Monday, January 7, 2008

The “season” for Charleston

"Guard" dogs in front of two elegant Charleston townhouses.
By Edmund F. “Ned” Brown, IV 

Winters since the early 1700s have always been the “season” for Charleston. Plantation owners, after harvesting their fall crops and before the spring planting, would move to their elegant townhouses in Charleston. The port of Charleston, the major trading center of the South for nearly two centuries, was home to many ship owners and traders.

The houses of the city’s founders have been meticulously restored by some of today’s modern day financial Medicis. Richard “Dick” Jenrette was one of the first when he restored the William Roper house overlooking the Battery and the Cooper River. Jenrette, a founder of Donaldson, Lufkin, Jenrette, has restored and owns homes in Greenwich Village, the Hudson Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He often makes his Charleston home available to visiting dignitaries; past guests have included Prince Charles.

Richard Rainwater and his wife, banker Darla Moore, spend part of the year at their pink Queen Anne Victorian home on Ladson Street. The billionaire Rainwater first engineered the Bass family fortune and along the way put at least $10 million in the bank for President George W. Bush when they owned the Texas Rangers baseball team. Rainwater also owns the Canyon Ranch hotels and spas.

Also in Charleston is John Thornton, former co-COO of Goldman Sachs, whose wife, Margaret Brabham, grew up in Charleston. The Thorntons bought the Simmons-Edwards House (also known as the Pineapple House), which is one of Charleston’s grand homes on Lagare (pronounced La-gree) Street.
The holiday season in Charleston is the decorative icing on the cake for arguably one of the prettiest communities in the U.S. Taking a walk around town with my trusty Westie companions, Oliver and Olivia, we were able to capture a sample of the interesting holiday decorations for NYSD’s readers. Here we were the day before New Years Eve and the temperature was in the low seventies.

Many of Charleston’s homes have first and second porches that stretch the length of the houses that locals call piazzas (pronounce pee-ah-zas), and they are in effect the outside living rooms. Pine garlands with bows often decorate the railings during the holiday season. Complementing wreaths adorning the doors and windows often are made of elements suitable to Charleston’s mild climate: dried magnolia leaves, lemons and whole artichokes.

Juxtaposing the holiday decorations as we walked Charleston’s cobblestones streets was the citrus-y sweet jasmine scent of tea olive trees that fill the air. Private gardens, where one can catch glimpses of some of the formal Charleston parterre designs, are filled with pink and white camellias in bloom along with roses.

In my frequent visits to Charleston, it is apparent that the secrets of the city’s charms are out. I recently met a former executive producer of the CBS Evening News who moved here with his wife, a top insurance company executive from New York. Charlotte Beers, the former Chairman and CEO of Ogilvy & Mather, recently bought here.  One night this past week, I met a Georgetown couple who spend long winter weekends here at their house. And a number of my Euro friends have recently bought houses.

For those of you contemplating a Charleston visit and want to feel like a local, first, try to stay at the John Rutledge House. Kathleen Leslie is the Innkeeper. There are many fine hotels in Charleston, but the Rutledge House is uniquely elegant with a superb staff. You will feel that you are staying at your own private pied-a-terre.
Second, visiting Charleston means taking a tour of the historic district. The tourists take the horse-drawn carriage rides or the walking tours. Years ago, I met Mrs. Van Noy “Jane” Thornhill, also known as the matriarch of Legare Street. Jane has been doing private tours since 1954. She and her husband live in a beautifully restored carriage house on Legare behind the stately home owned by Noy’s parents. Jane grew up at 49 Battery, overlooking the Cooper River, and her family has been in Charleston since the 1700’s. If you want a peek at the private gardens, Jane is your ticket. You can also prompt her to tell you the local gossip that goes with each of the historic homes. Jane can be reached at 843-723-4402.

For the past several years, I’ve made Charleston my winter retreat from New York and Washington, DC. Its high level of shops (Saks, Gucci, Lilly, et al), terrific restaurants, great fine antique shops coupled with the historic architecture make this a world class city. Put Charleston on your list for a winter or spring getaway.