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Posts Tagged ‘history’


An essential component of the majesty of the Biltmore Estate is the immensity of its grounds, a virtue supplemented by never-ending vistas, carefully manicured gardens, a shrine to conservation and cultivation of indigenous and non-native plant species, and the mature forests and pasture lands that cover the rolling hills surrounding the house.  But these latter features are not exactly what they seem and, for my money, constitute the most fascinating part of the estate.

What appears to be natural is actually far from the case.  Stands upon stands of trees and acres upon acres of pristine pastureland that seem to be the handiwork of centuries of natural processes are, instead, very much the vision of Vanderbilt himself, a vision that manifests itself today as the complex forestry plan devised by Frederick Law Olmsted.  It was Vanderbilt’s desire to transform a landscape scarred by the over-wrought agriculture activities of man into a glimmering emulation of sustainablity and regality so common on large estates in Europe.  Olmsted was able to translate this desire masterfully.

Being of the planning profession, I have become so accustomed to landscape plans for streetscapes, master plans, or parks containing mathematical feet-off-center calculations and rigid, almost thoughtless linear patterns for plantings that simply being immersed in such a different philosophical scheme at Biltmore completely mesmerized me.  Olmsted’s superior understanding of the life cycles of, individually, species of flora and, collectively, their natural progression into true habitat formation is evident here.  The visitor does not realize they are standing amidst the results of a large-scale landscaping plan because the execution of the plan and the thoughtfulness that preceded its culmination have guaranteed naturalization.  The forest replenishes itself and will for centuries afterward.

It was a long-term vision, one in which both Vanderbilt and Olmsted knew, if done correctly, would take decades to accomplish, well beyond their life expectancies.  It’s because of this dedicated commitment (something that in the profession can seem so rare in a day where projects approved due to their ‘sustainability quotient’ are actually not very sustainable at all) that we are able to enjoy the Biltmore’s grounds so much today.

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Yesterday was one of those all too rare perfect days of the year, where a light wind combined with only partial cloudiness and 70+ degree weather to create an outdoor enthusiast’s heaven. It was also just a bit too early in the calendar for sand gnats to attempt to ruin the fun.

Today is a lot different, with a light rain falling throughout the morning.  Still, if you had a refined entryway such as this, a feature that is extremely common in much of the old-walled portion of Charleston, I think today wouldn’t seem quite so bad.

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Finally.  The misery appears to be mostly over.

Gone are those nasty near-30 degree mornings and those 40 degree days.  At least, I hope so.  I’m going to will it to be so.  Are you listening, Mother Nature? Enough. The Holy City is tired of feeling reclusive.

Since this blog has the word ‘roam’ in its title and we’ve done relatively little of that activity recently, the moderating temperatures propelled Suz to take it upon herself to refill the ol’ photo bank a couple Saturdays ago while I toured the Calhoun Mansion with my visiting friends.

I’m not really sure you can ever run out of subjects for a photography expose in this place.  The accompanying photos pervade that vintage antique feel that is ubiquitous at every turn and every glance.

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The first faint hints of warmer weather two weekends ago provided ample opportunity for me to demonstrate my downright geeky interest in sea commerce by taking our guests to the beach near Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island.  The spot possesses all of the locational hallmarks of a great study of Charleston Harbor: expansive views of the Atlantic, the Holy City, Fort Sumter, the breadth of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, and Morris Island in the distance.

Fort Moultrie stands watch over the shipping lanes into and out of Charleston Harbor along with its sister, a Spanish-American War-era battery installation.  The whole site is teeming with historic prominence, local lore, and the ever-present evidence of an economically viable port that has sustained its relevancy since the infancy of this grand city.  There is something about watching these huge container ships make their slow, deliberate foray into the harbor that alights my imagination with visions of times gone by, drawing upon those historic links between tall ship merchant seafaring in a more dangerous era for sea travel and modern commerce.  The physical circumstances of the beach also lends itself towards this “looking glass” approach to a trip over the dunes, as the site nestles next to the Cooper River’s confluence with the Atlantic, making water recreation exceptionally dangerous to the point that its illegal to take a dip.

Which is for the best, as this beach is one best served by quiet, reflective reverence.

