In my last post about the Unitarian Church graveyard, I included a picture of a headstone that is slowly being overtaken by a tree. The man buried there was a member of the Mikell family -- one of historic Charleston's most notable families.
I also discussed the Ravenel family, which is still well-known in the area. Currently, the reality television show “Southern Charm” is being filmed in Charleston and features a Ravenel descendant, along with several other Charleston socialites. Of these cast members, grande dame Patricia Altschul frequently hosts scenes at her antebellum mansion the “Isaac Jenkins Mikell House.”
The crossing of these two historic names during my reading motivated me to write this post.
Built in the 1850s, this imposing Greek Revival home originally belonged to Isaac Jenkins Mikell (1808 – 1881). Mikell was a Princeton graduate and inherited Peter’s Point Plantation on Edisto Island. He eventually became one of the wealthiest men in the state. (I will delve into his personal background and life in my next post.)
The façade overlooks Montagu Street with a portico supported by six massive columns. The top of each column is ornamented with large ram’s heads, hand-carved from cypress. Additionally, there is a kitchen building and coach house on the property. The property is surrounded by tall walls and gated entries.
The Charleston Free Library purchased the house in 1935, where it served as a public library until the 1960s. It was then sold back into private ownership and was even divided into apartments before being purchased by southern-born Manhattan socialite, Patricia Altshul. Altshul paid $4.8 million for the home in 2008.
Altshul began the restoration process with local contractor Richard Marks Restoration, who is also a member of the Historic Charleston Foundation. He undertook the long process of restoring every surface to its former glory – but upon viewing the final product, he and Altshul agreed that the large rooms of the house were too dark inside to do the interior justice.
It combat this, the entrance hall floor was painted white and stenciled with patterns based on Victorian tilework. Additionally, light colors were chosen for the walls – with the entry having a faux-finish of pale stone blocks. Upon completion, the 9,500-square-foot home has 10 bedrooms.
After the house was restored, it was honored at the Preservation Society of Charleston’s 2012 Carolopolis Awards for outstanding historic preservation. The 77-year-old Patricia has degrees in both art history and archaeology (once having worked as an art history teacher and art dealer) and has now stocked her home with antiques and artwork, along with a number of pets.
Below are some excerpts for a great interview with the owner, Patricia Altshul, and Charleston Home & Design. I recommend reading the entire interview linked below.
I’ve read that education has been an important part of your life. Can you tell us a little bit more of how that track got started for you?
It started when I went to St. Catherine’s for just a minute. My parents quickly did not approve of St. Catherine’s. I came home one day and my parents asked me what I learned at school that day and I told them that I learned how to pour tea and we had elocution. There was very little academic concern at that school so my parents then enrolled me at Marymount. French nuns, who were very tough academically, ran this school and I was there until I graduated in the eighth grade. For high school, I was sent away to a Quaker boarding school. Also, I always went to riding camp in the Shenandoah Mountains.
That sounds like a great educational foundation. How did that impact you as you later went on to George Washington University?
The Quaker boarding school and French nuns gave me such a good education. I was studying physics, architectural history, and I had learned some Russian, so that by the time I got to George Washington (GW) I studied very hard, but it was easy for me. I graduated cum laude and I got a Smithsonian fellowship. I worked for Decorative Arts in the History and Technology Building. That started my love for the decorative arts as well as art history. While at GW, I earned a master’s degree in both Art History and Archaeology. Oh, and I was married the entire time I was doing all of this. I got married when I was 20.
Sitting here in your stunning home, it is clear that you have wonderful taste. How did your education in art history and time at GW influence your design style and you in general?
The study influenced which periods of art I liked. I found that I liked the 19th century, up until 1960. When I started teaching at GW, they gave me the introductory courses, because I was still in graduate school. First, I was given all of the freshmen who were required to take Art 101, and then I taught the Survey of Western Art. After I taught for a while, they gave me Contemporary Art, which ended with the 60s, because well, we were in the 60s. Andy Warhol was kind of the end of contemporary art. It didn’t go any farther.
After teaching for so many years, I founded a company called Arcadia, Inc. I worked with a scholar and we were given the opportunity to build a collection of American, late 19th century art. My job was to go around to all of the different auctions, art galleries, and private dealers here and in Europe to find the paintings for this particular collection. After a while, other collectors and museums came to me to find things for them as well.
That sounds exciting and like a lot of fun. I know you didn’t keep this business going long-term. Did you have it when you transitioned to New York?
No, I remarried in 1989. I was living with my husband on his motor yacht and we went all over the world on that. I lost contact with people in the art world, and if you don’t keep up with it, you lose it. At the time, the Japanese were buying French Impressionists and that wasn’t my specialty, so I was happy for a rest. Whitney (son) was away studying at that point; I think he was at Oxford when I got remarried. So, I basically closed down the company when I remarried. I was always on the board and I always looked for pieces for other people, but I just didn’t have a formal organization.
