Origins: Charleston, South Carolina - #109

Every place in the world has a series of things that give that spot a special character... and make it different from every other place.  When you look at the ORIGINS of these things, you often end up with a better appreciation of the territory -- and that makes it a lot more interesting to visit.  And sometimes, these ORIGINS help us understand why we live the way we do.

Charleston, South Carolina. At the time of the American Revolution in 1776 it was the wealthiest, most beautiful and most sophisticated city in North America. It had the busiest port in the colonies and was often called “Little London.” Today you can walk through the historic streets of Charleston and get a clear sense of what early America looked like.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  And the reason that everything in Charleston is pretty well preserved is not because of the city’s traditional wealth.  As a matter of fact, it is just the opposite.  Charleston has remained pretty much intact because of the devastating poverty that resulted from the War Between The States.  At the end of that war, just about everybody in Charleston was broke -- so when it came to maintaining their homes, they were either too poor to paint, or too proud to whitewash.  Things stayed pretty much as they were.  It was preservation through poverty.

The first English settlers came to the area in 1670. King Charles II marked off a stretch of land that ran from Florida to Virginia and gave it to a group of his friends. The king’s pals formed a company and started sending settlers. They built huge plantations where they lived during the winter months. But from May to October the plantation owners got away from the heat by living in town. They spent big bucks building big townhouses that had a very distinct style.

Most of the homes in town were called “single houses” and were only one room wide. The gabled end faced the street. The front door was one flight up and opened onto a porch which was called a piazza. The piazza connected to the home. There was also a front door on the ground floor which led from the street to the rooms where the merchant conducted his business. This is the classic Charleston home, and an early example of the work-at-home office.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The planters became extremely wealthy and arrogant.  They lost touch with the economic systems that were operating in the rest of the world.  They became dependent on slavery, and led the movement for secession from the Union.  The first shots of the Civil War  were fired from Charleston.  And at the end of that war, Charleston was a disaster area, but the people of the city were able to remember the best of their past and rebuild.

In 1929 Charleston passed the nation’s first historic zoning laws, and the people of Charleston continue to do everything they can to preserve the beauty of their past.  

John Meffert is an authority on historic Charleston, and in the tradition of Southern hospitality, he’s taking me on a tour.

JOHN MEFFERT:  And what you see here is one of my favorite places in the whole city.  Look around you.  What’s missing?  What do you notice is missing?

BURT WOLF:  My home.  One of these should be my home.

JOHN MEFFERT:  One of these should be your house.

BURT WOLF:  My name should be on one of these homes.

JOHN MEFFERT:  Well, if you had a million dollars, we’d get you one for your own enjoyment... But what’s missing otherwise?  Street wires.  Have you noticed, there are no street wires.

BURT WOLF:  Oh, yeah -- no street wires.

JOHN MEFFERT:  The city, long ago, said, “We’ve got to improve the district,” and started to remove the wires from the city streets.

BURT WOLF:  So this is what it pretty much would have looked like in the 1700s.

JOHN MEFFERT:  Take the cars away and you’d have a fairly good image of what the city might have been.

BURT WOLF:  Ah...Could you have a grip take the cars away, please?  We want to have a really authentic shot here.  These things are important.

JOHN MEFFERT:  We’re at the Four Corners of the Law, and this is the heart of the city -- heart of the city’s National Historic Landmark district.  And it’s called the Four Corners of the Law because right here, just behind you, is the county offices which is the County Office Building which has been there since 1792.  Behind us here is the City Hall, which has been here since 1801; across the street we have the Federal Building that was rebuilt after the earthquake of 1886; and next door St. Michael’s, the Episcopal law, which generated and controlled the colony in the earliest days.  So these four laws are what the city of Charleston is all about.  The law of the state, the law of the city, the law of the church, and the law of the federal government.  Even though we didn’t agree with all those laws at one time.  But, as we come to it today, these are all buildings protected and they illustrate the city seal.  She guards her buildings, her customs, and her laws.  And here I think we’ve done a wonderful job of keeping the continuity of those laws as you see in the buildings that still survive from each century of this wonderful city’s history.

I also thought you might like to meet a man who has a slightly different point of view.  His name is Alphonso Brown.  He was born in Charleston County and knows it well.

ALPHONSO BROWN:  On my tours I show many of the basics like shown by most Charleston guides, but my tour focuses more on the black side of the history of Charleston.  I tell about many black slave owners, I tell about strange graveyards and et cetera -- different type things here in Charleston that other tour guides, I don’t know whether they have time to tell them, but they just, I just have a different twist to it.

BURT WOLF:  Now that’s a big deal house there, isn’t it?

ALPHONSO BROWN:  Aiken-Rhett Mansion.  Beautiful, too.  Governor Aiken was one of our governors here in Charleston, and that was his home.  Notice the dingy yellow portion in the back.