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Back when the Angel Oak first sprouted from the sandy earth, the Edisto and Stono tribe inhabitants of what we now know as John’s Island could not possibly have fathomed the possibility of Europeans existing, let alone visiting, and then acquiring, their sacred lands.

Back when the Angel Oak first sprouted from the sandy earth, Europeans were holed up in fortresses, battling fears of monsters in the forests and plagues that were indicative of the Dark Ages.

At 1,500 years old and considered to be the oldest manmade or living thing east of the Rockies, the Angel Oak has stood majestically through major hallmarks of our local and nation’s history, from the arrival of Native American tribes to the eventual expulsion of these tribes by European colonists, from the American Revolution to the Civil War, and from the Hurricane of 1893 to Hurricane Hugo, which severely damaged this great live oak.

The old man isn’t quite what he used to be.  He’s aided in his attempt to stand sentry over this portion of John’s Island by cables and wooded trusses for his massive limbs, many of which would dwarf the trunks of some of the larger live oaks in this area.  Nevertheless, his shadow, both figuratively and literally, still casts a wide swath over the Charleston area.  The Angel Oak tells his own history just as well as he tells us a little bit of our own.

To grasp an understanding of the sheer size of the Angel Oak, take a look at the photos below, paying particular attention to the one with the full-grown adult male staring up at its expanses.

Just don’t try to move the (millions) of signs positioned around the perimeter of the tree.  If you have questions concerning why you cannot move the signs, you are advised to see the clerk.  I would surmise that if you ask the clerk why you can’t move the signs, he/she will look at you over the top of their glasses in a ” do I really need to explain this?” kind of way.  I would also surmise that if you ask the clerk if you can move a sign, you’ll receive a gruff “get out of here.”

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Seeing Joan’s post over at her Charleston Daily Photo blog reminded us that we, too, have recently paid the Palmetto Carriage Company’s Big Red Barn a visit on one of our endless roams through the streets of Charleston.  We were drawn in by the glowing orbs and dim hue of Christmas lighting inside the stable.

Anybody who has ever been to the Holy City of the South knows how ubiquitous carriage tours are on the lower peninsula.  If you were in a car and not accustomed to such things upon your first encounters, you were probably pretty miffed when you sat behind one of these things as it plodded down the street at 2 miles per year.  I was, at first.  Not anymore.

I have only been on one of them in my life and that was years ago.  Being a pedestrian when one of them passes by can supply a quick lesson on a familiar structure or an anecdote on a piece of Charleston lore.  Over time, you begin to create your own knowledge bank of these stories, criticisms, and, well, embellishments, although I’m not knocking those by any means.

I have been told by a couple of good friends who worked for one of these companies while in college not to completely believe 25% of what I hear from some of these drivers, which probably goes without saying and absolutely they do not mean they are lying to patrons, at least willingly.  Charleston is an interesting place full of wonderful history and nuanced nods to different social, cultural, and political climates, but a little hyperbole about these events doesn’t really hurt anything sometimes.  On Wentworth Street, the stream of carriages is nearly constant and the factoids from the mouths of the operators blend into the environmental stimuli of the neighborhood in the same way chirping birds and passing vehicles do.  From what I have gathered, most of the carriage drivers are pretty knowledgable and only stray into the realm of popular myth sparingly while within their script, a foray that is obviously more common during impromptu critical analysis questionnaires from the eager history buff in the back seat.

In a recent instance while walking the ol’ beast down the street, I overheard one poor driver attempting to explain both the geometry of descent and combustibility against a facade of a cannonball fired upon a single residence South of Broad during the Civil War.  The fumbling answer he delivered showed a complete lack of knowledge in the science of basic physics and a lack (probably fortuitous) in recognition in the timing of an appropriately worded response, “Sir, I don’t know the answer to your ridiculously detailed question about 19th century ballistics” but I certainly appreciated him giving it an enthusiastic try.  I’m sure some of the questions these people are asked trend towards the absurdly esoteric.