That sounds like such an exciting life. You’ve said that you spent a lot of time at art auctions. What are they like and what sort of bidder are you? Are you ever an impulsive purchaser?
It’s funny you ask, because I bought something at auction while they were filming Southern Charm this season and I don’t know if they are going to use it or not. Anyway, you have to know what you’re doing when you bid at auction. I, first of all, have a definite taste of things that I like and collect. When I see something that I like, I call the auction house and speak to the curator of that department and I get a condition report and have a discussion about it. If I’m not in the place wherever I’m bidding, I do a phone bid, where they call me and I bid over the phone.
So it’s safe to say that impulse buying is not your style?
No. Well, at the grocery store, yes, but not at the auction house. I have gone over estimate before though.
What made you want to move back down south?
After Arthur died I lived in New York for six more years, but I missed the south and if you’re southern, it just kind of gets in your blood for whatever reason. So, I started looking. I had a great big house on Long Island, and it was wonderful in the summer, but in the winter it was cold and blustery and snowy and friends didn’t necessarily want to go out there.
It took me three years to find this house. I drove all over the south, or I would fly to various places with Mario Buatta, my decorator. We looked at various houses and, for whatever reason nothing felt right until we found this house and it just gelled. I had been down here to Charleston three times before to look at other houses, but I would drive by this one and tell the realtor that this is the type of house I’m looking for. So, when it came on the market I bought it immediately; I didn’t have any reservations.
Charleston Home & Design
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To learn more about the history of the house and it’s original builder, look ahead to my next post.
In addition to it’s beautiful architecture and graveyard, the historic Unitarian Church is home to one of the most popular legends in Charleston.
Few realize that Edgar Allan Poe lived in Charleston during the 1800s – and that’s mainly because he did everything he could to hide that fact. To cover up his teenage years, he fabricated stories of foreign adventures in Greece and Russia, because his reality was much less intriguing. In truth, when Poe was only 18 years old, he was flat broke and resorted to lying about his age and enlisting in the Army.
Immediately after enlisting in 1827, Poe was sent to Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island for a little over a year. However, he was no war hero or esteemed officer. All he had to offer was his ability to read and write, which many young men in the Army could not do. He was not proud of his desperation, so he enlisted under the name “Edgar A. Perry” and worked as a clerk.
Although Poe did well in the Army and was eventually promoted to Sergeant Major, his shortcomings during his teenage years in Charleston were amplified by a romance with an upper class teenage girl.
Poe is believed to have befriended Dr. Edmund Ravenel, who owned a house on Sullivan’s Island. Dr. Ravenel was very successful in medicine, but also had a passion for natural history and eventually devoted fulltime to the research of conchology (local conchs and seashells). It is even believed that Dr. Ravenel inspired Poe’s character William Legrand in his most famous story, “The Gold Bug.”
Legend has it that Dr. Ravenel had a young daughter named Anna. Poe and Anna fell in love – but Dr. Ravenel did not approve. It even prompted the doctor to shut down his Sullivan’s Island house and work exclusively from his office at 52 Meeting Street (which is still standing). When Dr. Ravenel realized that Poe was still secretly seeing his daughter in Charleston, he essentially grounded her.
In reality, the Ravenel family name has always been a popular one in the Charleston area. In fact, when the Cooper River Bridges were demolished 2005, the massive replacement bridge was named the “Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge.” There’s also a town named for the Ravenels, a variety of Ravenel businesses, and a local reality TV show member named Thomas Ravenel.
Whether or not there was a definitive relationship between Dr. Ravenel and young Poe is hard to pin down. In the “Ravenel Records” – it is noted that Dr. Ravenel had an enthusiasm for the study of local conchs and shells which gave him "a wonderful power of attraction and could interest even young children in his science." It is believable that a teenage, literate Poe might have admired Dr. Ravenel’s studies on Sullivan’s Island, too – especially since Dr. Ravenel would’ve been only 30 years old at the time that Poe was stationed on Sullivan’s Island.
Both of these young men may have hit it off, but this means that Dr. Ravenel was too young to have a daughter that could be a viable age to date Poe. In fact, Dr. Ravenel did not get married and have his first child (Mary Louisa) until 1827 – the very year Poe moved to Sullivan’s Island. Additionally, none of Dr. Ravenel’s later children were named Anna.
However, Dr. Ravenel did have four brothers and four sisters. Any of his older siblings might have already had a teenage daughter named Anna or something similar. If Dr. Ravenel or his siblings didn’t want his niece to be with a broke, teenage soldier – the family may have done everything they could to separate them.
