SC structure drew inspiration from Washington Irving

One of South Carolina’s more celebrated architectural gems began as an antebellum bank.

The Farmers’ and Exchange Bank Building, on Charleston’s East Bay Street, has been garnering the attention of locals and visitors alike since its construction in 1854.

Its Moorish design made it a novelty then and now, and it caught the eye of famed writer William Gilmore Simms, who penned an article for Harper’s Magazine in June 1857.

“It is a novelty in the architecture of Charleston, if not of the day, being Moorish in all of its details, yet without reminding you of the Alhambra or the Vermillion towers,” wrote Simms (1806-1870), regarded as a force in antebellum Southern literature. “It is of brownstone of two tints, laid alternately – an arrangement which adds considerably to the effect. The interior is finished with arabesque work from floor to ceiling, and is lighted with subdued rays from the summit. This gives a rich and harmonious effect to the whole. It is of recent erection, Jones and Lee the architects. The corporation itself is a new one, and prosperous, like all the temples reared to the god of the Mines, the Counter, and the Mint, in this virtuous city.”

The building, built to house the Farmers’ and Exchange Bank, was designed by Charlestonians Edward C. Jones and Francis D. Lee in 1853 and completed the following year.

Jones was an especially notable architect whose other works included the Church of the Holy Cross in Stateburg and Charleston’s famed Magnolia Cemetery.

The Farmers’ and Exchange Bank building has rounded horseshoe arches and a façade featuring pale Jersey and darker Connecticut brownstone, giving it a striped effect typical of many Moorish structures.

Its design is thought to have been influenced by illustrations in Washington Irving’s 19th century work, Tales of the Alhambra, a revised edition of which was published two years before construction.

The structure was built by David Lopez, who also constructed Charleston’s Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim synagogue and Institute Hall, where the South Carolina Ordinance of Secession was signed in December 1860.

The Farmers’ and Exchange Bank continued in Charleston until Federal bombardment of the city during the War Between the States forced the bank’s move to Columbia. It didn’t survive the conflict.

Later, the structure was used for a variety of purposes, including a Western Union telegraph office, office space for long-time Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings and, most recently, a restaurant.

By 1970 there was talk of tearing the building down to make room for parking; however Charleston banker Hugh Lane Sr. spent $50,000 to preserve the structure in the early 1970s.

(Top: Farmers’ and Exchange Bank Building, Charleston, SC.)

Old country home slowly fading into history

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In my neck of the woods, the above is what we call a “fixer-upper.”

Safe to say it will require just a bit of reconstruction, perhaps beginning with new walls, new roof, new windows, and a rebuilt chimney. However, the granite block foundation remains as solid as when the home was build more than a century ago.

This could have once been the home of a sharecropper or tenant farmer, or it may have been owned by the individual who farmed the land around it. Whatever the case, the structure looks to have been vacant for at least a quarter century.

Located in rural Saluda County, SC, it will almost certainly continue to deteriorate. It would be far less expensive to simply replace this structure with a new, modern home rather than attempt to make the wholesale repairs needed to get within earshot of bringing it up to code.

These decaying edifices can be spotted throughout the rural South. Some are used for storage, others, in somewhat better condition, are still habitations, even though they lack many of the amenities common in cities and suburbs.

Many are on the slow path to oblivion. As they deteriorate, wood, tin and stone are often scavenged for use elsewhere. Eventually, little or nothing remains and vegetation eventually covers over any reminder of the homestead.

These old houses are sometimes romanticized by individuals passing by on drives through the country, but to those who grew up in such shacks, particularly if conditions were like those experienced by many poor sharecropper families, the memories are often less than rosy.

Rock House: an anti-plantation SC colonial home

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When the Rock House was built in 1758 in Newberry County, SC, it sat along the main road that stretched between Charleston and the South Carolina Upstate. Today, it’s nearly a mile from any road, not because the structure has been moved but because roads have shifted.

The Rock House is as simple as its name. A two-over-two rectangular structure, it was built during the French and Indian War with two rooms downstairs and two upstairs.

Today, it’s the oldest structure in the county, even if its age is showing. Parts of the building’s walls are have fallen away, several dozen bricks from one of its two chimneys lay scattered about its interior, the east side of the edifice is covered in vegetation and its insides are filled with hay and flecked with numerous wasps’ nests.

