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Weekend Planner

History and hospitality

Charleston, S.C., embraces its past, and its visitors

Email|Print| Text size + By Patricia Harris
Globe Correspondent / September 8, 2004

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- I arrived un-fashionably early for the first tour of the day at the Edmondston-Alston House overlooking Charleston Harbor, but like all good Southern hostesses, the guides were ready.

"We'll be starting a tour in 15 minutes," Carolyn Richbart told me. "We have a lovely piazza where you can wait." I followed her to a cool sanctuary beneath a magnolia tree, where a cooler of water sat on a table, along with a can of bug spray. "Just in case," read a handwritten note. I shouldn't have been surprised: Charleston is as noted for its hospitality as its history.

I was sorry to vacate a comfortable wicker chair when Richbart started the tour by explaining that we were standing on former tidal marshes that had been drained and filled after a sea wall was built in the 1820s. (Charleston sits on the aptly named "Lowcountry" coastal plains of the Carolinas and Georgia.) "This became the most desirable street in the city for its views of the harbor and the ocean breezes," she said.

In 1825, shipping merchant Charles Edmondston was among the first to build on the new land. He was able to enjoy his three-story mansion for only a few years before financial setbacks forced him to sell it to Charles Alston, a more well-heeled member of the Lowcountry's rice plantation aristocracy. Alston "used it as a summer house, to get his family off the rice plantation because of malaria," Richbart said. "They would arrive in mid-May and stay until early November. They returned for a week in February for the big social season."

A desk and chest of drawers outfitted with handles to transport them from plantation to city are among the original family furnishings in the house, which is still owned by Alston descendants.

The 1818 Aiken-Rhett House stayed in family hands until 1975 and is owned by the Historic Charleston Foundation. A faded glory permeates the manse, which has changed little during the last 150 years. Crystal chandeliers and gilt mirrors hint at its antebellum heyday as the urban plantation of Governor William Aiken. A lifesize portrait of his wife, Harriet, dominates the drawing room. She was "one of Charleston's greatest hostesses," intones the voice on the audio tour.

Even the property's slave quarters are intact. Ten to 20 slaves worked in the kitchen and laundry on the first floor and then retreated upstairs to their sleeping quarters. Shallow, unadorned fireplaces, crumbling plaster walls, and a few worn tables and chairs suggest how the other half lived. Before the Civil War, slaves accounted for about half of Charleston's population.

These historic homes are two of more than a half-dozen open to the public in this city that savors its past. Founded by English settlers in 1670, Charleston became an important seaport and bastion of culture often referred to as "Little London." Visitors can thank the early settlers for the relative ease of navigating the historic district. By the close of the first decade, they had laid out broad, straight streets.

Historic markers delineate the pedigree of almost every home along leafy Meeting Street. Wrought-iron gates often are swung open to offer unimpeded glimpses of lush gardens inside. In earlier days, an open gate signaled that the family was receiving guests. Now, signs politely request that visitors enjoy the views from the sidewalk.

You can wander at will, though, in the garden-like cemetery of the Circular Congregational Church (50 Meeting St.), where one sign proclaims "May Peace Prevail on Earth" while another identifies the graveyard as the "oldest in the city." In a city that cares deeply about such things, the honor of oldest church building goes to St. Michael's Episcopal Church on the corner of Meeting and Broad streets. The 1761 white clapboard structure -- with a graveyard that rivals Circular's for atmosphere -- marks the spot of the city's first church, built in the 1680s.

By contrast, the Beaux Arts building of the Gibbes Museum of Art seems like a Meeting Street Johnny-come-lately. Founded in 1858, the collection ranges from marble plantation statuary to paintings by contemporary artists drawing on the traditions and lifestyle of the Gullah community descended from African slaves.

One such tradition is coiling sweetgrass baskets, a skill that Africans laboring on rice plantations adapted to the local black reeds and that their descendants applied to the more delicate salt marsh grass that smells like sweet hay. Some basket makers sell their wares at the corner of Meeting and Broad, but more set up at the Old City Market (Market Street, between Meeting and East Bay streets).

When the market buildings opened in 1841, they held fish, meats, and produce. Now the offerings comprise souvenirs, crafts, antiques, and specialty foods. For more serious shopping, King Street, parallel to Meeting, is known for antiques shops, but contemporary clothing stores and boutiques give the mix a modern feel. Between King and Meeting streets, Gallery Chuma (43 John St.) specializes in African-American artists, but devotes an entire wall to elaborate hats made by the gallery owner's sister.

I wished I had bought one when I attended a service at Mount Zion A.M.E. Church. Members of the 54th and 55th Massachusetts regiments of "Glory" fame worshiped here, but I didn't pick the church for its Boston connection. The senior choir is known for its renditions of anthems, gospels, and pre-1900s spirituals. Three friends and I settled into a box pew and basked in the muted glow of the pale blue, yellow, and green windows. As the church filled with music, the Rev. John Paul Brown clapped along with the choir.

Before Communion, a member of the congregation asked visitors to stand. "Thank you for making Mount Zion your church. Whenever you are here, you are part of our family. We feel blessed to have you here. We hope you are blessed by us."

Indeed we were.

Patricia Harris is a freelance writer from Cambridge.

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