The church was not originally built by Unitarians, but a large group of Charlestonians called the “Society of Dissenters.” Over the next 30 years, the minister and many congregants began to identify themselves as Unitarians, so the church was officially re-chartered in 1839. In the years that followed, member and Charleston architect Francis D. Lee undertook the job of enlarging and remodeling the church. Inspired by the Chapel of Henry VII at Westminster Abbey and St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, Lee began work in 1852 and completed the project within two years. Rather than attempting to recreate an expensive carved stone ceiling – like those at Westminster or St. George’s, Lee got creative.
While touring the church, I learned that Lee was also a ship builder. In order to be more cost efficient, while also creating the elaborate design of the church’s ceiling, he utilized ship-building methods and materials – disguised by plaster. While looking at the ceiling, you can easily visualize the similarities between the rib vault architecture (curved design) and the curves in a wooden ship.
Lee’s work at the church is said to have catapulted his career as an architect. Even today, “The fan-vaulted ceiling in the nave and chancel, and the painted glass window, are considered among the finest in the country.” (https://charlestonuu.org/history/)
The church has suffered damage due to war and earthquakes, but has been restored each time with painstaking attention to detail.
Outside the church is an equally striking churchyard. At first glance, one might think that the yard and graves that it contains have become overgrown and neglected. However, the sidewalks are maintained for visitors. The landscaping grows naturally, giving it a peaceful “secret garden” feel.
Much of Unitarian’s hymns and devotionals regard the environment and natural world as God’s freedom of expression and creative power. In allowing the graveyard to grow naturally, this is an expression of a deeply sacred place. Whatever your beliefs, visitors return time and time again to navigate the thin paths through this thicket of palm trees, magnolias, Spanish moss, tall grass, and historic headstones.
You may have noticed that lately, magnolia trees are blooming everywhere!
The Southern Magnolia has become a symbol for the deep South – even being chosen as the state tree of Mississippi and the state flower of Mississippi and Lousiana. However, these trees can grow in states ranging from southern portion of North Carolina, down to Florida, and all the way over to Texas.
These trees are large in every way. They grow 1-2 feet per year to reach a total height of 60-80 feet, and a width that is about half their height. Their blossoms can reach one foot in diameter when fully opened. Their leaves typically measure at least half a foot long.
When planting a magnolia, their size should be taken into consideration as well as their leaves. Seriously, I can speak from experience – these large leathery leaves are not to be taken lightly! As a kid, my parents sometimes gave me the chore of raking these leaves and collecting their large seed pods – and since these trees typically shed their leaves year-round, this can be never-ending. When this layer of heavy leaves is combined with the dense shade of the tree, you will be fighting a battle to try to retain your lawn underneath the tree. So, don’t plant a magnolia if you want a pristine lawn…. Or, unless you have children for free labor. (Just kidding!)
Magnolia seed pods are also frequently used in art and décor throughout the South. My favorite use of these seed pods is located in the Tattnall Square Park in Macon, GA. The park is currently undergoing a restoration, due to a community effort composed of locals and Mercer University students and staff. The park originally had several brick gateways, but they had since been torn down.
Rather than creating the typical magnolia finial (pictured above) the Friends of Tattnall Square (along with help from the Knight Neighborhood Challenge) got ceramicist Amy McCullough Hellis to create one-of-a-kind finials for the new gateways.
“Macon-based ceramicist Amy McCullough Hellis designed and created the magnolia pod finials special for Tattnall Square Park; Mike Dobson at Westside Stonework did the incredibly complex rubber mold and stone casting for the finials; and Franco DeMichiel oversaw the entire project. Most importantly, we decided not to use a prefab or mail order catalog finial early on in the process. We wanted something more creative and imaginative—something that really reflected Tattnall Square’s own personality as a center of creativity and natural beauty. After bandying ideas back and forth, Tattnall Square art adviser and decorative artist Katy Olmsted suggested that we create original finials to reflect the many seed pods or nuts present inside the park […] Inspired by the scores of old magnolias in the park, Amy chose an autumn magnolia seedpod as her model and worked on the piece for ten months, first finding pods, then sculpting a maquette (a small model), and then another maquette, and finally the larger piece. She wanted to create something that looked hand-crafted, rather than mechanically reproduced, something asymmetrical to reflect the unique and asymmetrical world of nature (and magnolia pods), and something that subtly suggests the historic arches at Tattnall’s gateways.”
– Andrew Silver, pictures and quote posted on Friends of Tattnall Square Park
Posts are a combination of my own research, visits, and conversations, plus various information found around the web. I try to provide sources, but if you have specific questions, feel free to ask!