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House Tour

July 2024
7min read

With the first flowers of spring, front gates in Charleston swing open to strangers

I had visited Charleston, South Carolina, twice over the years, touring the great house museums that summed up the glory of the eighteenth-century city, ferrying out to Fort Sumter, and dining superbly on she-crab soup and platters of shrimp. Much of the time I would simply walk the uneven slate and cobblestone streets in the heart of the historic district, glancing into gauzily curtained windows and willing my feet not to lead me where they had no right to go, past some particularly enticing wrought iron gate into a stranger’s lush and shady garden. It seemed that however vigorously I toured the town, it always stayed hazily out of focus, remaining, like the hostess of some rarefied party, beautiful, gracious, and remote.

This is the view of Charleston many people take away, and it is probably its defense against a nearly year-round assault of tourists. More than fifty years ago a writer for the WPA guide noted that despite an “old fashioned courtesy…the real Charleston is seldom touched or discovered by the stranger.” And in a 1949 article in Holiday magazine, Henry and Katharine Pringle, insiders to the bone, suggested that only with a letter of introduction could the traveler penetrate the private Charleston.

So last spring, when a handsome brochure from the Historic Charleston Foundation came across my desk, announcing a “festival of houses and gardens”—private ones—it fell on fertile territory. This would open those gates, not only to the garden but to the living room, the dining room, even the kitchen. I was intrigued to learn that 1996 would mark the foundation’s forty-ninth open house, since it gave the whole concept of these tours, one I found curious, a relative antiquity I hadn’t known they possessed. The idea of allowing perfect strangers to enter one’s house, perhaps track dirt on the carpet, assess the owner’s taste in wallpaper and art, and—God forbid—pocket a small curio on the way out the door had always struck me as slightly outlandish.

As it turned out, the house-tour trail went back even further than 1947. Debbie Bordeau, at the Historic Charleston Foundation, recalls that in the spring of 1947, when the foundation first had the idea of developing such a tour to raise money for preservation, one of its members traveled to Natchez, Mississippi, to observe firsthand a tradition that began in 1932. There always seems to be a strong woman behind the first stirrings of any preservation movement, and 1930s Natchez, fighting a general decline made worse by the ravages of the Depression, was no exception. There Katharine G. Miller, president of the local garden club, prevailed upon the owners of twenty-two of Natchez’s most beautiful and historic houses to open their doors to the public for a small admission fee. Most people in town thought she was crazy. She later wrote, “They thought I was having a wild dream and I was going to suffer a great disappointment.”

But when the appointed morning arrived, “the Natchez people saw that…hundreds were pouring in.” In addition to the house tour, Miller produced tableaux of costumed townspeople representing their version of gracious living in the Old South, and she brought visitors to the black churches to hear soul-shaking renditions of spirituals. All of this helped fund the restoration of nearly moribund houses, and perhaps it did something more. In his highly entertaining, if impressionistic, 1947 book Natchez on the Mississippi , Harnet T. Kane wrote of the cross-pollination that tourism brings: “The Natchezians met more new people and learned more about the rest of the world than most of them had ever done in their lives. That, along with the spread of a little more purchasing power among blacks as well as whites, didn’t hurt anyone in Natchez.”

Looking back to those first days, Mimi Miller, director of preservation of the Historic Natchez Foundation (no relation to Katharine Miller), remarks: “It really took visionaries to pull that off. Who is going to come to a town that doesn’t even have paved roads to see a bunch of rundown houses?” In the next breath she explains, “The only place the South led the nation at that time was in the field of historic preservation. This was a Southern phenomenon. After the Civil War they had no present and no future; all they could do was worship the past.” Of course it didn’t hurt that after Gone With the Wind came out in 1936, everyone wanted to see a plantation. Even though the book wasn’t set anywhere near Natchez, the town, with its motto, “Where the Old South Still Lives,” served just fine as a living museum for fans of the book and the 1939 movie.

But Natchez wasn’t even the first place to think up such a tour. That honor belongs to Virginia. There, in Richmond, the ladies of the Garden Club of Virginia launched Historic Garden Week in 1929, hoping to raise money to restore the grounds of Kenmore, the Fredericksburg home of George Washington’s sister Betty. Terming their effort a pilgrimage, the members opened a handful of houses throughout the state with great success, starting a tradition that continues to this day. The present statewide event, which bills itself as “America’s Largest Open House,” starts the last full week of April, continues for nine days, and includes more than two hundred and fifty historic properties.

To pull this kind of operation together calls for an organizational plan of almost military precision. Indeed, when I spoke with Lee Manigault, of the Charleston group, the numbers she rattled off were daunting. “Each year I need nearly seven hundred volunteer docents,” she told me. With a hundred and twenty-five properties on the 1996 Charleston tour, Manigault stationed six or so docents in each house with a similar number required for the tours devoted solely to gardens. Then there are the helpers who wait at various street corners, making sure visitors are heading in the right direction. To snare all these volunteers, Manigault sends out twelve hundred letters early in the planning process, and offers her troops a series of lectures to get them up to speed on history, architecture, and design.

