Jun 23, 2010, 06:15AM

Houses Built On Ash

Looking for roots in Charleston.

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Bill Ward's Brickpile

Charleston! The Holy City! The Big Muddy! Ol’ The Citadel is Located in This City-y! George Washington admired Charleston’s ladies, and years (and years) later Amanda Seyfried plugged the city’s oyster bars on Jay Leno’s show. In between, several hurricanes, an earthquake and General Sherman all attempted to level the town that Franz Kafka called “the little mother with claws.” I visited South Carolina recently for the Spoleto festival and I have prepared a report for readers who might be planning a summer vacation to a place where the average temperature is right around 100 degrees.

The City
I’ve seldom seen a prettier city than Charleston. Buildings in the historical downtown rarely rise more than a few stories. A cabal of fussy old women, the Board of Architectural Review, ruthlessly enforces codes of exterior elegance, although they permit the most grotesque depravity in the interior. Charleston houses face south and west, better to catch the gentle, oil-scented breezes from the ocean and from the city’s two rivers, the Pecos and Mississippi. Most Charleston houses include “piazzas,” what you and I would call porches, on which one may rock on a “joggling board” while one slowly pours mint juleps onto the exposed bosoms of one’s life partner.

The city has a depressing aquarium that features some rather non-traditional aquarium animals (an eagle, a pair of skunks); next door one finds the jetty from which the Fort Sumter tour boats depart. The small museum in the ferry building presents a surprisingly excellent collection of primary sources on the slavery issue—if you would like to know how dearly Charleston’s leading families cherished their right to own slaves you could certainly start your research here.

Sumter itself sits atop a baking atoll in the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper rivers. The fort’s general aura of somnolent imbecility and the fact that one cannot leave until the ferry departs make the island’s slight points of interest (piles of brick, Yankee mortar shells lodged in the wall) momentarily fascinating. Afterwards one remembers them with bile. Some time in the 20th century the US Army built a black concrete cube atop the remains of the old fort; this is now a museum and gift shop.

The Charleston Museum itself occupies a rambling brick building opposite the city Visitor’s Center. The museum delighted me since it appears unable to shake off its origins as a wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities. It begins with a well-executed and sincere exploration of Charleston’s colonial past (and is one of the few sites of memory in the city that addresses the horror of slavery on the rice plantations), then moves into a rambling series of exhibits that one might call “piles of swords” and “piles of guns.” After the arms and armor of the Civil War the museum renounces its modern mission of coherent education and simply displays cool shit that it has accumulated: a stuffed polar bear, an unhappy-looking preserved leatherback turtle, a dwarfish human mummy, the skeleton of an enormous snake. The museum owns a South Pacific shrunken head but I couldn’t locate it on display.

Charleston’s restaurants favor “low country” cuisine, named whimsically for the “Netherlands,” a fictional European nation supposedly located somewhere in Sweden. I didn’t have a single disappointing meal in Charleston—it rivals Paris for thoroughly excellent food (though prices are high). Service was gracious everywhere. Pearlz, the oyster bar that Amanda Seyfried enjoyed, was especially delightful, as was the nigh-unpronounceable Gaulart & Maliclet, a French fast (or at least fast-ish) food place; try the pâté sandwich, and watch for the wistful, dreadlocked chef, who was wearing an IDF t-shirt when I visited. The Red Drum gastropub outside the city in Mount Pleasant broke this happy streak; there, suburban rudeness and pretention prevailed. Also, web reviews claimed that Red Drum was a prime spot for cougars, but I emerged unseduced and smelling like cheap truffle oil. The cheese platter, also extolled in web reviews, disappointed.

The People
The people of Charleston are very old, rich and white. They show considerable grace and courtesy unless they are tour guides in the city’s many historic houses; then they become unbearable martinets. The tour guide at the Manigault house, across the street from the Charleston museum, defied this trend; she was 88 years old, and she led the tour with wit and steely assurance in her knowledge; unlike the other tour guides she showed an egalitarian humility, and apparently had not mistaken herself for a scion of Charleston’s ancient rulers (as so many of the other tour guides did).

