Wednesday, February 15, 2006

A singular style

I wish I could hear Professor Robert Russell's lecture tomorrow on campus: "The Architecture of Politeness. The Charleston Single House: Form and Meaning."

"Unique" is an overused word, but the Charleston single house is a unique architectural form, found nowhere else. This requires some explanation. The traditional explanations (of which there are two) are superficially convincing, but wrong. This talk proposes a new history of the form, linking it both to the physical development of the city and to Charleston’s reputation as a mannerly city.

This sounds like a fascinating subject, made even more so by Fitz Brundage's excavation of Charleston's history of reinventing itself beginning in the 1930s, when economic times were rough.

In hindsight it may appear inevitable that history would become Charleston's principal attraction. White tourist boosters understandably sought to exploit the city's extensive colonial and antebellum-era architecture. But they still had to decide what aspects of the city's history to emphasize or ignore. White Charlestonians elected to dwell on historical qualities they believed had distinguished the city throughout its history. These attributes, including dilapidated mansions and unpaved streets, old buildings and quaint fashions, were now interpreted as something other than marks of poverty and isolation. They came to represent the serenity and dignity of the "old days." Charlestonians chose to pass over the low country's conspicuous role in fomenting the Civil War and instead dwelled on the city's colonial elegance, old-fashioned hospitality, quaint mannerisms, nostalgic atmosphere, and purported racial harmony. Over time, white Charlestonians renovated and restored the built environment of the city and adapted their habits so as to present an unusually pervasive and alluring historical experience that attracted hundreds of thousands of tourists each year.

It would be interesting to see if Russell's history of the "mannerly city" deals with any of that.

A couple of years ago my mother and I visited Jack Bass in his Charleston single house. We also enjoyed a Gullah tour of the city, which led us to Denmark Vesey's house (looks like a version of a single house); the site of the "Whipping House"; and other unmannerly landmarks.

UPDATE: Catherine Bishir refers me to a new UNC Press book about Charleston that sounds very relevant here.

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