Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Fireproof Building--An Important Puzzle Piece In The Story Called Charleston

Standing triumphantly on the corner of Meeting and Chalmer Streets, shadowed by the magnificent old oaks of Washington Square, its solid masonry walls, flagstone floors, and window sashes and shutters of iron have survived a war, withstood hurricane force winds, and endured an earthquake, but ironically, it was conceived and constructed to stand up to a fire, and it did. After the all-consuming flames of The Great Fire of 1861 burned nearby Circular Church, Institute Hall, and every building on the east side of Meeting Street between Market and Queen Streets, then jumping over Broad Street and cutting a swath of destruction all the way to the river, it successfully past through the conflagration. This Matron of Meeting Street was rightfully named The Fireproof Building.

The Fireproof Building was built by the state between 1822 and 1827. It was constructed by John G. Spindle and designed by Charleston native Robert Mills, the first native-born American to be trained as an architect. Aside from his work in Charleston, Mills was responsible for the Washington Monument and many public buildings throughout the State and nation. Designed to house and protect the state's public records, its structure contained no flammable materials. It is now believed to be the first and oldest building of fireproof construction in the United States.

Mills signature design is seen throughout its simple Greek Doric style. With minimal ornamentation, the exterior conveys a sense of order and serenity. The walls are of brick, stuccoed in imitation of the same. Its two porticoes, with four high columns each on an arcaded basement and triple windows, are typical Mills. The columns are three-and-a-half feet in diameter and crowned with a pediment. While taking photographs of its exterior, I noticed its opposite facing sides were identical to one another.

Renovations of the stair hall.
Although I was not able to enter the building, presently closed to the public, descriptions of its interior make it an architectural photographers dream featuring a three-story oval stair hall with a cantilevered brownstone staircase and cross-vaulted rooms on the main floor. The stair hall is lit by a cupola.

It was originally called the Charleston District Record Building. In recent years, the South Carolina Historical Society has gained title to the iconic building. It is now the headquarters of the SCHS. It was listed in the National Register July 29, 1969; Designated a National Historic Landmark November 7, 1973.

Despite being fireproof, it is not age-proof, as seen by the crumbling stucco along its lower exterior. The SCHS has been making improvements to the building--an obvious deduction confirmed by its blocked stair entrances and piles of old bricks stacked on its porticoes.

Besides being adjacent to famous Washington Square, the Fireproof Building is surrounded by Charleston landmarks. City Hall, St. Michael's Church, Hibernian Hall, Circular Congretional Church and The Mills House Wyndam Grand are all within view. Famous restaurants close by are Husk, Poogan's Porch, Eli's Table, and Fast and French.

The day I was there taking pictures, I saw four different walking tours. I have no doubt The Fireproof Building was part of the guides narrations. Built in a century when destructive city fires raged all around it, bursting Union mortar shells rained down from surrounding batteries, and a great earthquake shook the foundations of the city, it has prevailed. It has become an important puzzle piece in the story called Charleston.

Friday, February 17, 2017

The One And Only Charleston Tea Plantation--The Tea's Intriguing History From Summerville To Wadmalaw Island

All the tea in China can't measure up to the tea grown in South Carolina. 哦啦啦 (translation: ooh la la). No, it's Oolong. Camellia sinensis is the scientific name for this tea and it came to South Carolina in 1799 by way of a French botanist named Andre Michaux. He planted the cuttings near Charleston at Middleton Barony for Henry Middleton's gardens, which is known as Middleton Place today, but they didn't stay there. Before the tea found a permanent home at the Charleston Tea Plantation on Wadmalaw Island, it traveled around the state for a time.

In 1848, some tea plants traveled to Greenville, South Carolina. Dr. Junius Smith, a retired London physician, attempted to produce it commercially on his plantation called Golden Grove and his little venture was successful. On July 4, 1851 he declared, "Now I have before me a pot of fresh tea from my own plantation, the first I have enjoyed." He didn't enjoy it for very long. A year later Junius Smith was attacked at his home in Grove Station and seriously injured. He died from his injuries a month later. And so, that was that.

The next attempt to grow tea commercially came in 1874. Dr. Alexis Forster planted a crop of the tea plants on his Georgetown plantation called Friendfield. Unfortunately, the daring undertaking was stopped in its tracks. In 1879, Dr. Forster died when his buggy flipped while trying to outrun a group of bandits trying to rob him.