BURT WOLF:  Why are the windows filled in?

ALPHONSO BROWN:  Yeah, they don’t fill them in, they were made that way, and of course they gave it that design to give it a nice look.  They were false windows.  You know slaves, it wasn’t nice for the slaves to have so much communication with the outside world, so you fill it in, you keep it private.  So, Aiken-Rhett Mansion.  Upstairs was the slave quarters, downstairs was the stable.  Many time, people have asked me where in the city can they go to see slave quarters in its original state -- are there any?  That’s the place.  I guess if the slaves were to come here now and see the place, they would probably say, “My God, y’all haven’t done anything with the place since we left?”

This is the old slave mart.  I told you all the slave marts were gone except for one.  This is the old Runyon slave mart -- he and his son open up their business in 1852, they were considered brokers.  They had a large office space on Queen Street, one block over.  Then, behind the office space and a little over to our left, there was a huge three-story building known as the slave jail.  Both buildings are gone now and the space is Queen Street one block over.  Behind that, we had this -- it was a courtyard which is now a parking lot.  It was from the courtyard where the slaves were placed out there to be inspected before being auctioned off in this building.

BURT WOLF:  There are a lot of people who feel that the bad things in the history of the United States should be pushed away and hidden and torn down, I’ve heard that view.  I think it’s important to keep these...

ALPHONSO BROWN:  Of course!  It is important.

BURT WOLF:  ...and many things like it up to remind us not to get into this again.

ALPHONSO BROWN:  That’s right.  You may forget.  It is a part of history.

Charleston’s love of its past and its desire to retain the traditions of southern hospitality also show up in its hotels. This is Charleston Place.  It’s right in the center of the city’s historic district and it blends together the style of the 18th century with the comfort and convenience of the 20th century.

The first thing you see when you come into the building is this double staircase that sweeps around an enormous crystal chandelier that is made up of over 3,000 individual pieces. It was brought to the hotel from Venice.  

            To the side of the entrance hall is the Lobby Lounge, which serves afternoon high tea in the style of Great Britain. Tea sandwiches. Small pastries. Lemon curd tarts. Truffles. Fresh scones.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  There are a number of British food authorities who believe you should put the jam on the scone first, and the Devonshire cream on top.  When the cream hits your tongue, it gives it a light coating and helps spread out the sweetness of the jam.  It was Lord Twining of the Twining Tea Company  who told me that in the old days, you always poured the cream in the cup before you poured in the tea.  It was before refrigeration and you wanted to make sure that the cream was still good before you poured the tea in.  And in those days, the tea was much more expensive than the cream.

Around the corner in Charleston Place is a hall of shops including Laura Ashley, Gucci and my personal favorite, Godiva Chocolates -- a small box of which ends up on your pillow every night.

You can pop across the street to the Riviera Theater, which was built in 1939 and recently purchased and returned to its original Art Deco beauty by Charleston Place. It has been designated as a city landmark, and it’s also the hotel’s state-of-the-art conference facility. 

You can advance your abs, pick up your pecs and burn your calories in the fitness center, which has a heated indoor/outdoor pool, a retractable glass roof, a fully equipped exercise room, steam rooms and saunas.

And, of course, you need a place to take in those calories before you burn them off. The Charleston Grill will take care of that. It’s well-known for its classic Southern dishes.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   All of the luxury here in Charleston Place is very much in keeping with the history of the city.  Unlike the early colony in Massachusetts, where the population was interested in a sparse and Puritan lifestyle, the people who came to Charleston were interested in the lifestyle that was as close to that of the King of England as possible.

King Charles was known as the Merry Monarch.  He loved the good life -- great homes, fine food, lots of parties, horse racing, to which he gave the title “The Sport Of Kings.”  He was also very interested in romance.  He had a rather large collection of mistresses, and fathered more than a dozen illegitimate children.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   It was often said that King Charles was the father of his people, or at least, a great many of them. Charleston was his namesake city and part of its original plan was to reproduce a fun-loving gentry in the American colonies.

Bob Waggoner is the executive chef at Charleston Place, and this recipe is for a South Carolina specialty called Beaufort Stew.  Now, this is not the type of food that he makes for the hotel’s restaurants, but it is what you would get if you came out to his place for a down-home Sunday lunch in the garden.

He starts by putting pieces of smoked pork sausage into a big pot. Bob uses a quarter pound of sausage per person. They browned for about two minutes. Then five cloves of sliced garlic are added and cook for a minute more. Three quarts of vegetable or chicken stock are added and a few tablespoons of Old Bay Seasoning -- which is a mixture of fennel, celery salt, cloves, peppers, ginger, mace and cardamom. 

BURT WOLF:  If  you don’t have Old Bay Seasoning, can you use New Bay Seasoning or another equivalent?

BOB WAGGONER:  Perfect... No problem!