Yet, the dilapidated state also offers the opportunity to glimpse the guts of the dwelling by exposing a side view of the walls, a mixture of fieldstones and mortar a foot thick.

Surrounded by acres and acres of golden wheat swaying gently with the afternoon breeze, the aged structure retains a special mystique, even if it’s been vacant for decades.

Old Stone House Newberry 6 3 2016 037Tradition holds that the house was built as protection against Indians.

During the French and Indian War, many tribes found themselves caught between English colonies along the Eastern US seaboard and French territory that ran from the Gulf of Mexico up into what would become Canada. In the Carolinas, the Cherokee, desperate to retain their traditional lands and fend off encroaching whites, attacked settlers in what was known as the Anglo-Cherokee War (1758-1761).

Settlers all along the Carolina frontier were on guard during the conflict.

A historical marker set on the road a good distance from the structure does little to enlighten visitors as the house’s history.

It says, simply, “On December 7, 1756, the Council of the Colony recorded a petition of Jacob Hoffman for 200 acres of bounty land. He was granted this acreage on Palmetto Branch in 1758. The building on this tract, which has long been known as ‘The Rock House,’ exhibits details of construction which support the local tradition that it was built before the American Revolution.”

Not exactly a glut of information.

The Rock House was built with small windows, along with attic end windows with small holes. The attic windows were built as a position to place guns, according to George Leland Summers’ 1950 work Newberry County, South Carolina: Historical and Genealogical Annals.

The two-over-two style structure was common for frontier homes built during the Colonial and Antebellum eras.

While the home may have been built with safety in mind first and foremost, it wasn’t without amenities. The floors were constructed with thick heart pine wood and its window frames were carved. The dwelling’s joists, roughly three by six inches, were hewn with a broadax, and wooden pegs are evident throughout the house, according to Newberry County, South Carolina: Historical and Genealogical Annals.

It’s difficult to say how much longer the Rock House will last. As long as it’s not hit by the tail end of a hurricane or a tornado, or vegetation isn’t allowed to grow into the walls and break apart mortar and stones, it could easily survive for at least another half century.

Should the roof blow off, vandals take key pieces of stone or something unexpected happen, however, the Rock House could crumble relatively quickly.

No matter what its future, it’s easily outlived the expectations of the individual or individuals who built it nearly 260 years ago.

(Below: View of interior showing damaged chimney and collapsed bricks.)

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Bidding adieu to a century of history; holding on to memories

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Sometime this summer the University of Maine will demolish the Sigma Nu fraternity house, a structure that has been a part of its campus for nearly a century. The fraternity chapter’s 99-year lease expires next year and the house is in need of serious repairs.

The university, in its ever-generous magnanimity, had offered to extend the lease by “seven or eight” years if the house were renovated or up to 15 years if it received a significant overhaul to bring it up to date. Costs for such renovation have been estimated at $1 million.

The fraternity, which owns the house but not the land on which the structure sits, will instead give the building, built during World War I, to the university, which will then raze it in order to create a parking lot.

I spent three years living in what we referred to as the “Great White Castle of Sigma Nu overlooking the placid Stillwater River in beautiful Orono, Maine.” (The structure was white and great, and the river placid, but I’m not sure how beautiful Orono, Maine, was – then or now.)

The chapter has been on the ropes of late: It was suspended for five years in 2012 for alcohol violations, and the house has been leased to another fraternity for the past couple of years.

And while there’s no question that the house is in need of renovation, it also offers the university a convenient excuse to do away with another vestige of the Greek system.

University officials around the nation and not a few in the mainstream media have had fraternities in their sights for some time, accusing them of elitism, classism and sexism, among other “isms.”

While there is no question that some fraternity chapters have committed serious improprieties over the years, lumping all fraternity members into the category of alcohol-abusing date-raping Neanderthals is simplistic and grossly inaccurate.

Image of Sigma Nu fraternity house, likely taken in 1940s.

Image of Sigma Nu fraternity house at University of Maine, likely taken in 1940s.

As a pledge, the worst hazing I was subject to was being “forced” to drink beer – lots of beer. (Yeah, it was hell.) There was no paddling, no humiliation and no weirdness.

My time at Sigma Nu was spent with a pretty good group of guys. Unlike the stereotype, none were rich – in fact, as far as I know, all were middle class, ranging from a small number of upper middle class to a small number of lower middle class. Most were somewhere in the middle.