In 1884, the U.S. Department of Agriculture planted an experimental tea farm outside Summerville, South Carolina. The program ran for four years to 1888, until the government scraped it because it wasn't cost effective to harvest the tea. It was that same year Dr. Charles Shepard entered the picture and established the Pinehurst Tea Plantation close to where the government's farm had been located and ironically near the site of Michaux's original planting on Middleton Place.

Dr. Charles Shepard successfully produced a variety of high quality Oolong tea. His tea even won first prize at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. To cover costs for labor, Shepard opened a school, making tea picking part of the curriculum, giving him cost free child labor, while offering an education that may have not been available to them otherwise.

Meanwhile, in the early 1900s, Major Roswell Trimble and Colonel Augustus C. Tyler transplanted thousands of tea bushes from Summerville to nearby Rantowles in South Carolina's Lowcountry, now known as Hollywood. This venture, called the American Tea Growing Company, failed due to two possible reasons. Some believe it was because of a quarrel between Trimble and Tyler's son, while others believe its failure was because of Colonel Tyler's death in 1903 compounded by repeal of the Spanish-American War import tax of ten cents per pound of tea. The company dissolved by 1907.

Sadly, Pinehurst Plantation remained prosperous only until the death of Dr. Shepard in 1915. The tea plants were no longer harvested, but continued unattended and wild for the next 45 years.

Dr. Shepard's accomplishments laid the groundwork for the success to come. In 1963, a 127 acre potato farm located on Wadmalaw Island in the Lowcountry of South Carolina was purchased. The Thomas J. Lipton company established a research station. Shepard's tea plants were transplanted from Pinehurst to the farm. The research station operated for 24 years and proved that a high-quality tea could indeed be grown commercially in South Carolina.

In 1987, William Barclay Hall, a third-generation tea taster trained in England, purchased the land. Thanks to Hall's vision the Charleston Tea Plantation was founded. During his seventeen year tenure, his original "American Classic" tea became the first tea ever to be made with 100% tea grown in America. For almost thirty years, American Classic has been immensely popular with tea lovers in the Carolinas.

In 2003, seeking additional financing, Hall reached out to his longtime friends, the Bigelow family. A partnership arrangement was worked out and the Bigelow Tea Company bought the plantation. The Bigelows brought sixty-five years of experience in the specialty tea business to the Plantation and the American Classic brand. Since 2003, the Charleston Tea Plantation has transformed into a true American icon.

Considered one of Charleston's most unspoiled islands, the drive along Maybank Highway on Wadmalaw Island to the tea plantation's entrance marked by three brick pillars is a pleasant one, although it doesn't seem like you are on an island. As soon as you pass the entrance, you are immediately treated to a sea of lush, green tea fields. After a short drive into the trees, you arrive at the welcome center parking.

The welcome center has a long porch with plenty of outdoor seating where Waddy the Frog, a tea-loving metal amphibian custom made for the plantation by Charles “Frog” Smith of John's Island, greets plantation visitors. Inside the center is a spacious gift shop where you can choose from over several hundred tea related items including a selection of the delicious specialty teas that are produced on the plantation. There is a Tea Bar where you can sample the teas. It is also home to the "Green Giant", a custom made tea harvesting machine exclusive to the Charleston Tea Plantation.

A map of the world hangs above the check out counter with lights identifying other locations tea is grown. You can purchase a $10 ticket for a 35-40 minute trolley ride where you'll get to see the plantation's 127 acres of tea bushes and listen to a narration. You can take a complimentary tour of the tea production building designed with a glassed in, air conditioned gallery that runs the entire length of the facility. As you walk along the gallery, you will be looking out onto our factory floor at all the equipment it takes to make tea. Three large TV screens explain in great detail each and every tea making process.

The Charleston Tea Plantation is unique. It is the only place in North America where tea is grown. The historical story leading up to its establishment on pristine Wadmalaw Island, recounted in this article, is an illustrious one with deep Lowcountry roots first planted along the Ashley River in Summerville. It is worth your time to visit this Charleston landmark. While you are on the island, other historic attractions such as Deep Water Vineyard, the only domestic winery in Charleston, South Carolina as well as the Angel Oak tree are nearby.

6617 Maybank Highway
Wadmalaw Island

Friday, February 10, 2017

On February 17th, 153 years ago, A Momentous Piece of Charleston History Disappeared into The Atlantic Ocean

Besieged Charleston
From land, the Union forces, ominously positioned on Morris Island, fired its first shots into the beating heart of downtown Charleston from a huge siege cannon nicknamed "The Swamp Angel." The pride of South Carolina was now under heavy fire. While from sea, the Union's strangle hold on Charleston Harbor was squeezing the oxygen out of the City's economy, allowing less and less blockade runners through. The Confederate forces attempting to protect the city were desperate. Choking and besieged, Charleston turned their hopes to a curious secret submersible weapon from Mobile called the H.L. Hunley. It was February of 1864.

