Despite my affection for a Carolina beach in the summer, I am not a hot weather girl when I’m in the midwest.
I sweat (even my eyeballs) and get beet red. And that’s just working in the garden on a typical summer day. I’m an upper-seventies to lower-eighties girl, so the recent string of temperatures in the high nineties (which feels like some heinous number over 100 when the local meteorologists start adding in humidity, corn sweat and other variables) has been a challenge. In Chicago we’ve had a brief respite Monday, but the heat is back today.
Okay. I need to stop whining. It’s July, it’s supposed to be hot. So, what have I been up to in this heat?
First, I played with the hose. We have not had much rain, and although the garden beds seem to be doing okay (a bumper crop of daylilies and now the hostas are beginning to bloom), keeping the pots going has been a little harder. Although I normally am a planner when filling garden pots, carefully assembling color, height, etc., this summer I did a few pots with leftovers — some snapdragons I didn’t have room for, an extra geranium, leftover alyssum. And guess what? These may be the happiest summer pots yet!
Then, I saw a great movie. (I’m old enough to recall that going to the movies was one of the best bets for air conditioning. The advertisements teased, “It’s cool inside.” ) “RBG” is a documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She is a truly remarkable woman who has quietly, determinedly, changed the legal landscape for women and men. The movie deftly covers her childhood, education and legal career as well as her time on the Supreme Court. (When she was appointed to the Court by President Clinton, the Senate approved by a vote of 97 to 3. Those were the days.) Friends, family and colleagues offer interesting comment. The movie seamlessly captures her and the challenges of equality.
Finally, I’m keeping company with a couple of great reads. I just finished The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s follow-up to This Side of Paradise and Tender Is the Night. I read this for a book group and we chose it because it’s short but also a classic. Like most of us, I read it decades ago in an American Lit Survey class, when I was churning thru books and pumping out papers and never getting to savor the language and the characters. This is not a “happy read” and the characters are not especially likable, but the writing is so clean and precise. You can tell Fitzgerald wrote, then rewrote, then rewrote again. That kind of precision, striving for perfection in each sentence, is missing in many current works.
Gatsby was not a huge financial success until it was reprinted after Fitzgerald’s death. What I read, however, is the “fifty-seventh anniversary celebration of the tenth printing of the fourteenth Scribner edition.”
But, if Gatsby seems a little heavy for this season, I also picked up another Sue Grafton mystery from the library. I haven’t read “E” Is for Evidence but I think it will be the perfect porch read for a lazy afternoon. My daughter passed along Windy City Blues by Renee Rosen. We have both read What the Lady Wants, Dollface, and White Collar Girl, all set in different eras in Chicago. Their Chicago settings make them great fun for us. Last but not least, I’m working on Ron Chernow’s Hamilton. I had to after seeing the play. Alexander Hamilton is such a fascinating character. Does anyone else do this, read more than one book at a time? This is not my habit, but sometimes it works out this way!
Finally, wishing you a fabulous Fourth with plenty of flags and fireworks, parades and patriots. This is such a happy, uniquely American holiday. Enjoy every minute!
Once in a while, if you are really lucky and paying attention, personal history meshes with the broader picture.
Our family recently spent our annual “beach week” at Kiawah Island, South Carolina. At the end of the week, when everyone else had left, Steve and I decided to linger a few more days in Charleston.
Charleston is great for history geeks like us. Although we have made annual trips there for decades, there’s always more to see. (Last year we went back to Fort Sumter, here.) This time around we decided to drive to Boone Hall Plantation, home of this legendary Avenue of the Oaks (Trust me, it’s this stunning, although the plantation was a bit of a let-down). Getting there took us past Fort Moultrie, on Sullivan’s Island, where we stopped to explore a family footnote to history.
A bit of background
Constructed to protect Charleston Harbor, Fort Moultrie was still unfinished when it was attacked by British forces in 1776. After a nine-hour battle Revolutionary forces led by William Moultrie turned back the British and Charleston was spared. The fort was seriously neglected in subsequent years, but when England and France went to war in 1793, the U.S. determined to tighten waterfront security and a second Fort Moultrie was one of 20 new fortifications. The second Fort Moultrie was destroyed by a hurricane in 1804. Congress next ordered a third Fort Moultrie, this time built of brick, completed in 1809. In 1860, Charleston Harbor was protected by Fort Moultrie, Fort Sumter, Battery Johnson and Castle Pinckney. In December the Federal Garrison abandoned Fort Moultrie for the newer Fort Sumter. A few months later, Confederate troops shelled and captured Sumter. The rest is Civil War history.
