Photo via Instagram @raleigh9kitch
When I was little, I was told some Coastal South folkore about the creation of Spanish Moss. The story is set several centuries ago, before the invasive moss covered our coastal trees and the native tribes still reigned throughout the region.
As the European explorers settled the Coastal South, a Spanish man met a young native woman. He liked her, but she refused him. The much older Spaniard did not take the rejection very well, so one day he attempted to corner her alone.
The indian girl ran and ran, and eventually found an oak tree that she could scurry up. The Spaniard followed her up the tree, so she went out on a limb -- as far as she could manage. Just when she thought the Spaniard had trapped her, he lost his balance and slipped out of the tree. However, his long gray beard got caught in the branches and ripped from his skin.
After this nasty fall, the Spaniard died. However, the story claims that his beard continued to grow on the tree, and with it, his spirit continued to search for the girl. Spreading from tree to tree until it covered the entire Coastal South.
St. Marys, GA has changed roles many times over recent centuries – having been described as a bustling colonial seaport, a sleepy city by the sea, an ethically questionable company town, and a strategic military location.
The city sits in the far southeast corner of the state of Georgia. Many Florida-bound vacationers have stumbled upon St. Marys while making a pitstop at Exit 1 on I-95. Here, people can learn about the local attractions, like Cumberland Island (the largest of Georgia’s barrier islands), the nuclear submarine base, and the quaint, historic waterfront.
Drone shot by St. Marys local, Ashley Alexander
Prior to European discovery, the southeastern region of Georgia was home to numerous American Indian tribes – the Guales, Timucuans, Creeks, and Yamacraws. Historians estimate that as early as 200 B.C., the tribes inhabited the vast maritime forests of live oaks and palmettos. They hunted deer, turkey, and wild game, while also catching fish, shrimp, and harvesting shellfish.
These diverse tribes lived independently of each other. They had never “united” under one body or banded together with any formal organization, so when the French and Spanish explorers arrived, the indians were unprepared to take a stand or resist the European conquest.
French River Mai (May). Original drawn by Jacques Le Moyne, c. 1562 (Recreation)
The known history of St. Marys begins in 1562, when French Huguenot Jean Ribault is said to have sailed into the river and landed on the south bank – now known as Amelia Island. Here, Ribault erected a stone monument and claimed the land for France. He also named the river "River May" – after the date of his arrival
Ribault column located on the St. Johns River tourist site. Photo via FloridaHikes.com
For the next 200 years, the land extending from the St. Marys River up to the Charleston Bay would belong to France. This was essentially all of present day Georgia. The French wrote that it was “a countrie full of havens, rivers, and islands of such fruitfulness as cannot with toungue be expressed.”
Shortly after the French expedition landed in the Amelia Island area, the Spanish settlers landed in St. Augustine. Now, both the French and Spanish began to “duke it out” while staking claims throughout “La Florida.”
As the Spaniards trekked through Florida, they headed north – pushing into French territory. When they reached the St. Marys area, they encountered an Indian encampment ruled by Queen Hiacia. Queen Hiacia was described as being the most beautiful of the native women.
The Spaniards settled and worked alongside the Indians peacefully, until an Indian uprising almost 40 years later (~1597). After this uprising, tensions between settlers and Indians continued to wax and wane for almost a century. In 1686, the French and Spanish settlers eventually retreated below the St. Marys River – back into Florida.
Timucuan warriors with weapons and tattoo regalia.
Original drawn by Jacques Le Moyne, c. 1562 (Recreation)
In the 1600s, the indian attacks on the French and Spanish settlers in the Coastal South had increased – and many historians believe that the English settlers encouraged and incentivized the natives to attack the French/Spanish competition. Once the French and Spanish retreated back into Florida, England jumped on the opportunity to stake a claim on the Carolinas. The new "Carolinas" territory would extend from today's Carolinas all the way down into Spanish Florida.
