Charleston Houses and Gardens Tour – a Festival of Quirkiness
A house and gardens tour of Charleston is more than the sum of its parts. The city is famous for its charming buildings and elegant mix of architecture, all built at low level. You can take a variety of tours around many historic Charleston houses at any time of the year. But if you come in spring the annual Charleston Festival of Houses and Gardens, run by the Historic Charleston Foundation, opens up over 100 properties to the public. (115 at last count) These Charleston house tours take in everything from the famous singles to heritage properties to multi million pound inheritances. And as a tourist it’s a rare chance to have a poke around the home of a local, discover what makes them tick, and sometimes even meet them…
The trials of a Brit abroad
Wherever we go as a Brit, I feel slightly ashamed of my nationality and often try and hide it like a dirty secret.
I find it uncomfortable travelling in Europe since Brexit. “I voted to stay!” I want to shout into the face of a train guard as he rips my ticket in half; a metaphor for life from now. In the past we’ve been growled at in Chile for our treatment of Pinochet and studiously ignored at a remote Argentinian border crossing because of the historic Falklands clash, where our fellow Swiss travellers sailed straight through without any Maggie baggage. Once when visiting family in Vancouver Island they gave us all T shirts emblazoned with a maple leaf. I realised when I crossed into America and fraudulently lapped up the love for the Canadian citizen that my mother should have hopped on the emigration train with her dear great aunts.
So it’s something of a surprise to be so warmly welcomed in Charleston, South Carolina. In fact I’d go further than that. In the house of John Kuhn, the English are more or less adored.
Quintessential English Regency in a Charleston House Tour
“This is English Regency. This is English Regency. Quintessential!” says John, moving quickly around the living room pointing at stuff. I want to warn him not to do that. The furniture and knick-knacks all look eye wateringly expensive and much of it is breakable.
“Of course we have British labs.” he announces at one point. For a moment I wonder if the house has science laboratories, conducting experiments on how to be more team GB. But turns out our host doesn’t mean laboratories, rather he has dogs in shades of chocolate. Probably Fortnum & Mason chocolate. Great British brands are highly esteemed in this home.
A grand tour in East Bay
We are in Nathaniel Ingram House, on Water Street at the historic Battery, where some of the most expensive properties in Charleston are located. They haven’t always been here; the whole of Charleston was moved in 1680, from its initial spot on the west bank of the Ashley River. Charleston has hundreds of historic buildings and is famous for its architecture, you can find many different styles including Colonial, Georgian, Federal, Classic Revival, Gothic, Italianate, Art Deco and Victorian.
Many well heeled Charleston families have relaxed in its drawing room over the years while looking out to Fort Sumpter and the Charleston Harbour. We don’t relax so much as hover in the hall; we are on a guided tour as part of The Charleston Festival of Houses and Gardens which has been going since 1947. It’s a major fundraiser for Historic Charleston Foundation, the society that organises the event. Each year up to fifteen hundred people visit the houses taking part. This is our second house on a typical tour of eight spread across the course of a day.
John Kuhn is an attorney. He bought Nathaniel Ingram House with his wife two years ago. It is quite grand, without being really, really grand, or indeed huge. And it is very tidy.
The house was built in 1810. “We really decided to make it go back to 1810 and English Regency,” he tells us. “This house was just going to be filled with English Regency. It’s one reason I wanted to stay here and tell you all. Just keep looking for English Regency. This here, 1810, English Regency. Quintessential! The fireplace mantel is original to the room and to the house, and you can see it’s Federalist, Regency, the whole nine yards!” John beams,
“Have we only got 20 minutes?” he asks our heritage guide who nods. We all know she will struggle to get us to the next house in under an hour. John’s enthusiasm is rubbing off, and we’re all getting into the flow of his house tour. “The other thing we tried to do, since this is a colony, we tried to do what the English would do and have things from a Grand Tour. We got these at Christies in London, literally miniature paintings of four points on the Grand Tour of Europe.” I wonder if I should tell him we did our own grand tour of Europe by train a few months ago. But he’s off into the hall. pointing out more features.
Fake doors and first editions
We enter a room lined with books and he grabs one off the shelf. “Marlborough. Signed by Churchill.” he sighs. He passes it around for us all to inspect the autograph.
“Each book you see here is handmade in Surrey. They’re not cheap.” I look around his gorgeous library and wonder how many miles there might be between his ‘cheap’ and mine. Notice I said miles and not vulgar European kilometres. I am starting to believe the English hype.
“Merrill said ‘What about fake doors?’ Fake doors!” John opens a bookshelf and there’s something else behind. But I don’t know what as he has moved on already. “A lantern from Paris. Look at the hand painted smoke detector.” That is Merrill’s genius too. And of course he got it in England. We pay homage at every turn to the super-cleverness of Merrill.
“Is Merrill your wife?” I ask. Clearly not.
“Your interior designer?”
“My decorator, Merrill Benfield.” he says with a reverence that’s normally reserved for celebrity. Perhaps he is a celebrity decorator. All I know is that he chooses great wallpaper. John has moved on again, pointing out a wooden piece of furniture in the corner. “Whatever you used it for I don’t know. Your man in England made it.” I’m not sure his man in England is my man in England because my man is mostly Swedish and offers cut price meatballs with every visit.