In 1936 Fort Moultrie was the first place my father-in-law, a newly-minted ROTC officer from the University of Georgia, was stationed. (By then the fort had been equipped with more modern weapons in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, then largely disarmed after WWI. It continued, however, to play a key role in coastal security.)
We shared this bit of personal history with the Park Rangers there, and they enthusiastically pulled out some photos of the facility in that era and directed us to the few remaining buildings, some still bearing their Army signage but now converted to high-end condos. My father-in-law would be so amused. In his day it was just a hot, humid post. I think of him walking the streets of what must have been a tiny town in a swampy backwater. Lou was from New York City. Even after those years at the university in Athens, Georgia, Sullivan’s Island must have seemed the ends of the earth.
It’s amazing to think that one army installation was repeatedly called into service for more than 175 years. At some point it changed from an Army fort to an Army/Navy reservation and encompassed most of Sullivan’s Island. Fort Moultrie was decommissioned in 1947 and turned over to the National Park Service in 1960.
We’ve spent so much time in South Carolina without really exploring this exact area. Our visit on this occasion as somewhere between accidental and spontaneous, but I’m so glad we got to look at this piece of the past.
At first I thought of this is as one of those posts that goes all over, because I had a handful of ideas to share. However, as I was writing I realized they tied together somewhat logically. Read on and you can decide for yourself.
Thanks to all of you who followed my Instagram project, #alphabet2018. (I wrote about it here.) I made it through the alphabet without skipping a day! My posts went from A is for artwork thru Z for zinnia with twenty-four posts in between.
This was fun to envision and fun to finish, and it forced me to think more creatively about my time on Instagram, rather than just scrolling thru (something I do a lot). I think I’ll be approaching at least some of my IG posts more purposefully in the future. And, who knows, perhaps I’ll come up with another challenge.
Speaking of Instagram, a number of followers there liked my IG image of Personal History by Katherine Graham and A Good Life by Ben Bradlee. I dug out both books after seeing “The Post,” first because I wanted to re-read what they had written about the Pentagon Papers (and yes their stories mesh with the screenplay), and, second, because the movie and the concept of journalistic freedom are suddenly so very timely.
If you haven’t seen the movie, I hope you do. If you have, I hope you’ll tell me what you thought. Most of the people we know absolutely loved it. The story is worth telling and re-telling. Frankly, I remember Watergate much better than I do the Pentagon Papers (which is probably a function of where I was in my life at the time). Looking back, the Pentagon Papers was a fairly a-political event. The Nixon White House was furious and tried to stop publication, but both republicans and democrats had been signing off on the silence for decades. That’s the point.
Beyond the story, however, is how well Spielberg captured the sixties. There were so many subtle nods to the time: the women were the secretaries; the men were the reporters and editors. Katherine Graham was an anomaly, a Washington hostess who also ran what was becoming an increasingly powerful newspaper. She came before so many others. I found it hard to ignore those subtle messages.
Which is the perfect lead-in for the Women’s March
My daughter and I attended the Women’s March in Chicago a few weeks ago. We’re so glad we did! The diverse marchers included little girls and boys as well as great grandmas and grandpas and every age in between. I think that’s one of the key messages of the march. We’re all in this together and we all benefit from the larger message.
Some signs (and marchers) were more strident than others, but I think that’s just the nature of the beast. The freedom to speak out is what makes our democracy special. What a message to participants and bystanders, including those around the world.
There is an inherent sense of camaraderie about events like this. I took the train downtown from my conservative suburb, and the crowd at the station was just a clue of what was to come. There were easily 150 to 200 marchers who boarded at my commuter stop, and the next three stops were the same story. (In fact the train, which already had extra cars, was so full that it skipped the last five stops on its way to Chicago. Another train picked up the riders at those stops.) Although I met a number of friends at my stop, we were all soon friends with everyone in our car.