Speaking of walking the ol’ beast down the street, there was a time in Finley’s younger days (also known as 5 months ago) when she became an attraction on the carriage route in her own right.  The situation always occurred at an impasse in the flow of the tour’s information, mostly at a red signal at the intersection of Pitt and Wentworth Streets.  At a temporary loss of filler, more than a few befuddled drivers would scan the sidewalks or treetops for some sort of remark to keep the momentum going on the knowledge train.  Truth be told, Finley was pretty damn adorable in those days (to literally everyone.  She still is to us but interactions with others on the streets have definitely changed.) and was an easy target towards which to divert attention in those brief awkward silences.  The acknowledgement by the driver to his passengers that my dog was, indeed, awesome prompted an almost formulaic conversation, with the only real variations being in the amount of and exact questions asked of me towards the end of the interaction:

Driver: “Aw, everyone look at that cute puppy. HEY!!!!” (directed towards me after driver realizes I have heard his directive) CUTE PUPPY!”

Me: “Thanks.”

Driver: “I love lab puppies.”

Me: “Me too, but this one is a golden retriever.”

(At this point, the rest of the passengers are talking amongst themselves.  Ladies are swooning.  Photos are being taken of me, in a ratty sweater looking like I just crawled out of a bomb shelter, and my puppy.  Photos are probably very crooked like the rest taken that day on that camera.)

Random passenger #1: “What is his name?”

Me: “Her name is Finley.”

Random passenger #1: “I have a lab just like her at home!”

Me: “That’s strange since this dog is a golden retriever but neat.”

Random passenger #2: “I bet he loves this city!” (This was nearly always postulated.  Seriously.)

Me: “I think she does.”

Then came an assault of questions from at least 2 or 3 other passengers about my dog.  Bizarre questions seeking strange amounts of detail and questions acting as near intrusions into my private life from people I have never met sitting 4 feet above me on a wooden apparatus being pulled by some an animal.  I was on the spot.  The weird thing is, it didn’t really seem all that awkward after the first couple of times.  Probably the same way the drivers of those carriages felt after a couple of times of assuming the position of history teacher jockey on the streets of this fair city.

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In my previous life working in a town just south of here where the bafflingly entitled citizens enjoyed fabricating issues for town staff to investigate in a bizarre concentrated effort to waste taxpayer dollars, one of my first out-of-town trips was to attend a couple sessions of that year’s Urban Land Institute conference at the old Riviera Theater at King and Market Streets.

There is something about this brand of urban space that is really appealing to me.  I don’t know it’s some sort of misplaced devotional attachment to history or what (I’m far too young to ever catch a flick in one of these things when they were the all the rage in the pre-suburban heathen-plex days) but old theaters have always captured my interest for what they used to be, what they are now, and what they could be in the future.

While in college, I had the privilege to partake in quite a few screenings at the venerable Kentucky Theatre, a space very similar to the Riviera with one minor and one major difference:  it was not constructed in the art deco style and it actually still shows films.  Good films.  Weird films.  Indie and foreign films.  Some bad films in these categories.  But it’s the totality of the experience, viewing these mostly-thought-provoking movies while immersed in the atmosphere of an old ornate theater, that makes a visit to the Kentucky more than worthwhile.

The Riviera is a different story but is not necessarily a cautionary tale by any means.  With its fate almost sealed in the form of looming demolition in the 1980’s, a citizen interest group known as Friends of the Riviera came to the rescue and were successful in sparing this noteworthy relic.  The space was subsequently sold to the adjacent Charleston Place Hotel, who restored the structure and converted it into a conference venue.

And that is where I found myself that fall morning in 2007, slightly disappointed in the lack of screens but ultimately very happy that the place was still standing and in such great shape.  The whole reuse as a conference venue motif is a very common one for old urban realm theaters, and it’s a good one at that, but every time I pass the place, I picture what it could be again in the future:  a venturi point, a cultural anchor in the new traditionalist type of rejuvenation that is hitting in tidal waves suddenly across the country.  That vision, of course, ignores the financial realities for a prime piece of real estate on King Street in Charleston (look no further than the plight of the American Theater up the street for reference) and probably isn’t as feasible to make changes that afford dual usage for Charleston Place as it seems to be for me.

But that’s what I do.  I dream.  I imagine.  That is the kind of stuff that the Riviera was built to accommodate after all.

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