Some were more into school than others, but most of us graduated. Some went on to become doctors and lawyers, others firemen and salesmen. In other words, pretty much like students from any college dorm.

And I don’t recall the police arresting anyone for a felony (not that there weren’t some very stupid misdemeanors committed).

A handful of things I recall about the house:

  • The third-story floor had thousands of tiny marks from fraternity members, in training for service in World War I, trying on their hobnail boots;
  • The time an aging fraternity member stopped by to visit and told of a fellow brother who, during World War II, while flying a B-17 bomber on a training mission from the air base at nearby Bangor, put his plane into a full screaming plunge at the house before pulling up at the last moment, than waggling the plane’s wings before heading back to the base;
  • The rats that lived in the basement. They had moved into the house through pipes in the mid-1950s when a neighboring fraternity house burned;
  • The awful paint schemes that existed throughout the house. It costs a lot of money to paint the interior of a 13,000-square-foot structure, so we were always looking for a bargain on paint, and stores don’t put their top-selling brands or colors on special. We must have got one heck of a deal on lemon yellow; and
  • The aging piano that sat in the living room. It was at least 40 years old in the late 1980s, and probably had had a thousand gallons of beer spilled on it over the decades, but it still worked. There was always someone with enough musical ability to play an intro to a rock song on it. One of my pledge brothers, for example, could knock out the start to “Home Sweet Home,” by Motley Crue.

Of course I’m disappointed that the university will knock down a structure that’s been around for two-thirds of the history of the 151-year-old school. But I also realize that given the environment we live in today, the days of fraternities in general are likely numbered.

It’s been at least 15 years since I’ve seen my old fraternity house and nearly as long since I’ve seen any of my fraternity brothers. When you live 1,200 miles from your alma mater – and the general area where most of your college buddies still reside – it’s tough to drop in for a visit.

But “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” will always be connected by our experiences in the grand old house of Sigma Nu, whether it’s standing or exists only in our memories.

Picturesque church a reminder of town’s glory days

First Presbyterian

Say one thing for old-time Presbyterians: They knew how to build a church.

Consider First Presbyterian Church in Laurens, SC. Built in Victorian Gothic Revival style, it has all the beauty and elegance of any storied European house of worship despite being located in a town with barely 9,000 residents.

Constructed of red brick, it possesses a cross-gabled slate roof, and a two-story mansard-roofed tower. It employs board-and-batten dormers with round windows and an octagonal broach spire. Its decorative brickwork is indicative of beautiful masonry found on many buildings constructed in the US up through the 1940s.

Features of First Presbyterian’s brickwork includes corbelled arcades, blind-raked arcades, soldier courses set with diagonally placed bricks, brick buttresses, and brick chimneys with recessed panels and corbelled bands and caps, according to information about the church detailed by the National Register of Historic Places.

Door to First Presbyterian Church, Laurens, SC.

Door to First Presbyterian Church, Laurens, SC.

The congregation was organized in the early 1830s, and by the 1840s it was more than 100 members. The church continued to grow prior to the Civil War, with its first standalone structure, on Church Street in Laurens, being built in 1850. By 1860, First Presbyterian’s membership rolls had swelled to 176, including 46 slaves.

First Presbyterian, like most houses of worship in the South, struggled during the war, as not only were a number of its congregants killed during the conflict, but contributions fell off as members sought to keep their own heads above water financially. In 1863, its minster was sent off to serve as chaplain in the Confederate army.

Following the 1861-65 conflict, First Presbyterian slowly recovered, as the region embraced manufacturing and textiles, and also served as a transportation hub, with several railroads serving the town.

Toward the end of the 19th century things were going well enough in both the churchB.F. Mauldin story 177 and the community that it was decided expansion was in order.

First Presbyterian acquired a lot on Laurens’ Main Street for $800 and began construction in 1891. The first service inside the completed structure was held two years later, in April 1893.

During the past three decades, Laurens, like many Southern towns, has fallen on difficult times as textiles and manufacturing plants have closed or relocated. Nearly 500 fewer people lived in Laurens in 2010 than did so 50 years earlier, a trend evident in small towns across the Southeast.

However, even with the problems inherent in struggling town, the Presbyterians of Laurens, SC, have a house of worship they can rightly take pride in.