Charleston’s spring festival runs four weeks, starting at the end of March. The activities include oyster roasts at a nearby plantation, afternoons devoted to private gardens, and a changing menu of day and evening tours, each focusing on a particular street and its byways and alleys and featuring visits to about ten properties. Among those I visited were an imposing example of a 170Os “single house,” with its characteristic side porch or loggia, a more modest dwelling of the same period that began life as a general store, and the home of an antiques dealer, whose interiors, thanks to the owner’s vocation, are usually in flux. “I learn about the furnishings in a room, and the next time I come he’s gone and sold them,” one guide said.

At the time we spoke, Manigault was already getting to work on 1997’s fiftieth anniversary event, which, like all the previous ones, requires a balancing act. “It’s not only that I need a hundred and twenty-five houses,” she said, “but here’s what I want on Legare Street, or I already have too many on Broad. People volunteer their houses year after year; some are crazy about it, but some homeowners need a break.” The 1996 version, well under way, was still making its demands. “Just now six docents dropped out of Tradd Street, so I had to round up some more.” Meanwhile, a frazzled docent due at a garden that afternoon entered Manigault’s office with a problem: The lady of the house didn’t know the names of any of the flowers in her newly professionally designed garden. Neither did the docent. Manigault sent her off to one of the foundation’s experts for advice.

To pull this kind of operation together calls for an organizational plan of almost military precision.

Since tours fill up quickly, it’s wise to order tickets, costing thirty dollars per tour, well in advance. For 1996 the foundation had fourteen thousand tickets to sell, and by the third week of the event 89 percent had been sold. The proceeds provide a large portion of the foundation’s annual operating revenue. With each ticket, one is provided with a map of the properties and can visit the houses in any order.

My first tour took place from seven to ten in the evening. It was already dark when I set out, flashlight and map in hand, toward Queen Street, one of the city’s oldest sections, where French Huguenots had settled in the late 160Os. From the earliest days these émigrés had flourished in a number of businesses, weaving themselves into the city’s social fabric. The names of many of Charleston’s most prominent families—like Manigault—belong to the first Huguenots.

It felt comfortably eerie to be strolling along streets lit only by electric candles on a night that saw a full eclipse of the moon. Now and then—at the elaborately Gothic Revival Huguenot church or the tiny 176Os home and workshop of Charleston’s master cabinetmaker Thomas Elfe—I’d run into other nocturnal walkers. Visiting none of the houses in the order they were presented in on the map, but just dropping in when I came across an open door, seemed to add to my sense of discovery. I needed no letters of introduction that night.

On two sunny afternoon tours, free of a flashlight or the need to squint at a map in the dark, I found the whole process easier and even more agreeable. The territory was growing familiar in a way that hadn’t happened on past Charleston trips. Since all the tours are confined to the same part of town—south of Broad Street—you need to retrace your steps more than once, and just by trying to locate an address, you look more closely at everything.

Ambling along a route devoted to gardens, I imagined that no one would stop me from passing an entire afternoon in just one spot, lazing on an iron bench in some private hideaway, listening to the faint music of a fountain, slapping at the occasional insect, and marveling at the showy, perfumed splendor of a thicket of camellias. A few of the properties were large and sprawling, with naturalistically crafted swimming pools, statuary, arbors, and hedges leading the visitor from one garden “room” to the next. But more characteristic were the smaller plots, narrow and deep, on streets where the old houses crowd in on one another and city noise is muted by high, mellow brick walls curtained with wisteria. “A wonderful use of a very small space,” docents would comment again and again.

In a part of the city shaped by the eighteenth century, it’s surprising to learn that most of the gardens date back only a few years, many of them restored from the ravages of 1989’s Hurricane Hugo. But as one quickly learns on any of these tours, that was only the most recent disaster. Earthquakes, hurricanes, fires, and wars all have had a chance to reshape Charleston, yet its eighteenth-century core somehow manages to prevail, not least in these little hidden bowers.

As for the houses themselves, the ones I’d always wanted to invade, they are remembered now as a sort of agreeable blur. More than the important flourishes—the sinuous turn of a staircase or the finely detailed wainscoting in a dining room—it is the personal touches that stay in mind: the sunny living room made even more cheerful by a riot of yellows and pinks on slipcovers, curtains, and walls; the outsize over-the-mantel portrait of a family’s youngest child (so many blonde, beautifully dressed little girls occupied this place of honor in so many houses that I began to wonder if boys were still being born in Charleston); the finely proportioned tables and highboys in the Chippendale or Queen Anne style, which turn out to have been made not by Thomas Elfe but by the owner’s father or grandfather.

I couldn’t help sneaking a look at a family’s snapshots or evaluating its reading tastes, and I marveled at a succession of dazzlingly up-to-date kitchens that didn’t even nod at the past. Only once or twice was an owner on hand, usually because a docent hadn’t turned up. Most of us felt a bit like intruders in their presence. So I can’t really promise that if you go on a house tour, you’ll be invited back for cocktails, but it’s the only way I know of, short of breaking and entering, to get past Charleston’s front door.

—Carla Davidson

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