The Manigault house itself was exquisitely beautiful despite its vicissitudes—its grounds had been owned by a gas station whose owners had stored tires in its whimsical plaster garden temple. The house itself had served as a tenement; our guide showed us a room with 18-foot ceilings that conservationists had returned to European-American splendor. A woman with eight children had lived in this room during the house’s pre-museum days. The tour guide pointed out the delicate wooden beadwork that framed the windows and doors. “Not a single bead is missing,” she told us; the woman and her children had behaved. Too bad that Manigault built the place with money earned from slave plantations; and what became of the woman and her eight children?

Unseen hands had defaced many beads at the Aiken-Rhett house, a few blocks away. Another slave-funded mansion, Aiken-Rhett, has been left in a state of Miss Havisham-esque decay, preserved in partial dissolution and superintended by an audio tour of slow pace and deep pomposity. When I visited the house baked like an oven. The remaining furniture and decorations would have struck Gianni Versace as slightly too much. Those who did not wish to follow the audio tour were welcome to do so as long as they did not mind the assaults of the docents, who treated people without headphones with the hysterical bravery and terror of a priest performing an exorcism. The house’s slave quarters still stand, complete with the stains of laundry and cooking on the ground floors. Their tenants apparently hung what few clothes they possessed on pegs in the wall.

Spoleto is a music festival, but not of the “buying White Russians out of a grimy cooler from a guy named Boner,” or “getting tazed by Natalie Portman’s bodyguard,” or “driving a car made out of shellacked rattlesnakes into a pit of MDMA-laced jello” sort. It is, in other words, a classical music festival. Actually it incorporates some contemporary genres and also theater and maybe art, so it’s not really a classical music festival either.

June 6: Conductor Emmanuel Villaume’s last waltz. The orchestra gamely completed Wagner’s bombastic “Siegfried Idyll.” Well, better than gamely, they played exquisitely, and they were very young (although the average age in the auditorium must have been somewhere in the high 70s). As always, Wagner offered the impression of great depth and virtuosity but not a shred of pleasure. Mozart’s perfect, confectionary Symphony No. 35 followed, and was delightful; then came some Beethoven. Villaume had been at the Spoleto festival for 10 years running, and this was his last—he will move on to a job conducting the National Slovak Orchestra in Bratislava. He was a charming conductor, solicitous of the young players, and he got big laughs by brandishing a pocket square when someone in the audience coughed loudly. Two unadvertised encores followed the main program—that extremely beautiful movement from Cavalleria Rusticana and the vigorous, powerful overture from Marriage of Figaro. Villaume looks exactly like Peter Stormare, who shined a tiny ray of light into Constantine with his scenery-chewing performance as Satan.

June 9: Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba. Well, this wasn’t European classical music. Kouyate is a Malian master of the ngoni, which he called the “African banjo.” The crowd gathered in the College of Charleston’s charming cistern yard; it gathered whitely, and middle classy, and middle aged-ly. Kouyate’s wife Amy Sacko provided penetrating, plaintive vocals; Moussa Sissoko and Moussa Bah drove the ensemble with virtuosic drumming. Moussa Bah, who played small drum and a gourd that he tossed and caught repeatedly, whipped the crowd into a frenzy. Kouyate played the crowd well with his charming, African-French accented English. “This is not blues americain! This is blues from sekou!” Kouyate experiments—although the ngoni looks quaint (it’s made from a gourd) he had his plugged in to distortion pedal. The first time he turned on his wah-wah the audience laughed (“what’s this rock and roll doing in AFRICAN music?”); by the next time they got the joke. You can’t do anything in Charleston without being haunted by race.

About halfway through the concert most of the people under 30 began dancing next to the stage. I thought I was going to witness a very polite, dorky version of Altamont. Concert organizers kept pushing the crowd back; the crowd kept pushing into the space in front of the stage; Moussa Bah kept charging forward with his machine-gun drum. Eventually a more important venue director came forward and let the kids dance wherever they wanted. It was touching.

