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Architects of Charleston.

The Carolina Art Association first published this volume in 1945 both to exhibit the preservation of the Charleston's historical district and to provide a guidebook. The public liv'cs and work of individual architects and builders make up the chapters, with the narrative proceeding chronologically from thc early colonial period to the Civil War. By means of the lens of biography and assisted by more than one hundred crisp photographs the contemporary reader can take a walking tour through both the public and private structures in the historical district. As with museum guides of this type, the reader is given sketchy historical notes before the text turns to details about design, style, onament, craft skills, materials for construction, and selected public responses. The structures in the district are familiar to the general public. Ravenel does include photographs and descriptions of buildings no longer existing, as well as documenting alterations to the extant structures. With the significant number of books on Charleston architecture that, have appeared since Ravenel first published Architects - most recently Kenneth Severens, Charleston: Antebellum Architecturee and Civic Destiny (1988) - it seems appropriate to move beyond descriptions of the content to matters of historical interpretation.

First, does this classic volume deserve further consideration by professional historians beyond its classic status in a museum bookstore? A quick resporise says no; a more reflective one, yes. Since 1945 historians have paid significant attention to the city of Charleston, its specialized economy based on staple crops, the politics of nullification and secession, its high and low social-class structure, its extravagant lifestyle for the elite, its failure to develop a commercial sector, the rather poor quality of its educational and scientific institutions - the decline of the city, "shadow of a dream" as Peter Coclainis has recently called the grim condition of the region. In less than a century Charleston went from being among the wealthiest towns in the world to among the poorest. Decline had set in long before the Civil War. Daughter of the impoverished poverished gentry Ravenel certainly was aware of these realities of political economy. Local historian, antiquarian, and active promoter of the restoration project, she directed her efforts towards restoring an idealized ghetto of past civilized life within the deteriorating modern city.

Ravenel's maternal grandfather was a German immigrant by the name of Witte who had come to Charleston after the Civil War and prospered in the importing business. But bourgeois merchant success did not earn the Witte family acceptance in Charleston's exclusiye society which was remaking itself in ever more narrow ways after the War. Rather than attend a Southern girl's finishing school, Beatrice's intellectually rebellious mother went to Radcliffe for three years to study, socialized within William James's circle, then returned to Charleston to marry into the elite Ravenel family, whose scion then proceeded to fail in business. Like many elite Southern women sustaining lives of shabby gentility on neglected estates, Beatrice's mother began writing for the income and achieved recognition as a local poet during the Southern literary, renaissance of the 1920s. Beatrice St. Julien Ravenel's life passion and work in the historical-district project became restoring a cultural legacy: the names, life stories, and work of the learned and professional architects from Charleston's past days of ascendance, glory, and prosperity. Jefferson had written Madison that public buildings were to be models to improve the taste of his countrymen by study and imitation Ravenel extended the eighteenth-century sentiment to the architects themselves.

Who made this town? This question framed Ravenel's investigations into the legacy of the architects. Her Charleston was eclectic, built over time. from the earliest craftsmen who constructed fortifications against Indian attacks, to St. Michael's Church, built as a collaborative effort, to the Old Exchange erected at the end of the eighteenth century by two tradesmen. Within the Exchange were the federal post office and a public ballroom, both flanked on the outside of the building by the slave auction. Slavery was commonplace to Ravenel, a form of personal property in the unquestioned world of wealth and things. Ravenel's historical Charleston was a walking town, leisured and languid, casual in its display of architectural refinement and ornamental beauty, public even in the personal homes featured: the Miles Brewton House, the Joseph Manigault House, the Nathaniel Russel House.

Recently historians of architecture have moved beyond parochial interests both in the technical details of the craft and the progress of the profession to reach for an interdisciplinary reading of the Cultural values, symbolic messages, and ideology embedded in the world of things. Severens, for example, reconstructed the semiotic of "civic destiny" expressed by the architecture of public buildings of Charleston, a city which imagined itself to be "emporium of the South." A civic renaissance of building flourished in the 1820s in a Jeffersonian classical revival by architects Manigault, Wesner, and Mills. The 1830s saw a turn toward commercialism in which the city overreached itself, for instance in the grand hotel which should have been built in New York and went bankrupt in 1941. The Arsenal built in the 1820s functioned to host important political gatherings and victory balls as South Carolina led the way towards secession, and then it was made into the wellknown military school, The Citadel. Public government in Charleston extended its controlling hand to all activities from state functions to charitable and educational organizations to commercial developments. Only in the 1850s, Severens argues, with the rise of private consumption, diverse styles, and Victorian hedonism, did the visual appearance of public order and harmony begin failing.

Returning to Ravenel's biographic approach after all these years makes one aware that, contrary to Severens' recent argument, Charleston's civic destiny or public society did not fail. From the outset it was a facade, never existing beyond the intensely personal politics and exclusive social connections of the upper class. The public sphere in Charleston - including charitable and educational institutions, commercial enterprise, as well as government jobs - was partisan, owned exclusively by the gentry. Political connections, a proper marriage, benevolent deportment, and the aggressive defense of wealth invested in slaves took precedence over any professional standing or standards for the public. The educational and scientific institutions in Charleston were inferior, not competitive with those of the North. The transportation system was designed for commercial failure. Luxury hotels were overbuilt with few calculations about paying clientele. The public safety was constantly threatened - accidents, epidemics, fires - by political intervention, a lack of codes and regulations.

Civic destiny for Ravenel was synonymous with social rank, the theme which dominated her research and the message she conveyed in the title Architects of Charleston. The tension Ravenel felt was not between private capitalists and public responsibility as in the North, but that between the culturally qualified few and the upstart plebeians. The latter were basically, anonymous men on the make who dared to call themselves "architects" in public notices. Draftsmen, carpenters, masons and assorted craftsmen did most of the work, built and remodeled many if not most of the buildings, including those among the best. Yet they did not live the elevated and visible lives Ravenel proposed for her countrymen; often they were difficult to identify by more than a name and superficial detail, and uncouth behavior was not unusual in their fragmented careers. By focusing on biography Ravenel intended to restore the legacy of the learned profession together with the historical district, the legacy of those who could legitimately call themselves "architects" and civic leaders by their stylistic innovations and imaginative designs. With notable exceptions these individuals were privileged by birth, college graduates who studied the science of architecture or engineering and practiced the disciplines as an honorable profession deserving the patronage and respect of public commissions. Ravenel's vignettes drew heavily on the conventional phrases of gentry eulogies: genial spirit, kind heart, cultivated mind, unusual intellect, fine physical appearance, hospitality, good marriage and lineage. Her sincerity, her unquestioned assumptions about cultural status and public politics, her personal sympathy for the gentry in antebellum Charleston make her book a useful source for more than the vacationing tourist strolling through the historical museum. As an unintended consequence Architects of Charleston told stories about a learned profession and its demise in an atmosphere of isolation, arrogance, and mismanagement in the most important city in the antebellum South.
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Author:Bledstein, Burton J.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1992
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