The Book of Avon
“This is right out of your home town!” John says to no one in particular, pouncing on an enormous book “Shakespeare, King Henry IV, second folio, first edition.” Wow. I suspect his book could go some way to buying my non-Stratford non-Regency town house filled with non-English furniture and the smell of meatballs. I try to come up with Stratford-upon-Avon anecdotes to be worthy of a glance at its over sized pages. The only thing I have is the time I got drunk in the Drunken Duck on a school trip to the RSC. But then everyone did that, right?
A mother’s love
I ask why he is so keen on everything English. Does he have rellies our way? “Truly the enthusiasm comes from my mother,” he replies. I would love to meet his mother if she is anything near as engaging and effervescent as her son. We take a quick look at the garden complete with pool, talking about the garden festival, and festivals in general. “Truly the British know how to put on a parade and a show.” I think he might be talking about the Queen, but there’s not time to ask him whether he is for or against monarchy. I can probably guess.
As we are herded onto the bus, I tell him I live in the English Lake District. Has he been?
He says he is going soon and I half wonder about inviting him around for a proper northern tea. I am glad that I don’t when he adds a second later that he flies into London to buy his tea from Fortnum and Mason. Although I can’t imagine a man who would take more pleasure in a Lady Betty Afternoon Tea in Harrogate.
Hidden wells and horse drawn walls
At the William C. Gatewood House the owner Ozey Horton is more reserved. But he also has hidden treasures to show us in his Greek Revival ‘sideyard’ house, built in 1842 for a wealthy Virginian. He explains the typical ‘hyphen’ where the kitchen is linked to the house, “And out here are the dependency buildings.”
I imagine the staff running round this airy, elegant home in the past. And descending down the secret staircase in the kitchen.
“You see that wall curves? That’s because the carriages were coming through. It made it convenient for them to take the turn.” says Ozey as we wander the house that’s been tastefully restored to its original 1840’s design. He points to a glass covered well they discovered and had excavated, “We keep looking for the Confederate gold,” he chuckles.
We are now running very late. “Come back when you have the time?” he charmingly asks, while waving us through his magnificent porch and out through past the plunge pool. Underneath, near the stables is a horse drawn carriage. Another man who loves a parade?
Swords and magnolias
Our next stop is a house currently on the market. A Charleston horse and carriage tour is parked up outside. People are peering in as we pull up at its impressive gates and I walk in slightly taller in case they want to assume I am the owner. We are met in the leafy passage leading up to Sword Gate House by estate agent Debbie. “The street was named for the person who owned the property,” she explains, leading me to think this is not going to be a two up, two down. I am proved correct; the house is 200 years old and stretches to 1700 square feet. I am told I can buy it complete for a cool fifteen million dollars. “With the current exchange rate it is sadly out of my league.” I tell her.
Fully furnished opulence
On the upside, the house comes completely furnished so buyers won’t need to get a loan for the cooker. Debbie announces it is show furniture; as if she can tell I’m calculating the worth of the sideboard. She explains the owners have died and their grown up children have moved on. We move around a living room packed with books and the ‘show’ Steinway piano? A dining room has a mural inspired by Charleston Harbour. ‘Merrill needs to see this,’ I find myself thinking.
The casual side
Debbie pours me a glass of ice cold lemonade from a show glass that possibly competes with my dinner party crystal. “The house is shaped like a horseshoe,” she says, which explains why I get lost looking for the toilet. There are two different staircases and the loo is hidden in a wall. Apparently they love hiding things in Charleston.
“This is the casual side,” she says as we look out onto a beautiful deck and sculpted garden. “All the windows are triple hung and open out to the garden.” I think of my Grade 2 listed Georgian rotting windows and our casual neglect of them and realise I can’t invite Real Estate Debbie home for tea either. The amount of Charleston guests I will be receiving this summer will not be a parade.
She guides me into the garden. “Look out for on the magnolia tree. It’s 190 years old.”
You couldn’t miss the magnolia tree if you tried. It’s an absolute beauty, with its branches winding around itself like a maypole at a school fete. And there’s a circular fountain spilling water in layers that looks like a cover from the novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.’ Sharon Odom from Historic Charleston explains Charleston was built on water and many houses nod to that. “Water Street is called this for a reason; there was a creek running here.” She tells me the area from Charleston to Savannah was called Lowcountry as technically it is below sea level.” It did originally start out as an English walled city.” I think how much John would love an English walled city.
The one with the stairs
And then it’s on once again, to Nathaniel Russell House historic monument on Meeting Street. The 1808 former shipping merchant’s house has a breathtaking cantilever staircase. We discuss the Federal style architecture of the townhouse, look at the delicate moldings of the early classical period and discover why the climate helped invent the southern porch. But I’m mentally back at Nathaniel Ingram House wondering what ingenious gadget or decor my homeland might come up with next for the owner, the decorator, his wife and his mother.
At the end of the tour I walk away feeling that glow of southern hospitality everyone talks about here. I also I feel a quite a lot better about my Anglo spangled roots.
Interested in a quirkier side to America? Check out our post on 10 unusual things to do in Orlando.
My trip was hosted by the city of Charleston as part of a British Guild of Travel Writers visit. All house envy, as well as words and images is my own.