Calhoun Mansion – aka, the OMG house (Fri 12/5)
Visiting this mansion, Charleston’s largest private residence and considered to be one of the most important pieces of Victorian architecture on the east coast, was definitely worth it!
A bit about the history/background of the house and its owners:
The land originally belonged to Charles Pinckney, governor of the state and was purchased by George Walton Williams, who made a fortune in the shipping industry and built this house to have a grand display of his wealth and because he believed in the re-emergence of Charleston following the Civil War. While George was not really well-liked or embraced by his fellow Charlestonians, he employed a great number of them (hundreds in fact during the 5 years it took to build the house which was completed in 1876 at a cost of $250,000), and for that he was respected (and his property protected by the locals.) Another reason why George wasn’t very popular may have been due to his wife who didn’t permit drinking or dancing at the mansion (even though there was a huge ballroom on the second floor.)
Williams died in 1903 and his son-in-law Patrick Calhoun acquired the property. The house fell into disrepair through the years and was condemned in 1972. Then it was purchased by a Charleston native who spent 25 years and $5 million restoring it to its former glory!
The entryway domed ceiling was handpainted by Louis Comfort Tiffany, the mahogany wood panels here and in other rooms in the house had carved shamrocks (or clovers.) We learned that the house was originally purchased for $250,000 and after the Civil War it sold for $25,000. Charleston was one of the richest, if not the richest city in the south before the Civil War. After it was the poorest. After a brief introduction to the house, its original owners and history, we were escorted inside and nothing can really prepare you for the sensory overload. We quickly understand why this mansion is called the OMG mansion! I kept thinking about how much time must be spent each day dusting the thousands of artifacts (10-12 tractor trailer loads according to the guide) that are jammed into this place – mind blowing!
- 24,000 square feet, 35 rooms, 23 fireplaces, 14 ft ceilings
- Biggest pocket doors ever to one of the living rooms on the first floor
- Beautiful stairwell that reaches to a 75 ft domed ceiling
- Music room with a 45 ft covered glass skylight
- Tiffany original chandelier made with sake cups and a rice bowl
- Footstools made with real elephant feet (not kidding)
- Priceless Asian textiles (could be the most valuable item in the house)
- Many religious artifacts acquired abroad, huge and gorgeous Asian vases, valuable clocks
- Numerous real stuffed animal heads, including a baboon
- The house was one of the first to have gas – the lines were inside the banister
- In Charleston’s less lucrative days the mansion was a boarding house for sailors – ‘public’ latrines lined the 2nd floor hallway
Following the tour, we popped into Two Meeting Street Inn where a very nice manager showed us around the beautiful lobby and we got to see another Tiffany stained glass window – the window is insured for more than the entire house.
Heyward Washington House – Sat 12/6
The least impressive of the historic homes we toured – perhaps because the house and furnishing themselves were not very grand (though the furniture was Charleston-made), the tour guide was decent, but not as stellar as the Edmonston-Alston or Calhoun Mansion guides. We also were jammed into the tour with about 15 or 20 gray hairs which made it quite cramped, one of the guys told Dave that theirs was a ‘private tour’ (apparently not!)
- Built in 1772, a Georgian-style double house (this refers to homes that have 4 rooms on each floor with a hallway in the center (the main entrance is flanked by 2 rooms, thus ‘double’ house) as opposed to single houses which Charleston is famous for
- Town home of Thomas Heyward, Jr., one of four South Carolina signers of the Declaration of Independence and a patriot leader.
- Heyward sold the house in 1794 to John F. Grimke, a Revolutionary War officer and father of Sarah & Angeline Grimke, abolitionists and suffragettes.
The house’s main claim to fame is that George Washington stayed there for 1 week during his visit to Charleston in 1791 (remember he was quite the charmer with the ladies – dancing with more than 200 of them over at the Old Exchange building!) However, you are allowed to take pictures and it was cool to see how a separate kitchen and laundry building may have looked back in the day 🙂 Furniture highlights include the priceless Holmes Bookcase, considered one of the finest examples of American-made colonial furniture. The chests of drawers grouped together into a dresser was gorgeous too. It was also interesting to see the bells used to call slaves to each of the rooms, each bell had a unique identifying tone.
Nathaniel Russell Mansion
We got a brief introduction to the Nathaniel Russell Mansion during our walking tour and I decided to go back for a tour while Dave and Paul went to Fort Moultrie. Highlights include:
- Belonged to Nathaniel Russell, a Rhode Island merchant (interesting that we are renting a place from a Russell who is also now living and working in RI 🙂
- The house is widely recognized as one of America’s most important neoclassical houses and features three important geometric designs: a front rectangular room, a center oval room, and a square room in the rear.
- We started the tour outside and discussed how the building design draws your eyes to the second floor, the unique entryway with the fruit designs, the wrought iron balconies including the initial of the owner, and how the pineapple is the symbol of hospitality – no wonder I like pineapple designs!The house has undergone extensive renovations including removal of more than 22 layers of paint to expose the original color (often the colors came not from a paint but a type of wallpaper) – including a light orange entryway and a turquoise dining room on the first floor
- The self-supporting elliptical stairwell is a work of art – the plaster planes and floors appear to ‘float’ off the stairwell, the rails are a beautiful mahogany, and a window is provided so you can see the underlying construction. At the top of the stairwell on the ceiling appears to be a plaster medallion – however it is actually painted on the ceiling in the trompe-l’oeil (French for “”deceive the eye”) technique that uses realistic imagery to create a 3D optical illusion. The molding in the foyer on the first floor had this as well.
- The 2nd floor drawing room, where the women of the house retired to after dinner, was also used for weddings and other formal gatherings. This room had incredibly intricate and detailed molding that really stood out – this had previously been painted just one color and after an intensive paint removal and restoration, a variety of colors were revealed including gold guilding. The more casual withdrawing room at the front of the house was full of light and also had beautifully restored multi-level molding.
In summary, my favorite historic house tour was the Edmonston Alston House – the tour guide Arlene was amazing, bringing the history of the house to life through her stories!
Loved the polished hardwood on this porch along with a traditional Charleston joggling board!
Our favorite house on the College of Charleston campus with lit-up stain glass windows – beautiful!
Charleston Christmas Special – Sun 12/7 – Dave and I went to Charleston’s version of the Radio City Christmas Special, and despite our trepidation that the average age of the patrons looked to be about 90 (I thought, aha, that’s why the show was typically a matinee! 🙂 and the show itself was reminiscent of what you’d see on a cruise ship, it turned out to be pretty entertaining. The show had a mix of traditional carols with some modern performances. Standouts included the violin solo, pianist’s rendition of Hallelujah chorus, a daughter of a Temptation’s amazing voice, and the acapella version of O Holy Night) and some silly skits sprinkled in for holiday fluff. We sat next to the parents of one of the headliners and had a nice chat with them.
Star’s Restaurant Wine Blind Taste Testing – We needed drinks after so much wholesome family fun and headed over to Star’s Restaurant to check out their rooftop and have a drink before dinner. We ended up having some fun with the bartender who treated us to multiple ‘blind’ taste tests of a variety of their ‘tap wine’. Surprisingly I was better at identifying the reds than the whites. A little prep for Napa 🙂
Dinner at Indaco – fantastic service, delicious food, competition for any modern Italian in any major city 🙂
Dinner at Husk – Tues 12/9 – great suggestion from a vendor I work with. Probably my second favorite restaurant experience in Charleston following Magnolia’s. Fried Chicken Skins were added for crunch to my steamed clams appetizer – enough said.