whole concept of these tours, one I found curious, a relative antiquity I hadn’t known they possessed. The idea of allowing perfect strangers to enter one’s house, perhaps track dirt on the carpet, assess the owner’s taste in wallpaper and art, and—God forbid—pocket a small curio on the way out the door had always struck me as slightly outlandish.

As it turned out, the house-tour trail went back even further than 1947. Debbie Bordeau, at the Historic Charleston Foundation, recalls that in the spring of 1947, when the foundation first had the idea of developing such a tour to raise money for preservation, one of its members traveled to Natchez, Mississippi, to observe firsthand a tradition that began in 1932. There always seems to be a strong woman behind the first stirrings of any preservation movement, and 1930s Natchez, fighting a general decline made worse by the ravages of the Depression, was no exception. There Katharine G. Miller, president of the local garden club, prevailed upon the owners of twenty-two of Natchez’s most beautiful and historic houses to open their doors to the public for a small admission fee. Most people in town thought she was crazy. She later wrote, “They thought I was having a wild dream and I was going to suffer a great disappointment.”

But when the appointed morning arrived, “the Natchez people saw that…hundreds were pouring in.” In addition to the house tour, Miller produced tableaux of costumed townspeople representing their version of gracious living in the Old South, and she brought visitors to the black churches to hear soul-shaking renditions of spirituals. All of this helped fund the restoration of nearly moribund houses, and perhaps it did something more. In his highly entertaining, if impressionistic, 1947 book Natchez on the Mississippi , Harnet T. Kane wrote of the cross-pollination that tourism brings: “The Natchezians met more new people and learned more about the rest of the world than most of them had ever done in their lives. That, along with the spread of a little more purchasing power among blacks as well as whites, didn’t hurt anyone in Natchez.”

Looking back to those first days, Mimi Miller, director of preservation of the Historic Natchez Foundation (no relation to Katharine Miller), remarks: “It really took visionaries to pull that off. Who is going to come to a town that doesn’t even have paved roads to see a bunch of rundown houses?” In the next breath she explains, “The only place the South led the nation at that time was in the field of historic preservation. This was a Southern phenomenon. After the Civil War they had no present and no future; all they could do was worship the past.” Of course it didn’t hurt that after Gone With the Wind came out in 1936, everyone wanted to see a plantation. Even though the book wasn’t set anywhere near Natchez, the town, with its motto, “Where the Old South Still Lives,” served just fine as a living museum for fans of the book and the 1939 movie.

But Natchez wasn’t even the first place to think up such a tour. That honor belongs to Virginia. There, in Richmond, the ladies of the Garden Club of Virginia launched Historic Garden Week in 1929, hoping to raise money to restore the grounds of Kenmore, the Fredericksburg home of George Washington’s sister Betty. Terming their effort a pilgrimage, the members opened a handful of houses throughout the state with great success, starting a tradition that continues to this day. The present statewide event, which bills itself as “America’s Largest Open House,” starts the last full week of April, continues for nine days, and includes more than two hundred and fifty historic properties.