Marking History in Charleston

As many readers may know (considering that I am related to most of you), Charleston is a special place in our family. It is the place where Mom and Dad met and fell in love.  As I get older and more inquisitive of my parents’ pasts, I am learning more and more what Charleston was like for my parents.  For my Mom, I have now learned that she lived in Charleston both before and after she attended graduate school at UVa.  Before grad school life in Charleston entailed my mom teaching, but also working nights at the Flying Dutchman nightclub on Dorchester Road.  Sadly, that nightclub is no longer in operation, as it went the way of the world when the Navy base where my Dad was stationed was axed from Charleston in 1995.  Thus, I cannot recreate exactly what life in Charleston was like for my Mom. However, I can try to imagine it as a beautiful setting for two very attractive young people to meet and fall in love.  So, I thought it might be a nice setting for a weekend celebration of David’s 33rd birthday.

Where We Stayed

We didn’t stay in Charleston, but opted to stay in the town of Summerville, about 20 minutes north of downtown.  In the late 1880s, an international conference in Paris declared Summerville, SC to have one of the healthiest climates in the world.  This resulted in wealthy people from around the globe building massive Victorian edifices in which to reside at various times of the year (earlier in the century, the Charleston elite would migrate away from malarial Charleston in the summer and to Summerville, which explains why it changed its name from Dorchester to Summerville before the Civil War). We stayed in one such restored mansion, The Woodlands Inn, the former 1905 winter home of a railroad baron. 

When visiting a historic place like the lowlands of South Carolina, it seems important to stay at a place that can boast of being historic.

I went back and forth between staying in this Inn and the historic Planters Inn, in downtown Charleston, but I think I made the right choice. The Woodlands Inn boasts lovely grounds and a quiet setting, and there is something that still seems very creepy about an staying at an Inn still named for Planters that is located directly across the street from the old slave market in the city (However, I do at some point want to eat at the Peninsula Grill, located in Planters, and have a piece of some of that famed coconut cake).

I loved the Woodlands large rooms, particularly the large bathroom, which was one of the largest I have ever seen for a bathroom in a hotel room. I also loved the comfortable sitting rooms located on the first floor, which were wonderful for sitting and reading a book or playing a game of Scrabble.

The Woodlands has a complimentary afternoon tea service for guests, with some of the best cinnamon tea and pastries around. It kept me occupied on Friday afternoon, as I waited for David to finish up some work-related calls in the room.

Our room was elegant without being stuffy and uncomfortable.  David makes fun of me because I always pick places to stay where we are the youngest people around, but I can’t help if I favor traditional over contemporary when it comes to comfort.  I swear, sometimes I do try to be hip and stay with David at the latest W hotel, but let’s face it, I am more comfortable with the grandmothers and grandfathers of the world.

What We Ate

Part of the difficulty about visiting Charleston and its environs is choosing a place to eat, because after all, food is what Southerners do best.   We stayed at the Woodlands, in part,  because of the restaurant at the Inn, which I will get to in a minute. First, there was dinner on Friday night. I tried to pick a place that was well-reviewed (the chef won the 2009 James Beard award for the Southeast) and hip for David. I found it in Fig, on Meeting Street. The menu consisted of an assortment of all of those locally grown products that are so hip these days. It was also very, very delicious.  For lunch on Saturday, we ate at Sermet’s Corner on King Street.  Their tomato soup and sweet potato fries were especially delicious.

On Saturday night and for Sunday brunch, we ate at the Dining Room at the Woodlands. I read that this place was supposed to be top-notch, and that was in part why I decided to stay at this particular hotel.  On Saturday, for dinner, we decided against the 5 course chef’s tasting menu which featured black truffles in every course, as we thought it might be a bit too decadent for our tastes, and so we ordered off the menu instead.  By doing so, I was able to revisit my love for foie gras (as it has been a while), which of course, isn’t too decadent at all.  I am no food critic, but I did appreciate the different textures for each of my courses for both dinner and brunch. For brunch, I particularly loved the pairing of foie gras with buttermilk pancakes, which now is my new favorite breakfast (and one that I probably will not have again).

Anyway, I don’t have pictures of the food, as cameras aren’t really acceptable in the dining room, but here we are dressed up for dinner on Saturday night before heading out of our room. Yes, my hair is enormous.

