House Tour

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To pull this kind of operation together calls for an organizational plan of almost military precision. Indeed, when I spoke with Lee Manigault, of the Charleston group, the numbers she rattled off were daunting. “Each year I need nearly seven hundred volunteer docents,” she told me. With a hundred and twenty-five properties on the 1996 Charleston tour, Manigault stationed six or so docents in each house with a similar number required for the tours devoted solely to gardens. Then there are the helpers who wait at various street corners, making sure visitors are heading in the right direction. To snare all these volunteers, Manigault sends out twelve hundred letters early in the planning process, and offers her troops a series of lectures to get them up to speed on history, architecture, and design.

Charleston’s spring festival runs four weeks, starting at the end of March. The activities include oyster roasts at a nearby plantation, afternoons devoted to private gardens, and a changing menu of day and evening tours, each focusing on a particular street and its byways and alleys and featuring visits to about ten properties. Among those I visited were an imposing example of a 170Os “single house,” with its characteristic side porch or loggia, a more modest dwelling of the same period that began life as a general store, and the home of an antiques dealer, whose interiors, thanks to the owner’s vocation, are usually in flux. “I learn about the furnishings in a room, and the next time I come he’s gone and sold them,” one guide said.

At the time we spoke, Manigault was already getting to work on 1997’s fiftieth anniversary event, which, like all the previous ones, requires a balancing act. “It’s not only that I need a hundred and twenty-five houses,” she said, “but here’s what I want on Legare Street, or I already have too many on Broad. People volunteer their houses year after year; some are crazy about it, but some homeowners need a break.” The 1996 version, well under way, was still making its demands. “Just now six docents dropped out of Tradd Street, so I had to round up some more.” Meanwhile, a frazzled docent due at a garden that afternoon entered Manigault’s office with a problem: The lady of the house didn’t know the names of any of the flowers in her newly professionally designed garden. Neither did the docent. Manigault sent her off to one of the foundation’s experts for advice.

To pull this kind of operation together calls for an organizational plan of almost military precision.

Since tours fill up quickly, it’s wise to order tickets, costing thirty dollars per tour, well in advance. For 1996 the foundation had fourteen thousand tickets to sell, and by the third week of the event 89 percent had been sold. The proceeds provide a large portion of the foundation’s annual operating revenue. With each ticket, one is provided with a map of the properties and can visit the houses in any order.

My first tour took place from seven to ten in the evening. It was already dark when I set out, flashlight and map in hand, toward Queen Street, one of the city’s oldest sections, where French Huguenots had settled in the late 160Os. From the earliest days these émigrés had flourished in a number of businesses, weaving themselves into the city’s social fabric. The names of many of Charleston’s most prominent families—like Manigault—belong to the first Huguenots.

It felt comfortably eerie to be strolling along streets lit only by electric candles on a night that saw a full eclipse of the moon. Now and then—at the elaborately Gothic Revival Huguenot church or the tiny 176Os home and workshop of Charleston’s master cabinetmaker Thomas Elfe—I’d run into other nocturnal walkers. Visiting none of the houses in the order they were presented in on the map, but just dropping in when I came across an open door, seemed to add to my sense of discovery. I needed no letters of introduction that night.

On two sunny afternoon tours, free of a flashlight or the need to squint at a map in the dark, I found the whole process easier and even more agreeable. The territory was growing familiar in a way that hadn’t happened on past Charleston trips. Since all the tours are confined to the same part of town—south of Broad Street—you need to retrace your steps more than once, and just by trying to locate an address, you look more closely at everything.

Ambling along a route devoted to gardens, I imagined that no one would stop me from passing an entire afternoon in just one spot, lazing on an iron bench in some private hideaway, listening to the faint music of a fountain, slapping at the occasional insect, and marveling at the showy, perfumed splendor of a thicket of camellias. A few of the properties were large and sprawling, with naturalistically crafted swimming pools, statuary, arbors, and hedges leading the visitor from one garden “room” to the next. But more characteristic were the smaller plots, narrow and deep, on streets where the old houses crowd in on one another and city noise is muted by high, mellow brick walls curtained with wisteria. “A wonderful use of a very small space,” docents would comment again and again.

In a part of the city shaped by the eighteenth century, it’s surprising to learn that most of the gardens date back only a few years, many of them restored from the ravages of 1989’s Hurricane Hugo. But as one quickly learns on any of these tours, that was only the most recent disaster. Earthquakes, hurricanes, fires, and wars all have had a chance to reshape Charleston, yet its eighteenth-century core somehow manages to prevail, not least in these little hidden bowers.