Then he adds a little salt and pepper and a few bay leaves.  All that simmers for about fifteen minutes. Then six new potatoes cut into quarters go in. Five more minutes of simmering. Next some baby corn or two or three ears of regular corn cut into pieces.

BOB WAGGONER:   Now we’re going to add the crayfish.  Our live little guys.  Which are obviously not gonna...You want to get them in and stir them around as quickly as possible because obviously they’re not... not as happy as they could be in there.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): There really is a good reason for cooking the shellfish while it’s still alive.  When a shellfish like this dies, a bacteria develops on the surface of the skin.  And that bacteria can be pretty dangerous.  The only way to avoid the bacteria is to cook the shellfish while it’s still alive.

The crayfish cook for about three minutes. Then two pounds of freshwater prawns.

BOB WAGGONER:  What you want is just to throw these guys in just at the last, you know, two-three minutes of the cooking time.  Crayfish, they can sit in there and, you know, and cook away, that’s not a problem, but these guys are definitely going to toughen up.  So you just want to let it,  obviously bring it down, let it simmer right there at the end, the last two to three minutes, and away we go!

Next -- one cup of little tomatoes or big tomatoes cut into little pieces.

BOB WAGGONER:  And obviously you can use chopped Roman tomatoes, whatever kind of tomatoes you have.  I’ve just got these little currant tomatoes handy, so I figured I’d throw them in.  And this is obviously one of those recipes -- if you don't have tomatoes, you don’t add tomatoes -- if you don’t have green onions, you don’t add green onions.

BURT WOLF:  It’s my kind of recipe.

BOB WAGGONER:  If the corn, you know, you couldn’t get the corn, you don’t add corn.

BURT WOLF:  Only what’s on special.

BOB WAGGONER:  That’s it.  But obviously all of them add to a special flavor that blends together.

One more minute of cooking and the liquid gets strained away from the solid ingredients and the solids get turned out into a serving bowl. A few chopped green onions on top and it’s ready to go.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   In 1669, Carolina published its first constitution which stated that any group of seven men or more could come together, form a church, call it what they wanted to, and be free to practice their religion.  But that document also stated that no man would be allowed in Carolina who did not acknowledge and worship God. So freedom of religion was not quite the same as freedom from religion. Eventually, so many houses of worship were built in Charleston that it became known as a Holy City.

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church is the oldest church in Charleston.  Its cornerstone was set in place in 1752.  The clock tower has been a beacon for sailors and is the oldest functioning colonial clock tower in the country.

The original First Baptist Church was built on this site in 1699 by a congregation that had come to Charleston to escape religious persecution in Maine. The present building, which is in the Greek Revival style, dates back to 1822.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   During the late 1600’s over forty thousand French Protestants, known as Huguenots, left France in order to avoid being persecuted by Louis XIV.  Many of them went to England where they were welcomed by King Charles II, who also subsidized a group that came here to Charleston.  Along with the group that came to Charleston came a letter from the King telling the government here that the Huguenots would be particularly valuable because of their skills in making silk and wine, which had previously been French monopolies.

This is Charleston’s Huguenot Church, which was erected in 1845.  It was the first church in Charleston to use the Gothic Revival style.

And this is the Beth Elohim Synagogue. It dates back to the middle of the 1700s, and is the oldest synagogue in continual use in the United States.  It was the first synagogue to install an organ, and stands as the home of Reform Judaism in America.

The historic buildings of Charleston, South Carolina are protected by the codes of the Historic Charleston Foundation.  The plantations are protected by the staff of the National Trust.

Preserving our architecture is important, but Charleston also has a national treasure that is very much alive.  This is the blacksmith Philip Simmons, who has been officially certified as a National Treasure by the Smithsonian Institution.  Philip was born on Daniel Island, near Charleston, in 1912.

When he was thirteen he walked past a blacksmith shop and was fascinated by the fire, the sounds of the hammers, and the work that was going on.  He apprenticed himself to the blacksmith and over the next few years learned how to shoe horses and make the ironwork that was needed for the wagons of the time.

But time was running out for blacksmiths. Horses were being replaced by cars and blacksmiths were going out of business. Philip loved his work and refused to give it up.

He stopped making horseshoes and started making gates and fences. Today the city has hundreds of examples of his ironwork. His art trims Charleston like a ribbon of lace, connecting the city’s past to its present.

The old building that has been his workshop for most of his life is not quite the facility I expected of a National Treasure, but it makes the point that the genius of a craftsman is in his mind, not in his tools.

