Charleston: The Big Little City of the South

To me, Charleston seemed a lot like Boston. It is extremely rich in history, boasts sophisticated residents, and offers beautiful beaches. It is also a place you can return to and always find something new to see.

Gibbes Museum of Art

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by hersplash on January 23, 2005

The Gibbes Museum of Art is located in the heart of Charleston’s historic district. Their collection spans five centuries and has a nice variety of art forms like paintings, sculptures, photography, and drawings. They also have a lovely, but small museum gift shop. My favorite treat in this museum was the miniature room.

The collection includes real period rooms duplicated by artists in miniature construction. The rooms showcase the South Carolina low-country region’s architecture and interior design in the 18th and 19th centuries. Reduced by a scale of one inch to one foot, these rooms are furnished with handmade period furniture and furnishings, including rugs and draperies, paintings and portraits, real pewter plates, silver and Canton ware. William and Frances Bowen did many of the miniatures, and all were a gift to the museum from Elizabeth Wallace Ellis. Since you can’t photograph the exhibit, I recommend picking up the Elizabeth Wallace Miniature Rooms book for $3.95 that shows each room.

I couldn’t believe how realistic these rooms looked. It was hard to imagine that all of these tiny pieces of furniture, crown molding, wallpaper, etc. were all created in such a small form and looked so realistic. In the museum there was a miniature of the drawing room from the Nathaniel Russell House in Charleston. I took the picture of the miniature along with me while I toured that house and I found it fascinating to see the resemblance!

Also in the museum was a painting collection featuring music and musicians. The paintings were all very different from jazz bands to Andy Warhol’s Debbie Harry. There was a collection of miniature portraits. They are like broaches with detailed painted portraits, a popular item in older times. Also on display were Japanese woodblock and woodcuts. They have such detail that you really have to look carefully to see much work is required to make them.

It was a wonderful museum with so many different things I hadn’t seen before. The Gibbes Museum is the oldest fine arts organization in the Southeast, established in 1858. I guess they’ve had many years to acquire their collection, and as far as I was concerned, practice makes perfection!

They are open Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm and Sunday 1 to 5pm. Call 843/722-2706 for more information.

Gibbes Museum of Art
135 Meeting St
Charleston, South Carolina, 29401
+1 843 722 2706

Nathaniel Russell House

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by hersplash on January 23, 2005

One of my favorite tours in Charleston is the Nathaniel Russell House. This was a spectacular home from 1808, a Federal-style townhouse of Charleston merchant Nathaniel Russell. He made most of his fortune from exporting rice. The home boasts elaborate plasterwork ornamentation, geometrically shaped rooms, and a magnificent free-flying staircase. Furnished with period antiques and works of art, the house was one of the grandest in Charleston at the time.

The free-flying staircase is the centerpiece of this home and provided a processional route to the upper floors. Built on the cantilever principle, each step is supported by that beneath it and by the support of each landing. It is one of the grandest staircases to survive in Charleston. Next to the staircase, is a spectacular life-size painting of Mrs. Russell.

There are beautiful rooms in the house in different shapes. The oval drawing room is the most elaborate, with a rich plaster cornice in the Gothic taste. There is an elliptical room that served as the dining room and now is temporarily furnished as a library. The bedroom (bedchamber) is small and housed a "potty chair," which was an upholstered chair with a hole in the middle.

The kitchen was in a separate building out back that also housed stables and slave quarters. The garden is a late 20th-century design and was very colorful, with many different varieties of flowers, shrubs, and trees. You can sit outside on one of the benches and enjoy the peacefulness. I sure did! Additionally, the exterior of the house has some lovely wrought-iron work, including balconies on the second floor.

A guide takes you through the house. I thought the guide was great, offering so much information on the house and the family. She was very receptive to answering questions, which I took advantage of. My favorite room was the withdrawing room, I suppose because I really liked the color of the walls.

The house transferred hands many times following the death of Mr. Russell, including Governor Allston in 1857 and the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy in 1870. It is now owned by the Historic Charleston Foundation and through donations and grants will be conserved and restored throughout the years for many to enjoy and appreciate. I recommend purchasing the booklet on the family at the museum shop for $3. I have looked it over many times since I toured the house to get "decorating ideas".

The house is open for tours Monday through Saturday from 10am to 5pm and Sunday 2 to 5pm.

