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February 2008

Peeling Back the Past
Written By: 
Colleen Troy
Photographs By: 
Christopher Brown

Old buildings have a certain quality that new ones lack. Some call it soul; others apply the euphemism “character” to describe structural eccentricities. Charleston was one of the first cities in America to recognize such structures as treasures, but often a building’s true riches lie buried in darker, more surprising places—beyond the obvious cornice moulding, cleverly turned stairway spindle, or mesmerizing ceiling medallion. Here is a sample of the caches that have been uncovered from beneath floorboards, behind wallpaper, and below foundations

Imagine a day 200 years from now, when earnest anthropologists start combing the hallways, garages, and kitchens of “historic homes” once occupied by folks who packed Lowe’s charge cards and pored over Restoration Hardware catalogues.

Why, they’ll wonder, did they cover up these pink and black tiles? How, they’ll muse, did stainless steel become such a rage? They’ll ponder motivations as they chip away at fake parquet.

Indeed, the structures in which we live have many secrets to tell. And it’s this wealth of knowledge—these glimmers of the past—that attract so many of us to the historic buildings that grace Charleston. Once-modern life is now revealed, if only in whispers and echoes, as we dig up gardens and pull up and repair old floorboards.

What follows is a patchwork quilt of treasures revealed in a handful of old buildings and yards. These secrets rested, sometimes for more than a century, in the nooks and crannies of walls, floors, even trees. As one local anthropologist noted, Charleston is full of such untold stories: “You can scarcely walk down a sidewalk without kicking up something old and interesting.”

Connecting the Dots
12 Vanderhorst Street

The offices of Richard Marks Restorations are themselves indistinct, except in this regard: Every wall, desktop, and cabinet serves as a resting place for some old object—decorative, useful, or mysterious. And if the original isn’t here, a plaster mold is on hand, serving as a sentry to an undiscovered past.

It’s no wonder that history rests here as it does. Marks’ company is one that many homeowners will consult before doing any renovation work. Or they’ll call upon a restoration company, such as this one, should they discover something unusual.

Staff archeologist Larry Leake offers a quick tour of the environs. What CSI is to cadavers, this place is to antique tiles, mantels, and mouldings, and numerous investigations are in process at any given time.

Take, for example, the Delft tile resting behind Leake’s desk. Hidden largely by plaster (long ago previous homeowners had covered it), the tile from a downtown home is a direct match to specimens found at Drayton Hall. “The lot the house sits on once belonged to the Draytons,” says Leake, “and the presence of these tiles suggests there was a sharing of building materials, perhaps between two relatives. There’s no definitive proof that the house was built by a Drayton family member, but this circumstantial evidence increases that possibility,” he says.

Connecting households is accomplished through other methods, too. Leake notes that a very popular moulding of the 1800s showed a frieze of neoclassical figures. Discovery of “paint ghosts” on a frieze in a Legare Street home led his team to seek the best way to restore its original design. They found a matching moulding in another downtown home. While each was missing different elements, together they told the story of the original design’s intent. Voilà: revealing bits and pieces of each allowed the restorers to bring both to their original matching design.

Never Forget
A Sea Island Plantation

Sprawling Seabrook Plantation on Edisto Island will celebrate its bicentennial in just a couple of years. So perhaps it’s no surprise that its walls and ceilings bear witness to some of the South’s most compelling history.

The house by the North Edisto River served as the headquarters for Union troops during their siege of Charleston. Numerous doors on the second floor are inscribed with the names of officers, who apparently took the best quarters for themselves. The third floor, where the enlisted men slept, reveals walls filled with graffiti, including names, addresses, poems, and more—some of it naïve scrawling, like that of a child. On returning home, which had been cleared of all its belongings, a member of the Seabrook family wrote in Latin: “We have returned.”

The family also covered over some of the graffiti with wallpaper, essentially framing the remaining messages. It’s not clear why they left the writings in place after their return. Some say it was a lack of resources that prevented Seabrook descendants from covering up the graffiti, or perhaps it was their fierce determination to “never forget.”

Current owners Kitty and Hunter McEaddy also note that an oil painting in the dining room depicts a Seabrook child (the paterfamilias was a very wealthy steamboat and real estate mogul). Its history: the painting was about to be set on fire as Union troops departed when a barge captain wrested it away and took it home to New England.

In the 1950s, the descendants of the man who took it north read about Seabrook Plantation and identified the painting as having come from “the house with the double staircase.” They returned it to the owners, who subsequently gave it to the McEaddys.

Mantel of the Sea
60 Montagu Street

The sea motif on the mantel of this Federal-period double house was created from a combination of composition, plaster, and imagination. Crafted in the early 1800s (more than a century before the advent of scuba diving), the motif was inspired by the items that washed up on the world’s shores.

So what makes this a hidden treasure, since the mantel was in full display? The treasure is the discovery of a twin mantel in at least one other downtown house. The message: mass production is not new to home furnishings. Indeed, historians report that Charleston was full of craftspeople and small workshops that turned out copy after copy of specialty mouldings, wallpapers, friezes, and ornate mantelpieces.

Improbable Places
Edgewood Builders

After 35 years of renovating old houses, David Hoffman says the coolest thing he’s ever found was a last will and testament nailed into the wallboards of a home. “But then there’s the earthen jar dug up at the end of Legare Street,” he says. The jar was filled with old silver, all of which still bore the monogram of its original owners. The best part of the story is that he knew the descendants and returned to them their rightful property.

