Lessons from Charleston


East Enders, of course, are house proud. Look at the success of the East Hampton Historical Society’s Holiday House Tour, Sag Harbor’s fall house tour and Bridgehampton’s St. Ann’s summer house tour. These (to name a few) occur annually, where for four hours, nose pressers, lifestyle snoops, idea browsers and decorating addicts of all shapes, ages and sizes can indulge. In return, charities benefit and our community as a whole takes pride in its style and architectural accomplishments. Yet, many visitors and residents are still not aware of our broad collection of 17th, 18th, 19th and now 20th century architectural gems, so some of these fall prey to the wrecking ball. Despite the noble efforts of our wonderful historical societies to bring awareness of the treasures we live among, much can be gleaned from the enormously successful Historic Charleston Foundation.

The Historic Charleston Foundation was founded in 1947 in response to block after block of derelict yet historically significant buildings being torn down to make way for gas stations, parking lots and urban skyscrapers. Preserving the architectural heritage, concentrating on creative methods of neighborhood revitalization, rehabilitating buildings, owner financing and initiatives, all the while encouraging civic pride and responsibility to the overall historic environment, have been wildly successful in Charleston and should be carefully observed.

Tracing its origins to 1670, Charleston (like the Hamptons) is a rich repository of three centuries of fine architecture. Despite fires, hurricanes, earthquakes and a Civil War thrown in for good measure, Charleston remains remarkably intact. True, the war between the States devastated their economy between 1865 and 1930, contributing largely to the mentality of fix it or restore it, because we simply don’t have the means to tear it down and rebuild. Much like Nantucketers (Nantucket went bust after the whale oil industry waned, thus preserving that town almost lock, stock and barrel), Charlestonians have grown to cherish their beautifully built homes. They appreciate their 200-year-old oaks and have taken pride in their hand-wrought iron, columned piazzas and handsome brick walls.

Twice a year, for four weeks running, the Historic Charleston Foundation sponsors house and garden tours each afternoon (and sometimes during the evenings) that draw thousands of architects, designers, decorators, historians, visitors and tourists to view and appreciate block after block of wonderful architecture, interiors and gardens. Each day a different collection of gardens and houses is presented. Through these tours, one comes to realize that many of these homeowners view themselves as caretakers rather than property moguls. Their ownership of these properties, like their lives, is temporal. They will do their best to preserve them for the future while adding perhaps their personal touch, be it a fine garden, a well crafted paneled room, an imported chandelier or an iron fountain. Part of the genuine beauty of these buildings are these respectful layers that have been added through the centuries for the pleasure, comfort and edification of present and future generations. These layers, these exquisite intimate personal touches, are what lend Charleston its livability, its warmth. In our world of disposable, tear down impulsiveness, where building anew seems an exercise in self-aggrandizement, Charleston’s gentility, grace and beauty becomes an insightful lesson for us all. And Charleston’s commitment to sharing their homes and gardens with others serves as a lesson: Sharing this beauty encourages others to return to their own communities such as the East End with a renewed realization of the vital architectural treasures our villages and towns contain that we must preserve and honor.

Preservation aside, Charleston is a true pleasure to take in. The formal entry doors (quite often a glowing crotch mahogany) that gain entrance to the first floor porch, or piazza, sport delicately carved surrounds and spit polished brass hardware. These doors are amusing, almost stage-set-like, because they present a formal façade that reenters you to the outside. The piazza (or porch) ceilings are carefully paneled and the woodwork is painted milky gloss white. Delicate fanlights top the entry to the main house doors, while leaded glass sidelights allow the precious city light to infiltrate. These piazzas are often triple stacked, supported by classical columns sometimes laid out according to order—Doric for the first floor piazza, Ionic for the second floor piazza and Corinthian for the third floor. Charleston is a classicists dream and an amateur’s encyclopedia.

Gates are not elements that have passed by these discerning Charlestonians. Wooden Chinese Chippendale gates, wooden Gothic gates and a plethora of cast, curled and wrought iron gates abound and often allow a peek-a-boo glance into the sophisticated gardens beyond. Lacey iron roundels built into stately brick walls or inserted into an arching wooden gate, focuses your view onto a distant fountain, a contemplative stone Buddha or an intimate boxwood parterre. Even the grandest of homes feature intimate surprising glimpses as if saying, “We have a gate, but we’re still hospitable. You can share this beauty by looking through this iron traceried porthole.

With limited space, these small gardens are closely observed, meticulously attended to and often divided into clearly defined “rooms”—entry, living, dining. The climate encourages outdoor entertainment so many of these gardens feel as welcoming as the cooling piazzas and can be edifying for us Hamptonites who enjoy glorious springs, falls and summers. These outdoor “rooms” are decorated with statuary, defined by box, colored by azalea and hedged with holly and magnolia. One hears the frequent music of splashing water from a central fountain or one observes the serene glaze of a reflecting pool. The scent of jasmine encircles your senses and the charm of these intimate formal spaces seduces you.

Besides brilliant iron, stone, brick (every time I return home from Charleston, I just want to build a brick wall), and woodwork, Charlestonian homes are famous for their plasterwork. Inheriting the English love of fine detail, plaster central medallions, elaborate crowns, and capitals proliferate. Though English mahogany furniture has lost its luster in the fashionista decorating world, it has certainly never faded here. Polished wood floors, gleaming balusters, fine oriental rugs and glossy white mouldings have certainly never been spurned. A Charlestonian’s respect of the past combined with a gracious celebration of the present is deeply in evidence in this elegant quiet world. A bumper sticker I saw supports Charleston’s almost faddish environmentalist stance concerning their architecture and city. The bumper sticker read, “Don’t gut it, restore it!” We Hamptonites might benefit now and then from the kind of intimate, refined grace that is Charleston.

We can also be proud of our own remarkable architectural history here on the East End. We ought to be showcasing it and sharing it more frequently. At the same time, we might also become more comfortable with restoring rather than razing.

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