Thursday, July 29, 2010

places: around Charleston, SC

Allen's family has a great, ramshackle house on Isle of Palms, South Carolina, about 15 minutes from Charleston. IOP is a tiny, charming island, but I equally love the towns and islands just around it. We were there last week to see family, and I took little trips into historic Mount Pleasant and to Sullivan's Island; both are linked to Isle of Palms by bridges.

Mount Pleasant, incorporated in 1817 as Moultrieville, has a rich history that includes a residency by Edgar Allen Poe. One of the most charming bits of the island is I'on Avenue, where the officers of Fort Moultrie lived in fantastic houses.

American builders and designers have long offered standard house plans with customizable facades. In the late 19th Century, companies like Palliser, Palliser, and Co. published floor plans for which home buyers could choose between a number of corresponding Victorian elevations. Modern developers use the same strategy - in suburban developments, the Smiths can keep up with the Joneses by choosing brick veneer and an extra gable or two for the same floor plan.

The Moultrie officers' housing is interesting because they were all built as the exact same house, down to the clapboard siding. However, in the hundred years since the houses' construction, each has become incrementally distinct from the next. A sleeping porch gets enclosed, an open porch becomes a sun room; one neighbor erects a wrought-iron fence and a tire swing, while the next puts in a brick walkway and paints his house blue. Today, the houses are each beautifully, truly unique - and in a way that's not a bit contrived.

Mount Pleasant, directly northwest of Sullivan's Island, is largely characterized by the sprawling strip malls that line the way from Charleston to the beach. However, the town has a beautiful historic core that's nicely intact, thanks in large part to its distance from Highway 17. The Old Village hides away at the very end of the peninsula, concealed by live oaks from the discount stores.

This intersection of Pitt Street and Venning Street is now populated by the Post House restaurant, a small bakery, a boutique and event-planning outfit, and a few other small businesses.

Eating at the Post House one night, I remarked to Allen on the elegance of a building's limestone facade across the street. After dinner, we trotted over, and, to my delight, I realized it wasn't limestone, but CMU - cinder blocks. They got the proportions just right, and utilized some crucial details - a delicately-scaled brick cornice, cast-concrete window sills and lintels, and a brick rowlock beneath the sills - to keep the elevation from feeling stark.

The tiny commercial core is hemmed in on all sides by the most beautifully conceived single-family neighborhood - wood-frame houses with short setbacks from the street, five-foot sidewalks edged by grass and plantings, and a mature canopy of live oaks over narrow streets.

We finished up our jaunt, sweaty but gleeful, with key lime pie at the Village Bakery, also on Pitt Street. I can't wait to return, when the mosquitoes have gone.


  1. elizabeth - my family has a house on sullivan's, and that yellow house is my favorite one on i'on! did you go down poe ave? the backs of the houses are even more intriguing than the fronts!

    p.s. anne showed me your blog a while back and i read it regularly, it's great!

    - elizabeth ward

  2. Makes me want to go to South Carolina! I was just in New Orleans and it made me seriously miss Southern architecture...