June 10: Chamber Music. Front row seats for the effervescent Jeff Nuttal’s carefully curated chamber music. Nuttal, a violinist, introduced and explained the program and strode the stage holding an iPad with his notes. The performance began with Mozart’s typically sublime, prettily structured Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat Major; the cellist, the immensely talented Allissa Weilerstein, stood out. The gypsy-influenced No. 3 sonata by Enescu followed; the very young Livia Sohn and Inon Barnatan (violinist and pianist) had incredible chemistry and attacked the technical demands of the piece with verve and precision. I still didn’t like it, but that’s because of my banal taste, not their powerful performances.

June 12: Giselle. This was my first ballet, and happily I could follow the plot very closely, and that the entire experience was completely delightful. Giselle is an ancient balletic cousin to Twilight, though the roles reverse. Prince Albrecht, a handsome rich dude, falls for Giselle, a pretty peasant; Giselle’s douchebag boyfriend Hans makes a scene and exposes Albrecht as a prince in drag, which causes Giselle to go crazy and drop dead right at the end of the first act. The second act is all about the undead: Wilis, the spirits of beautiful maidens. The Wilis challenge Hans to a dance-off that proves fatal for him; when Albrecht comes to mope around Giselle’s grave they get him too, but Giselle, who is now one of them, drags the performance out until dawn and thereby saves Albrecht. For a person who loves Lady Gaga so much I sure took a long time to realize that watching sweaty, gaunt women dance intensely is something that I would really like. The corps, the state ballet of Georgia, was uniformly excellent.

Charleston is wonderful to visit but it also takes some rather strange steps to suppress its extremely ugly past. Charleston grew so pretty on the revenues of rice plantations, malarial pits where West African slaves cultivated rice in paddies kept fertile by complex and labor-intensive irrigation systems. Many of the gracious, huge plantation houses still stand (despite Sherman’s best efforts). The families who owned these houses (the Draytons, Middletons, Manigaults, Rutledges, etc.) usually stayed at them only during the salubrious weather of the winter months, though as far as I could tell the slaves didn’t get to take advantage of this option.

Speaking of slaves, the tour guides of these plantations have developed a small variety of circumlocutions for the word “slave,” which would naturally lead visitors to ugly thoughts. I heard “enslaved person,” “enslaved African-American,” and most odiously “servant.” Middleton Place, whose grounds displayed a stunning, slightly wild natural beauty from their moss-draped bowers to their ancient formal gardens, hardly admitted anything about the slaves. All the tourists who visited were white, though I saw a few African-Americans on the grounds, setting up for the Carolina Chocolate Drops concert that would close the Spoleto festival. The pits of the former rice fields had filled with water and looked as pretty as mirrors. In a stone mill-house a series of wistful watercolors described the process of cultivating rice with happy textbook technical detail; a dragonfly buzzed in the center of the old millstone.

During the Civil War the 56th New York infantry razed two of the Middletons’ three houses, something that the tour guide described unselfconsciously as a tragedy caused by “renegades.” It must have been such a disappointment for the “servants.” The remaining building, which began as Middleton’s detached office, is dim and stuffy and very boring. The Middletons seemed always on the verge of great fame; one signed the Declaration of Independence, one was ambassador to Russia. They were all rich. My favorite part of the plantation was a pair of tame goats who took a liking to me. Their pen stood next to the slave graveyard, which held only two tombstones, one for a man who died in his early 20s.

Drayton Hall, down the road from Middleton (and connected to Middleton through some route of marriage) is a large and very fine building. A Drayton scion, Miss Charlotta, occupied it into the 1900s (she died in 1969). She refused to install plumbing or electricity, and the house stands without those amenities. Our tour guide told stories of Mr. Drayton’s favorite slave, Dumplin, who would bring him meals through a convenient servant’s staircase. The house lacks furniture and was very hot.

My mother has ancestors who fought for the Confederacy, and I thought, before visiting Charleston, that I would find the gilt veneer of plantation life more persuasive than any sense of historical tragedy. Slavery was a long time ago, after all, and I wanted to resist any pat political correctness that would lead me to condemn the Southern gentry out of hand. I was a little surprised to find myself wishing that Sherman had finished the job on these slave-owning cretins. It’s hard to appreciate fine mansions built on blood and misery.


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