Three Days in Charleston


FOR A CITY that has endured wars, hurricanes, fires and earthquakes, the historic architecture of Charleston, South Carolina is amazingly well-preserved (or well-restored). An old-house enthusiast like myself has plenty to see: eight major house museums, beautiful churches and public buildings, and the rice plantations in the surrounding low-country, which provided the wealth that grew the city in the 18th and 19th centuries, on the backs of enslaved Africans.

I flew down here to join a friend who is driving from New York to Florida. We spent three nights at the comfortable and central Kings Courtyard Inn, below, a converted 1850s commercial building whose open-air atrium reminded me of Spain.


My head is stuffed with impressions from three days of walking tours, house tours and museum visits. Charleston is a city of ‘firsts’ and ‘oldests,’ of complicated and intertwining family trees. I took no notes, and you’ll forgive me if I gloss over historical details.

My stomach is stuffed too, with she-crab soup, fried green tomatoes, and shrimp and grits.We couldn’t get into the two Anthony Bourdain-recommended restaurants, FIG and Husk — the former because it’s closed for renovation and the latter because it’s booked weeks in advance. But we didn’t have a bad meal at any of the restaurants we tried along East Bay Street, including Slightly North of Broad, Magnolia’s and Amen Street, and Poogan’s Porch on Queen.

Day 1 began with a two-hour group walking tour with Charleston Strolls, an intelligent introduction to development of the city at the tip of a low-lying peninsula where two rivers meet, a meander through narrow stone streets lined with houses modest and grand, ending at the mansions along the Battery.


Later, on our own, we visited the city’s main synagogue, a true temple in Greek Revival style, built in the mid-19th century; spent a little time in the Charleston History Museum (skippable) and then took the last of the day’s tours at the Joseph Manigault House, below, an early 19th century Federal brick building owned by wealthy planters that later became a tenement home to 10 families and served as Army housing during WWII, before being restored, appropriately furnished, and opened to the public. 


On Day 2, we drove half an hour out of town to Middleton Place, a onetime rice plantation owned by a family whose members signed both the Declaration of Independence and the South Carolina Declaration of Secession. The house that remains is simple; Union troops burned the main building in 1865. But acres of formally landscaped gardens were restored by heirs in the 1920, and now the waterfront site is full of live (evergreen) oaks dripping with Spanish moss and banks of camellias in full January bloom.


This morning we ambled around parts of the historic district we’d missed and squeezed in one more house museum, the 1828 Edmonston-Alston House, below, from whose verandah (called piazzas in Charleston) Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War took place in 1861, is visible. I loved the Greek Revival moldings and the proportions of the rooms, not dissimilar to Brooklyn brownstones of the era — long and narrow, with a high-ceilinged second floor for formal entertaining, more modest family rooms downstairs.


Did I mention Charleston is a very pretty town? It’s not because of the pancake-flat topography, and even the harbor, sparkling as it is, lacks drama. (It was surely more interesting when filled with hundreds of boats, as it was in its heyday.) It’s the charm of the streetscape, lined with mostly three-story brick and stucco houses, nearly all with shutters and verandahs, impeccably tidy plantings, and, of course, historical plaques.


How to Be an Absentee Landlord (Don’t!)

THERE’S A NEW QUESTION on my Q&A page. I’m putting it up today as a post; it will remain in perpetuity on the Q&A page along with others I’ve answered in the past:

  • looking for property under 150K
  • where to find good buys on mid-century furniture
  • contemplating a move from the Hudson Valley to Philadelphia
  • entering the Brooklyn real-estate market as first-time home-buyers
  • renting in Brooklyn with three dogs

Check it out when you get a chance. Here’s the latest:

Q: How do you handle being an landlord in multiple cities? I’m in Brooklyn. My girlfriend and I are building a little investment house in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. Going to rent it out…the house is comprised of 3 little lockout apartments and can easily convert back to single family. Any tips or advice on how to be an absentee landlord?Reid