The English and their Indian allies ravaged today's South Georgia area – utterly destroying the local Timucuan tribe.
This land grab resulted in years and years of fighting between the English, Spanish, and French -- and due to close proximity -- native tribes were also heavily affected by these continuous battles. Though the English had originally used some indian tribes as their allies, many natives unexpectedly caught foreign diseases, which proceeded to weaken their populations.
Local dolphins in the St. Johns River have been spotted with severe cases of skin lesions, indicating their immune systems are compromised. In these photos, a newborn calf is covered in lesions and also appears to have an orange algal-type mat growing on its rostrum (face) and dorsal fin. Unfortunately, this does not bode well for his/her survival. A similar algal-type mat was observed on resident adult dolphins at death.
There have been several recent reports on the east coast (in addition to the Gulf) of people spotting dolphins, manatees, and other marine wildlife with growths and fungi on them. These growths are attributed to red tide, which is an algal bloom that produces toxins that can kill marine organisms, taint shellfish, cause skin irritations, and even foul air. They can also cause respiratory issues in children and elderly.
Algal blooms naturally occur, however, scientists, fishermen, and outdoors-people have noticed that they have been increasing in size, intensity, and persistence in recent decades. This is attributed to the increase of foreign nutrients in coastal waters – which causes the algae to grow at an unnaturally fast rate.
I wanted to share some simple tips on identifying the algae and what you can do to help!
If you spot an algae bloom (like the one pictured), you can quickly report it by dropping a pin on the App “Water Rangers” https://app.waterrangers.ca/
Create a River Friendly Yard.
Whether you are in your car or boat or on foot, pay close attention to what is going on around you. Is dirt running off a construction site into a creek? Did you spot a fish kill or a broken pipe? Is someone illegally-dumping trash or pollution into a storm drain or directly into a river? Report these issues to your city works or state environmental agency (they should have a hotline).
Most importantly, keep children and pets away from blooms. Wash thoroughly if you have come into contact. And do not eat fish caught in bloom areas.
In his old age he was asked by one of his grandchildren to recount his marriages, he was said to have replied, “My dear, it has been so long ago that I don’t remember the first one. The second one was your grandmother, and she brought me wealth and success; the third was the love of my life; and the fourth is the comfort of my old age.”
Despite the personal setbacks, Isaac became one of South Carolina’s wealthiest men during the golden age of Sea Island cotton. By 1860, Peter’s Point Plantation consisted of 2,200 acres of land and 225 slaves. Its estimated annual production of ginned cotton was 70,000 pounds, making it one of the largest produced of Sea Island cotton in the United States. Even in present day, local author, botanist, and leading historian on Sea Island cotton, Richard Porcher, states that there was no finer cotton in the world than the cotton grown on Edisto Island prior to the Civil War.
Ten years after inheriting Peter’s Point Plantation (derived from Point Saint Pierre), Isaac built the current plantation house – which is still a private home for his descendants. Situated overlooking St. Helena Sound at the junction of St. Pierre’s Creek and Fishing Creek, the house has a picturesque view and a commanding setting.
Isaac’s son later described the house as having “twelve great rooms with white and colored marble for inside adornment, a spiral stairway, broad brown stone steps, and double piazzas.”
Since the house is on private property, little photographic documentation of it exists publicly.
The above photos were collected from the South Carolina Historic Properties Record.
The following book excerpt was found in “Edisto Island: A Family Affair.”
Isaac built the Peter’s Point house at a time when most planters were still concerned with the functionality of their plantation houses, rather than extravagance. When it came to showing off wealth, locals purchased other properties in Charleston – where they could be seen and admired. The simple Peter’s Point house was still built tastefully, with double piazzas and an overall Greek revival style one might find in Charleston. This house is a good example of the transitional stage of plantation homes from the smaller functional homes of the early 1800s to the grand plantation mansions before the Civil War.
