February 16, 2017

Wind Your Way Through Historic Charleston And The Lowcountry

  • By: Jared Foretek
  • Photography: Steve Gross and Susan Daley
Seabrook Plantation

photo by: Steve Gross and Susan Daley

The Seabrook Plantation on Edisto Island, South Carolina. The cotton plantation house was built in 1810.

Steve Gross and Susan Daley have had a long love affair with Charleston.

Two East Coast natives studying at the University of New Mexico, they first went to Charleston together in 1985, passing through on one of their many cross-country road trips. In their new photo book, Historic Charleston and the Lowcountry, Gross and Daley describe stumbling upon the Aiken-Rhett House, a Federal-style building originally designed in 1818.

It was decaying, but the pair were intrigued by the mansion, the remnants of its opulent past and, ultimately, its story.

“Upon entering the house, we were immediately entranced by the eloquence of sunlight filtering through ancient shutters in the large, sparsely furnished room,” they write.

According to Gross, it’s that sense of entrancement the photographers try to convey in Historic Charleston and the Lowcountry.

Shot over two extended stays (the pair is based out of Manhattan), the book is a collection of Charleston’s historic (and some more contemporary) houses, churches, and gardens.

“It was really the experience and the feeling of being totally immersed in a historic house,” Gross says. “Sometimes it’s sparsely furnished, but the physical setup of where the windows are, the size of the rooms, the way the light comes in and moves across the space is the same pretty much as when it was built. There are elements of experience that are identical to someone who could’ve been living in a house 200 years ago.”

The Hibernian Hall

photo by: Steve Gross and Susan Daley

Built in 1839, Hibernian Hall housed an Irish charitable and social institution.

The Martz and Waddell Cottage

photo by: Steve Gross and Susan Daley

Now called the Martz and Waddell Cottage, the servant living quarters, constructed in 1831, took three years to restore.

The book features a number of the city’s more noteworthy sites, like the wondrous Magnolia Gardens, in addition to private homes and gardens that are typically unavailable to the public.

The Augustus Taft House showcases the current owners’ collection of Italian artwork and furnishings. According to Gross, a similar practice was common when the house was built in the 1830s and wealthy Charlestonians would tour Europe collecting pieces for their homes.

And the Gaillard-Bennett House, an 1802 Georgian–style home, is featured for the remarkably detailed restoration undertaken by its owners, Steve and Mary Caroline Stewart. All told, 26,000 pieces of moldings were redone.

“We learned so much about plaster and detailing,” Gross says. “The people that bought the house just went over the top, in a good way. They restored it to such meticulous detail, it’s wonderful.”

But the book isn’t only intended to show off the Greek-revival homes and the Romantic gardens, though there’s plenty to stare longingly at.

There’s also an education in the technical aspects of Charleston’s architecture, the city’s history, and the value of preserving both.

“The sense of history is palatable there. Everywhere you go, in the streets, the buildings, there’s a continuity with the past that’s very unique,” Gross said. “If you study the history of Charleston, you’ll learn a lot about the history of the country.”

The pair credits the city’s storied preservation movement, which began in the 1920s, with much of the city’s beauty and resulting tourism industry. For example, the Preservation Society of Charleston is the country’s oldest community-based preservation group. And Joseph P. Riley Jr., the city’s former ten-term mayor who left office in 2016, gained national attention for promoting walkable development that maintained the city’s sense of architectural consistency.

“The character of the city is changing as is inevitable,” Gross and Daley write, “but due to the work of the Historic Charleston Foundation and other community groups, Charleston remains one of America’s most historic and well-preserved cities and a place of great beauty because of it.”

Historic Charleston Gaillard-Bennett House

photo by: Steve Gross and Susan Daley

The Gaillard-Bennett House dates back to 1802. Theodore Gaillard came from a family of French Huguenots that fled to South Carolina in 1687.

The William Gibbes House Garden

photo by: Steve Gross and Susan Daley

Prominent landscape architect Loutrel Briggs designed the garden at the William Gibbes House in 1928. The old Charleston brick walls and steps typified Briggs' style.

Preservation Magazine: Charleston's Gibbes Museum of Art

After searching for months, the team behind the restoration of Charleston, South Carolina’s Gibbes Museum found the 1905 structure’s original blueprints.

Jared Foretek is an editorial intern at the National Trust. He enjoys historic train stations, old bars, and interesting public spaces.

jforetek@savingplaces.org

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