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Keeping a lonely vigil over antebellum church, area history

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Well back in the Allendale County countryside sits Smyrna Baptist Church. The antebellum church hasn’t held services since 1958 and today has but a single member on its rolls. Yet, there was a time when Smyrna Baptist, like so many rural Southern churches, was a vibrant, thriving house of worship.

Today, Hugh Gray, a cotton farmer and former Allendale County councilman, takes it upon himself to keep watch over the church. He grew up attending Smyrna Baptist, his family is buried in its graveyard and he’s purposely kept his name on the church rolls, making him the lone member, even though he attends Beech Branch Baptist Church, near Luray, S.C., about 15 miles away.

Gray helps keep up the grounds and watches out for troublemakers. A couple of residents closer to the church call him whenever a vehicle stops at the church.

Gray said individuals have broken into the venerable structure, stolen pews and otherwise caused trouble.

“More often than not when I get a call that someone’s down here at the church, they’re up to no good,” he said.

Constructed somewhere between 1827 and 1848 (dates vary according to sources), Smyrna Baptist was organized in 1827 and originally known as Kirkland Church, after its first minister. By the early 1830s, the church was big enough that it could afford to try three members for heresy regarding communion.

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In the end, the trio, a husband, wife and the wife’s sister-in-law, were excommunicated and would go on to form a nearby church, Antioch Christian Church, which operated from 1835 until 1939.

Smyrna Baptist is described a meeting house-style structure, featuring a front with a central Palladian window “flanked by balancing nine-paneled entrance doors with transoms.”

The windows have louvered shutters with eyebrow-type windows located above each window. The structure’s original roof was covered with metal in the 1970s. Smyrna Baptist was placed on the National Register of Historic Properties in 1976.

Among those buried in its graveyard are Dr. Benjamin Lawton (1822-1879), a local physician and planter who signed the South Carolina Ordinance of Secession and served as a captain in the 3rd South Carolina Cavalry Regiment; and Lt. Col. Benjamin B. Kirkland (1838-1885), who served in the 1st South Carolina Infantry Regiment and was wounded at Second Manassas.

There’s also a memorial to William Baker Rice Jr., an Allendale County native who volunteered for the Royal Air Force during World War II and was killed in action on April 28, 1942, over what was then Bengal, India, and is buried in Chittagong War Cemetery, in Chittagong, Bangladesh.

The decline of Smyrna Baptist and hundreds of other rural churches across the region reflect the migration that’s taken place during the past century as significant numbers of Southerners have packed up from rustic locations and made their way to larger towns and cities, be they medium-sized polities such as Columbia, SC, Knoxville, Tenn., or Richmond, Va., or large metropolises such as Atlanta, Charlotte and Jacksonville.

Smyrna Baptist and churches like it reflect an era that’s long passed. Hugh Gray is doing what he can to keep his small church from falling victim to the ravages of time and vandals, but one has to wonder who will take over once he inevitably joins his family in the church’s graveyard at some unknown point in the future.

And who is looking after all the many small churches that don’t have someone like Hugh Gray to watch over them?

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Basilica of St. Lawrence: beauty amid Blue Ridge Mountains

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Asheville, NC, is renown for its eclecticism, so it’s hardly surprising that amid the community designated as one of the “Top 25 Small Cities for Art” sits the striking Basilica of Saint Lawrence, a Spanish Renaissance-style Roman Catholic church that stands out in a region noted for architectural beauty.

Formally named the Minor Basilica of St. Lawrence the Deacon & Martyr, the church was designed and built in 1905 by Spanish architect Rafael Guastavino.

The building is remarkable in that, despite its size, it was constructed with no wood or steel; all walls, floors, ceiling and pillars are of tile, granite, stone or brick. The roof is of tile with a copper covering.

This, even though the basilica’s dome has a span of 58 feet by 82 feet and is said to be the largest freestanding elliptical dome in North America.

Guastavino (1842-1908) came to Asheville to work on the famed Biltmore House in the mid-1890s and opted to remain in the region even after his work on the impressive structure was completed.

He had immigrated to the US from Barcelona in 1881. Prior to his arrival in the US, Guastavino had been successful in his home country, designing large factories and homes for Catalan industrialists.

Guastavino is credited with reviving an ancient tile-and-mortar building system that had once been used extensively in Spain. It involved using layers of thin tile bedded in layers of mortar, creating curved horizontal surfaces, according to Basilica of Saint Lawrence literature.

In the basilica every horizontal surface is made using this title-and-mortar technique.

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