It’s that sense of amazing discovery—and the ability to give a rightful resting place to treasures—that makes so many of Hoffman’s finds remarkable. In one of his favorite discoveries, his crew uncovered the nest of a pack rat in an old Tradd Street house. “We took out a wheelbarrow full of junk,” he says, including lace-up shoes, clothes pins, fabric, and tins. That same nest also was filled with old steamship and theater tickets, a folio of which he keeps in his office. “It’s just such a great glimpse into the lives of these occupants.”

Another unique find came from a South Battery rehab. Working through a set of built-in bookshelves, one of his contractors was crawling through an improbably small space and glanced up. There, stapled to the underside of a shelf, was a sheaf of stock certificates for Sea Island Vegetables, Inc. Each was quite elaborate and bore signatures of Charleston’s gentry of the day. “It’s just so obvious that the lady of the house bought these shares of stock and hid them from her spouse,” he muses.

Message in a Bottle
4209 Pace Street

Hidden as it is amidst a small, industrial park, you would barely know that this kayak factory once served as a TB hospital. Nor that during World War II it was a brig for detaining POWs. But these glimpses of history came to light in 1993, when owners began removing a live oak tree damaged during Hurricane Hugo. As workers cut down the tree for removal, they found a cement-covered niche (cementing was once done to ward off disease in exposed trunks). Breaking it open, they found the quintessential treasure: a message in a bottle. Written in block print, the bottled note read:,“This Job Has Been Fournished by Three German Prisoners of War in August, 16, 1945.” All three signed the note.

Strange Brews
409 King Street

Current occupants swear there’s a ghost in this place, but it’s not clear if she is affiliated with the apothecary jar found here when the historic building was rehabbed into offices in 1983. Built in 1808, the Aimar Building once served as a girl’s school and a Civil War hospital. From 1852 to 1978, it was the city’s best source of medicines, herbs, and aphrodisiacs. Much of the Aimar collection was bequeathed to the Smithsonian Institution, but this jar conveyed with the building, perhaps once holding a cache of frankincense or mandrake root—both of which were among the Aimar family’s stock in trade.

Tiny Treasures
Aiken-Rhett House

Originally built in 1818, this grand domicile exists today much as it has since 1858—a testament to its owners’ worldly taste and business acumen. You might imagine such a studied, storied house would have no secrets left to reveal, but you’d be wrong. During a recent exterior restoration project, workers found a concealed hole at the bottom of a wall. Inside, they discovered an acorn-shaped marble finial that fit into the palm of a hand. “We scratched our heads over this one,” says Fielding Freed, director of museums for the house’s owner, Historic Charleston Foundation. “We weren’t even sure it belonged in the house.”

And so ensued the cat-and-mouse game of the restoration world—finding a home for the lost decorative object. Ultimately, a curator matched the finial with a marble urn in an upstairs room—not exactly the origin they’d expected. “In this business, you find something and then tell as many people as you can, hoping someone will come across a clue that provides context.”

Meetings & Greetings
College of Charleston Library

Described by one historian as “more social than political” in its focus, the collection of papers from The Brown Fellowship Society is, perhaps, all the more interesting for its focus on the prosaic. The association was founded in 1794 as a benevolent society of free African American and mixed-race men. These papers, dating from 1869 or so, are the society’s only remaining records. They were found stuffed in the wallboards of a former bakery at 2 Green Street (now part of the College of Charleston offices) and have since been microfilmed, studied, and stored at the Avery Research Center. They report on issues of the day, including graveyard maintenance, meeting attendance, and how best to provide assistance to members and their descendants. Sadly, they lack the good gossip factor that can be found in the records of a similar group of the day—the ironically named Friendly Moralists.­

What Lies Beneath
George Street

Danny Riddle started making a habit of looking down back around 1964 as his walks home from school across Stiles Point Plantation turned up all sorts of treasures. “There were old Civil War coins and bullets right out in the open,” he recalls. Treasure hunting attracted him early, and it’s still in his blood, making Riddle one of a handful of local collectors who employ metal detectors, sieves, and hand shovels to search for remnants of a time gone by.

His particular focus is on privies, the often brick-lined enclosures that once punctuated the backyard of every dwelling and business in Charleston. A recent major construction project on George Street on the block between King and St. Philip was particularly exciting for him. He works by day at Grady Ervin on King Street, right in front of where the big dig occurred. Evenings found him out back, shoveling and sieving yards of sand.

Others working the site found gold pieces, pre-1800 European coins, and slave tags. Riddle unearthed marbles, doll heads, broken china, and more. But the ultimate finds for this bottle hunter were the unbroken soda decanters—loads of them—along with medicine flacons. “Between the 1840s and ’90s, there were 12 or 14 druggists in town offering their own flavored soda waters. These were predecessors to bottled sodas, and they’re rare enough to be important to plenty of people,” he explains.

Riddle adds that collectors like him have an increasingly tough time finding their booty, despite the fact that old city maps clearly define where privies can be found. “It used to be we’d ask these homeowners if we could poke around their backyards, and they’d say, ‘Help yourselves.’” Not so anymore, he says. “But most of them don’t have any idea what’s out there, or much care. This city’s a treasure trove.”

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