What We Did

I already wrote an entire post about our shopping excursion on Saturday afternoon, but we did other things besides shop. On Saturday morning, we visited Drayton Hall. Why did I pick Drayton Hall over the other plantations that dot Ashley River Road, like Middleton Place and Magnolia Plantation?  Well, there are a few reasons. The first has to do with preservation. I like that Drayton Hall strives to be kept as it was, without the fancy updates and historical “recreations.”  There is no furniture in Drayton Hall, so you can contemplate it as the earliest American example of Georgian-Palladian architecture. But it is more than that. In its starkness and with its signs of decay, you really feel like the ghosts of Drayon Hall come alive and the people who lived there and worked there, both voluntarily and involuntarily, tell its story.

It isn’t the largest plantation home. Indeed, our tour included a British couple that have seen larger homes than this serving as parson’s houses to the great estates of England.

And here are a couple of shots of those slightly decayed, but carefully preserved interior architectural features like plaster, molded ceilings from the 18th century:

The house even had doorways marked to indicate the growth of various Drayton children. On Drayton daughter who resided in the house before, during, and after World War II, marked another doorway with measurements to indicate the growth of her dogs. Her largest dog, Nibber, is lovingly buried under some azaleas planted in the back of the house.

Here I am on the upstairs portico, which is bathed in sunlight during the morning hours:

Unlike the other plantations, there are not extensive gardens on view at Drayton Hall. You can see the remnant of a Victorian mound from a post-Civil War garden behind me in the picture above, as the grounds only showcase remnants from former gardens.  This is also in keeping with the history of the place. For example, the large formal English gardens were destroyed during the Revolutionary War, as British soldiers used Drayton Hall as a base for operations during the War. The officers stayed in the home, but the soldiers camped in the gardens. After the war, the family never restored the formal gardens. 

But again, I think that those remnants of former gardens combined with letting the place go a little wild is what makes it so lovely. If I wanted to see extensive, well-maintained gardens, then I would come later in the spring and visit the gardens at Middleton and Magnolia.

On Saturday afternoon, we took a trip over to North Charleston and the site of the former Navy Base where my dad served 35 years before, to where they are keeping and restoring the old Confederate sub, The Hunley. Although it was brought up from the depths of Charleston Harbor in 2000, until very recently, it was not on display to the public.  In fact, when we were in Charleston last year with my family, we couldn’t get in to see the Hunley with my Dad, which was something that I am sure that he would have loved.  However, it is now open for public viewing on the weekends, and since I am more obsessed with Civil War history than ever, we thought it would be very educational. 

We were given a tour by a volunteer named Pappy, a World War II vet, who was still very angry that the government had closed the Charleston Naval base in 1995.  He gave us plenty of historical detail as he explained how the Hunley became the first successful combat submarine in world history, before it sank to the bottom of the harbor for still unexplained reasons.  It was crewed by eight, Confederate sailors, who were mostly of foreign birth (only one sailor was actually born in a southern state.  The crew went down with the sub, but thanks to science, and the recovery of the sailor’s skulls from inside the vessel, we can approximate that they may have looked something like this:

The actual  Hunley sits in a pool of freshwater, still undergoing restoration, and so Pappy informed us that we could view Her, but we couldn’t take pictures of Her. They did have a couple of full-scale models in the attached visitor’s center, though.

You could even try out the hand crank that powered the Hunley in the water, and you can contemplate how Civil War Sailors must have had considerably more upper-body strength than modern-day librarians.

You can also contemplate how Civil War submarine sailors could also have doubled as circus contortion artists in order to fit through the 18 inch porthole to enter and exit the Hunley that my very slender husband couldn’t fit through.

The excursion satisfied my craving for continued knowledge regarding the Civil War, which of course, had to be met while we were in Charleston. 

Sometimes, you have to go where things begin.

2 thoughts on “Marking History in Charleston

  1. That sounds like a very fun trip! I like traditional comfort too (who says it’s just for grannies?)

    PS I love your bag in the Hunley model picture. As always, you have great taste! Wish I lived a few doors down from you again so I could raid your closet. Not that I could fit into any of it, but perhaps it would give me motivation? 🙂

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