PHILIP SIMMONS:  You tell me what you want, and while you’re talking I’m trying to sketch something for you, and most times I sketch what they want.  And I was able to sketch things, you know, that they really accepted.  That’s what sketching is all about; I like to put it on paper and let the customer see what they’re gonna get.  Some come to me and tell me to make them something -- “Oh, go ahead, you can make it” -- I say, “No, let me sketch it,” and let them look at it, because sometimes you may sketch a piece and when you carry it to them or they come for it, they say “Oh, that isn’t what I want!”  So my motto is, you sketch it and let them see what they’re gonna get.  People was telling me that, “Philip, the blacksmith’s becoming a lost art; what you gonna do?”  But you know, always gonna be something for the blacksmith to do.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The business that Philip Simmons went into when he decided to become a blacksmith almost disappeared when cars replaced horses, but there’s an important story here -- real craftsmanship transcends specific products and addresses itself to the changing needs of the public.  You can downsize an industry or a company, but you cannot downsize the heart of an artist.

As the War Between The States came to a close, Union troops marched through the area surrounding Charleston and destroyed every plantation in their path, with one exception: Drayton Hall.  There’s a story that the owner, John Drayton, was a doctor and he sent his slaves to the edge of the property to tell the Union troops that the building was being used as a smallpox hospital.  We don’t know if that story is true, but the house was clearly spared.  Today it is part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Just down the road is a property called Middleton Place.  It was the family home of four generations of Middletons.  Henry was the President of the First Continental Congress.  Arthur was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.  Arthur’s son Henry was the Governor of South Carolina and our Minister to Russia.  Henry’s son Williams was a signer of the Ordinance of Secession, which led to the War Between The States and eventually to the destruction of his family home at Middleton.  That’s what the great house looked like at the end of the war.

The main building was destroyed, but some of the most magnificent gardens in the United States were saved. They were originally laid out in 1741, which makes this America’s oldest landscaped garden and one of the most beautiful and peaceful places in the nation.

CHARLES DUELL:  So this, as you can see, is the canal; it’s about 800 feet long and it really marks the western boundary of the garden, punctuates it on a north-south axis and perpendicular to other axes that run east-west, and we’ll see throughout this old part of the garden how very geometric everything was.  How that mind of the early 18th century, coming out of 17th century France really focused on man-made, kind of, secure spaces that were all, you know, “just so,” and perfect geometric forms, and all interconnected and very much man controlling nature.  It gave way to the romantic period when man was supposed to be controlled by nature, just God created everything.  Fortunately, here at Middleton Place we have, we have both elements.  And when the Romantic movement came along, it didn’t destroy the Classical garden;  the Romantic garden was simply added at the extremities.

So, Burt, as we go down these alleys that are really straight tunnels of camellias that bloom more from November until spring, you get views of the house that kind of lure you to the invitation to come visit the house.  That, of course, is only a third of what was the full house before the Civil War.  There was the central part that was the family residence, a north flanker that was the library and musical conservatory, and the remaining south flanker was simply the least badly damaged during the war and afterwards restored as the family residence then.

Coming through the rose garden or sundial garden you see this collection of roses that are really first propagated in the 18th to 19th century -- early roses, and that leads us down toward the Middleton Oak, which is the granddaddy of all of our live oak trees.  It was here, of course, long before the garden, and the garden design accommodated it.  Probably knocking on 900 or 1,000 years old, it’s a huge tree with a thirty-five foot circumference, and 145 feet of limb spread, and I like to think it really has an important spiritual quality as well.  I think coming in and standing under it and just listening to it.  It’s been here for hundreds of years, it must have incredible stories of things that have gone by it over time.

BURT WOLF:  It’s a sense of being welcomed underneath it.

CHARLES DUELL:  It is a very -- it’s a place to be quiet and really listen to it.

I think they were really perhaps trying to say something to their cousins back in England that out here in the boondocks, we can live just as elegantly as you can in the Mother Country.  So they really built a grand garden to kind of show off to their elder, you know, primogeniture elder son, cousins, all.

BURT WOLF:  We can do it in America.


BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The first wealth in Carolina came from  merchant traders.  The really great fortunes were amassed by planters.  Planters who were planting rice.  There are a number of books that tell the story of the first rice coming to Carolina on a ship that pulled into Charleston for repairs and paid for the work by giving seed rice to the planters.  But many historians believe that the first rice came to Carolina with slaves from West Africa where rice had been a traditional crop for hundreds of years.  Either way, it’s quite clear that the West African slaves taught the white planters how to cultivate the rice crop.

In Africa, baskets were used to separate the rice from the chaff and those precise baskets were reproduced on the plantations from the local sweetgrass. Today you can walk through Charleston and see those same baskets from West Africa being reproduced and sold.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   We may never know the precise details of exactly who brought what to this land, but the history of Charleston makes one thing perfectly clear -- a free and open society gives its people the best opportunity for long-term economic success. You could see that in 1680 when Charleston was founded, and you can see it here today.  And I hope you will see me next time as we travel around the world looking at the ORIGINS of some of the things that surround us. I’m Burt Wolf.