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.
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To learn more about the history of the house and it’s original builder, look ahead to my next post.
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!