In contrast, Isaac later built a mansion known as the Isaac Jenkins Mikell House for his “town house.” I discussed this house previously (you can read the full post by clicking here). Isaac built this house during his third marriage, which he described as the love of his life.
Isaac lived in the above house throughout his third and fourth marriages. In “Tales of Edisto” a family story recounts the funny story of his fourth and final marriage:
For sources, see above mentioned books. For genealogy:
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
Leading Estates of the World
To learn more about the history of the house and it’s original builder, look ahead to my next post.
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
The city of Charles Town was founded in 1670, with the heart of the city laid out on the peninsula between the Ashley and cooper Rivers. Over 300 years later and this is where the historic district now resides. The city has always been a “hub” of southeastern commerce, and its continued importance throughout centuries of American history makes Charleston one of the best examples of high-quality historical architecture.
The historic district was not formally declared as a National Historic Landmark until 1960. It contains 2,800 historic buildings, including cobblestone streets and historic homes. In one stroll through the city, you can see the progression of eight different architectural styles: Colonial, Georgian, Federal, Classic Revival, Gothic Revival, Italianate, Victorian, and Art Deco.
16 Legare Street
"Amarinthea Elliott, plantress, built this house c.1795. The three and one-half story frame house is simple in detail with the features transitional between Georgian and Federal, typical of houses built in the period after the Revolution." --Samuel Gaillard Stoney, This Is Charleston (1976)
165 Tradd Street
Currently listed for sale. 2 bedrooms, 2.5 bath, 2000 sq. feet.
"Charming circa 1870 ''South of Broad'' Charleston Single house on quiet end of historic Tradd Street. This home was beautifully renovated with the footprint expanded in 2006- then it was completely updated again from 2015-2017 by the current owners. Notable exterior features include double screened piazzas, a lovely walled English Garden and fountain designed by renowned Charleston landscape architect Robert Chesnut, off-street parking, storm windows and new gutters.The outside copper lanterns were designed by the late John Gantt, who designed many of the downtown Charleston gas lights. First floor features include a formal living room and dining room with beautiful original hardwood floors."
Click through the pictures below to see the interior.
6 Water Street
"Captain Francis W. Saltus, Sr. was a successful Charleston ship owner, wharf owner, and cotton factor. In the South, most cotton planters relied on cotton factors (also known as commission merchants or cotton brokers) to sell their crops for them.
Saltus later co-owned an extensive hardware and ship chandlery with his sons.
He built this two and one half story Federal style single house. The frame structure rests on a raised basement and features a closed return box cornice and a gable roof with an elaborate central pediment flanked by two dormer windows. Double piazzas supported by slender columns span the east façade, shallow arches highlight the first floor piazza, as does the central doorway which is capped with a semi-elliptical transom typical of the period...." -- from the marker on the house by the Preservation Society of Charleston
78 Church Street
This historic home is known as the Dubose Heyward House. It was once a modest two-story structure, but has since been combined with a neighboring home to create one unit -- both of which are post-revolutionary. This smaller home belonged to Dubose Heyward (1885–1940), author of Porgy, one of the first works to portray Southern African-Americans in a positive light. The house was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1971.
It was last listed in 2012. The description:
"Built in 1790, the Dubose Heyward house combines two post-revolutionary houses into a single unit. This impeccably renovated home has been transformed into a true Charleston retreat with private courtyard, salt water pool, and recently detached guest house."
Front of house picture grabbed from Google Maps (sorry!)
In Charleston’s historic district, most houses extend nearly to the sidewalk or street. So, the only visible gardening space people have is window boxes. These boxes of bright flowers have come to play a vital role in the city’s appearance.
Thanks to Southern Living, below is a list of plants that make for great window box options. They divide the plants into three types. Thrillers are big eye-catching plants. Fillers are smaller and used to fill space. Spillers grow over the boxes edges and dangle.
Cool-Weather Window Box Plants
Warm-Weather Window Box Plants
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!