December 18, 2017

Philip Simmons: The Blacksmith with an Iron Will

  • By: Nicholas Som

Determination is a key virtue for any artist, but especially so for blacksmiths. Unlike painters or writers, blacksmiths are not working with blank canvases that serve merely as backdrops for colors or words. Instead, they must transform stoic, unyielding pieces of iron.

Not every person possesses the patience, confidence, and fortitude to manage such a steadfast material. Fortunately for the city of Charleston, South Carolina, a man named Philip Simmons did.

In the Fall 2017 issue of Preservation magazine, we looked at a home in Charleston that, after being passed down through one family for generations and deteriorating in the process, was restored by its current owners. They took great care to preserve as many elements of the building as possible, including the original iron railing on the front stairs. That railing is one of hundreds crafted by Simmons, Charleston’s most celebrated metalworker of the 20th century.

Born in 1912 on South Carolina’s Daniel Island, just north of downtown Charleston, Simmons was raised on a farm by his grandparents. Although his mother resided in town, Simmons could not live with her due to the lack of school openings for African-American children. Finally, a new school called the Buist School opened in 1920, allowing him to move in with his mother at the age of 8.

Simmons found himself drawn to the sounds of hammer-on-anvil that emanated from local blacksmiths’ shops. Craftsmen of all kinds filled his neighborhood, largely servicing the waterfront businesses. One of those shops belonged to Peter Simmons (no relation), a formerly enslaved man who moved to Charleston to ply his craft when freedom came. Young Philip walked in asking for a job, and Peter promised to give him one once he turned 13.

The Children's Garden Gate in front of the Josiah Smith Tenet House.

photo by: Micah A. Ponce/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Simmons designed this gate for the Josiah Smith Tennent House.

On the day of his 13th birthday, Philip Simmons returned and became Peter’s apprentice. There he gained the foundation of skills that, when a local merchant requested a driveway gate in 1948, allowed him to fulfill the request. The success of the project convinced him to focus on ornamental wrought iron, and the rest was history.

A gate designed by Philip Simmons.

photo by: Henry de Saussure Copeland/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

The snake depicted on this gate was inspired by that of the Gadsden Flag.

Nature appeared as a common theme in Simmons’ work. Nearly every piece he created was inspired by some aspect of the natural world. “When he walked around, he was always picking up stuff. Leaves, sticks, all sorts of things,” says Rossie Colter, project administrator of the Philip Simmons Foundation.

Over the course of his career, Simmons built or designed an estimated 1,000 gates, balconies, fences, handrails, and window grills. Among his most famous works are the Starfish Gate at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., and a gazebo at the Charleston International Airport. For his achievements, Simmons was awarded with the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts in 1982, the highest honor a traditional artist can receive in the United States.

Simmons died in 2009, but his legacy lives on—not only through his handiwork, but also the nonprofit organization that bears his name. Formed in 1991 by St. John’s Reformed Episcopal Church (the church he attended), the Philip Simmons Foundation worked to create and maintain a garden to commemorate Simmons and his mastery of his craft. It is a fitting tribute for a beloved individual who combined nature and ironwork like no other, and left a lasting impact on the city of Charleston.

“He was a very personable man,” Colter says. “Everybody loved him in town, no matter who they were.”

Nicholas Som is an editorial assistant at Preservation magazine. He enjoys museums of all kinds, Philadelphia sports, and tracking down great restaurants.

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