Nathaniel Russell House
51 Meeting St
Charleston, South Carolina, 29401
+1 843 723 1623

Aiken-Rhett House

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by hersplash on January 23, 2005

The Aiken-Rhett House is significantly different than the Nathanial Russell house. This home has very few furnishings, but it gives you a feel for the slaves’ quarters.

It was a self-guided audio tour where a man talks about each room and its old furnishings. With the audio tour, I felt like I was taken back in time. It includes music and sounds that were a part of daily life in the early 1800s. However, because the audiotape was so detailed, I actually broke down laughing in the beginning of this tour. "Now turn around and walk back through the door. Be careful of your step. Now turn right, and you will see the original fireplace. Look up..." I’m not sure why it struck me as so funny, but I felt like I was blindfolded and someone was guiding me along the way. I couldn’t stop laughing.

Most impressive in the house were the huge mirrors and life-size portraits. Built in 1818, Governor Aiken and his wife also furnished and decorated it with many crystal and bronze chandeliers and classical sculptures and paintings they purchased in Europe. You will see many of these objects in the rooms they were purchased for.

The home has a beautiful front balcony, with lovely gardens below. Especially interesting were the original outbuildings that contained the kitchen, slaves’ quarters, stable, coach house, privies (outhouses), and cattle shed. I enjoyed looking at the old vehicles. I could vision how the slaves lived, with fireplaces in their rooms and using the cookware on display (although I couldn't imagine what life for them was really like). I learned something interesting that I hadn’t thought about before: these old homes didn’t have many closets... hangers weren’t invented yet!

This house remained in the family until 1975, when the Historic Charleston Foundation purchased it. They are focused on conservation, rather than restoration, of this townhouse, which showcases urban life in antebellum Charleston.

They are open Monday through Saturday from 10am to 5pm and Sunday from 2 to 5pm.

Aiken-Rhett House
48 Elizabeth St
Charleston, South Carolina, 29403
+1 843 723 1159

Fort Sumter

Member Rating 2 out of 5 by hersplash on January 23, 2005

Fort Sumter is a national monument in Charleston Harbor where the Civil War began. South Carolina had seceded from the Union, yet Union forces still occupied strategic Fort Sumter at the entrance of Charleston Harbor. The South demanded that Fort Sumter be vacated and, when the North refused it, began a two-day bombardment beginning April 12, 1861, resulting in the surrender of Fort Sumter.

With the North’s withdrawal, the South held the fort until it was finally evacuated on February 17, 1865. During that time, the Fort experienced one of the largest sieges in modern warfare—46,000 shells, estimated at over 7 million pounds of metal, were fired at the fort. During this time, most of the walls were shattered and reduced to rubble.

The Army attempted to put Fort Sumter back together with improvements and additions. It served as a lighthouse station for 21 years, and during that time, the fort was back in disrepair. With the impending Spanish-American War, activity began again at Fort Sumter, including the construction of Battery Huger and installation of two long-range rifles. The fort was not used as a military establishment again until World War II. Afterwards, it became a tourist attraction and a national monument maintained by the National Park Service.

You get a feel for the history by taking a tour of the fort with a guide. A brochure will guide you through the different areas if you’d like to go on your own. At each of the sights, there are markers with lengthy descriptions. Fort Sumter today looks considerably different than it did when it was built. Not only are the walls and many of the rooms "a pile of rocks," as my friend described, but the battery’s size makes it the focus of the tour; and the battery wasn’t built until 1898.

The fort itself is large, and you will see such things as the barracks, cannons, casemates (gunrooms), brick walls, and various ruins. I was most struck by the huge flags flying. They include the U.S. flag, with 50 stars, 33 stars (1861), 33 stars (1865), First National Flag of the Confederacy (1861), South Carolina State Flag, and Second National Flag of the Confederacy (1863). Sadly, I found those to be the most interesting part of this tour.

There is a lot of information to absorb on this tour, so I recommend reading a little about the fort before going, although I’m not sure that would make the tour anymore interesting if you are not into forts, like I discovered while I was there! To get there, you take a 30-minute ferryboat ride where you can see the skyline of Charleston and part of the Battery. The ride itself is worth the price of admission, which is adults $12, seniors $11, $6 for ages 6-11, and free for 5 and under. The tour takes a little over 2 hours, start to finish. Call 843/881-7337 or visit Fort Sumter online.

Fort Sumter National Monument
1214 Middle St
Sullivan's Island, South Carolina, 29482
+1 843 883 3123

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