Cove Inlet
On the 17th of February, under the command of Lt. George Dixon, the Hunley's crew of eight made their way across the footbridge on the southern end of Sullivan's Island at Cove Inlet near Fort Moultrie. From there, they hiked 2 1/2 mile's north to Breech Inlet and awaited nightfall. It was cold and it was quiet when the appointed time arrived. The moonlight sparkled on the surface of the chilly inlet waters. Dixon and the crew boarded the cylindrical iron boiler fashioned into a submarine with a 17-foot spar carrying a 135 pound torpedo filled full of explosives mounted on its bow.

Breech Inlet
With barely enough room to accommodate themselves, the eight men poured sweat over hand cranks that powered a spinning propeller while their captain manned the dive planes steering man and iron to a location four miles off Breech Inlet in the north channel of Sullivan's Island where the Federal steam sloop-of-war USS Housatonic, a powerful new vessel, carrying eleven guns of the largest caliber, was prowling the darkened blockaded waters.

A lookout aboard the Union ship, tired, cold and restless, suddenly spotted something moving in the chilly waters. Could it be floating debris? Something about the shadowy object didn't seem right. The alarm was sounded. Shots rang out and bullets ricocheted in all directions. The low profile of the submersible in the water made it impossible to direct the ship's firepower at it. Other Union sailors joined in the frantic firing of revolvers and rifles. The object continued to approach at about three knots.

With bullets bouncing off its hull, the Hunley rammed her long metal spar into the stern area, planting the torpedo into the Housatonic. The men inside the Hunley lunged forward from the impact, then quickly backed their sub out as the 150-foot attached detonation rope played out. Within seconds, the world rocked and every man, above and below, became enveloped in a concussion of destruction.

The explosion caused the Housatonic to burn for three minutes before sending it plunging to the bottom killing five sailors. The Hunley then surfaced long enough for her crew to signal their comrades on the shore of Sullivan's Island with a blue magnesium light, indicating a successful mission. The shore crew stoked their signal fires and anxiously awaited the Hunley's return. It did not. Shortly after her historic achievement, the Hunley, along with its crew, vanished into the dark, salty waters without a trace.

I am from Northeastern Ohio, and in that part of the U.S. you are far removed from the many notable places and events of the Civil War, but here in the South, in Charleston, you are in the heart of it all. It is tightly weaved into the very fabric of Charleston's identity and for visitors it is inescapable, both by land and water. The Spiritline Cruises in Charleston Harbor shuttles people back and forth on a daily basis to the place where it all started, Fort Sumter. The guides on one of the numerous historic carriage rides seen crisscrossing the historic district are dressed in Confederate gray uniforms. You can get up close and personal by physically touching the iron mortars and cannon at Fort Moultrie or White Point Gardens that were used to bombard Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861.

My first exposure to the story of the Hunley was by way of a 1999 movie and then in more detail, when I moved to Charleston. Driving down Meeting Street towards the French Quarter, you pass a replica at the entrance of the Charleston Museum.

Most likely, there are quite a few people in this country who don't know the Hunley exists or its story. For those who don't, the Hunley was the first successful combat submarine. Successful, meaning the Confederate submarine accomplished its one and only mission. It didn't successfully return to port. The Hunley disappeared under the waters off of Sullivan's Island and for 136 years its fate remained a mystery.

Buried in three feet of sediment and laying on her starboard side with the bow pointing almost directly toward Sullivan's Island, the Hunley's final resting place was discovered in 1995. It was carefully and meticulously raised in 2000, still in tack, from the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. There are theories as to what happened to the Hunley, but no one really knows for sure what caused its demise. Scientists have been puzzling over the remains of the Hunley since its recovery, searching for clues that will assist them with providing a feasible hypothesis.

The bow (image from Friends of the Hunley)
The stern (image from Friends of the Hunley)
You can view the Hunley and the artifacts uncovered with it at its own museum where it is displayed in a 90,000 gallon conservation tank. Museum location is the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, 1250 Supply Street (on the old Charleston Navy Base), North Charleston, South Carolina. A startling discovery was made in 2002 while researching the interior of the sub that confirmed a long held legend. For the complete story of this find and tour information go to Friends of the Hunley.