A: Hi, Reid. What you’re proposing is entirely do-able. I have ten rental units, five in Brooklyn and five in Philadelphia. For the past year-and-a-half, I’ve been living at the end of Long Island, 2-1/2 hours from Brooklyn and 4 or 5 from Philly, so I’m an absentee landlord all around, I guess. I don’t love the term “absentee landlord,” though. It suggests tenants running amok because they think you won’t know or don’t care. It reminds me on New York in the ’70s, when “absentee landlord” was synonymous with “slumlord” in the tabloids. That’s not us! We need a new term (suggestions welcome…)

Anyway, in this day of cell phones, texts, email, FedEx (for leases and keys), and Craigslist, it’s not hard to be “present” as a property owner/manager, even at a considerable physical distance. Continue reading

England’s Earlier Spring

PG  22-23

Photo: Sue Snell

CHARLESTON in Sussex, England, home to members of the unconventional Bloomsbury group from 1916 until 1978, has never been primarily about the gardens. It’s better known for the creativity of its interiors, painted and decorated with a free, childlike hand, and the scandalous spouse-swapping lifestyle of its inhabitants. a freewheeling group that circled around the artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell.

A new book, The Garden at Charleston by Sue Snell (Frances Lincoln, $30), reminded me of  a whirlwind two-day road trip I undertook with my friend Diana in very early April a couple of years ago to visit Sissinghurst, Great Dixter, Charleston, and Nymans, in that order.

The gardens at Charleston, under an acre, are often overlooked, but they are beautiful in that effortless English-garden way — neither formal nor informal, with stone walls of great character, verdant cloud-pruned hedges, flowering fruit trees, and perennial bulbs that have been naturalizing for decades.


Photo: me

Springtime in England will be well underway a few short weeks from now, while we in the Northeast U.S. are still enduring mud season. Charleston opens to visitors the last week of March, and it’s not at all a bad time to take a transatlantic jaunt, before our own active garden season gets going.

Photo: Sue Snell

BOOK REVIEW: Restoring a House in the City

Restoring a House_Jacket_ Large Hi-resOLD TOWNHOUSES usually come with big ‘buts,’ points out Ingrid Abramovitch in the intro to her new book, Restoring a House in the City: A Comprehensive Owner’s Guide to Renovating Town Houses, Brownstones and Row Houses With Great Style (Artisan). They may have “charmingly anachronistic grace notes, from imposing classical entrances to parlors straight out of Edith Wharton novels,” she writes. But less charmingly, they also tend to have roof leaks, slanty floors, and ominous cracks in the wall.

Never mind. IMO, as readers of this blog know, those are mere annoyances, no contest at all compared to the many pluses of living in a house built in the 19th century, when houses really were built. This book offers abundant proof that antique houses are worth the effort.


Parlor, Fort Greene

It features 21 exceptional dwellings, from a Boston Brahmin to a double-wide brownstone in Troy, N.Y., a Greek Revival in Charleston, and a San Francisco Edwardian that survived the 1906 earthquake. The projects closest to my heart, of course, are those in Brooklyn, well-represented with six envy-inducing houses.


Fireplace wall, Fort Greene

Some are restored, some extensively remodeled. Some are furnished with antiques, others done up in a modern mix. There’s nothing cookie-cutter about any of them. A couple are a bit over-the-top for my taste: too much clutter, too much color. But most ooze warmth and livability.

It’s no surprise that the book’s interiors are impeccably styled and photographed. The author, a resident of Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, is a veteran design journalist and a former editor at House & Garden and Martha Stewart Living.


Parlor, Park Slope

Luscious as it is, Restoring a House is not just a look book. Along with the inspiration, there’s a hearty dose of practical information on such topics as wood floors, brickwork and ornamental plaster. How can an old-house lover resist?


Entry hall, Brooklyn Heights

All photos from RESTORING A HOUSE IN THE CITY by Ingrid Abramovitch (Artisan).
Copyright 2009. Brian Park photographer.