Once downtown I caught up with my daughter and another friend and we made our way, with a growing crowd, to the march’s overflowing start point. After a lot of walking and standing, and a few blocks with the march itself, Mag & I broke off for lunch. We were able to reflect on what we had seen and agreed that we loved seeing so many kids at the march, including some elementary school girls enthusiastically leading chants and cheers. They march and we march because others marched before us.
At times like this I think of the suffragettes who marched — and worked — long and hard and at great personal risk to win the vote for women. My grandmother did not have the right to vote until she was well into her twenties. But once she had that right, she never failed to “exercise her franchise” by voting at every opportunity. In fact, one of the last times she voted (in her eighties), she refused to go with my grandfather because they disagreed on the candidates. She went instead with a like-minded lady friend.
Last fall as I was telling the multi-part story of our trip to Italy, life and “the holidays” got in the way, so here is my post about returning to Rome. I hope you enjoy it! (You can read about our earlier stops in Tuscany here and Florence here.)
Rome was our last stop in Italy. As with Florence, it was not our first visit. Last year we toured the Vatican Museums, the Borghese Gallery, and the Forum. It was fun going back with some of the tourist pressure off.
We took the highspeed train from Florence to Rome and checked into the Residenza di Ripetta, where we stayed last year. We love this hotel; it’s elegant yet comfortable and ideally situated between Rome’s Piazza di Popolo and the Spanish Steps. It’s just a few short blocks from the Via Corso, perfect for enjoying the daily passeggiata before stopping for dinner in one of the small, local restaurants in the neighborhood.
Checking off another Papal Basilica
There are four Papal major basilicas in Rome: St. Peter’s in the Vatican; St. John Lateran, which predates St. Peter’s and which we visited last year; St. Paul Outside the Walls; and the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. We had seen St. Peter’s and St. John Lateran, so we decided to visit at least one more and Santa Maria Maggiore looked like it was within walking distance of our hotel.
In reality, the church was really only kind of in “walking distance.”
Rome is built on seven hills. What I have been trying to figure out, for two visits now, is why no matter where we are in Rome, we are always walking uphill. AND, if you are going downhill, you are probably navigating ancient, steep, stone stairs. It’s a puzzle.
Santa Maria Maggiore was built in the fifth century and served as the temporary Palace of the Popes after the the Avignon Papacy. Knowing this history I expected it to occupy a distinguished setting, but actually it just appears in an old Roman neighborhood, surrounded by cobblestones that set it apart from the surrounding street. Because Santa Maria Maggiore is a papal basilica, it is used by the Pope, especially on certain holy days.
From here we walked (mostly uphill and then up a remarkable set of stairs) to Saint Peter in Chains (San Pietro in Vincoli), built in the fifth century to house the relic of chains believed to have bound Saint Peter when he was imprisoned in Jerusalem. This minor basilica is home to Michelangelo’s statue of Moses, a massive work.
Taking a museum break
Rome is a lot more than churches.
Capitoline Museums on Capitoline Hill (another hill!) house an amazing assortment of secular art and artifacts that reflect Rome’s history. Once two palaces facing a piazza, the site was redesigned by Michelangelo in 1536. We loved seeing this side of Rome, especially after our previous “day of churches.” But for me, the real star of the day was the view of the Forum and other ruins from Capitoline Hill as we walked out of the buildings.
The Vatican’s Mosaic Workshop
On our last day in Rome we went to the Vatican for a tour of St. Peter’s and the mosaic studios. (And you thought we were done with churches!) We had toured the Vatican museums and the Sistine Chapel, ending with St. Peter’s, last year. But that tour happened to fall on a national holiday and coincided with a special Papal audience. We were shoulder-to-shoulder with other visitors the entire time.
This year we were hoping for a better experience and, boy, did we get it.
Steve found a tour that included the Vatican Mosaic Studio online with Viator. We joined just one other couple and our very knowlegeable guide early that morning. Contrary to the tour’s description, the guide started our tour in the Mosaic Studio so we would better appreciate the art we would see in the basilica. He knew what he was doing; the studio director took over and led the four of us into what I can only describe as a true atelier or studio, this one devoted to the preservation of the precious (and priceless) Vatican mosaics as well as the creation of newly commissioned pieces.
The studio is discretely located in one of the buildings in the Vatican complex. We began in a room that for all practical purposes was part conference room with a center table for display and part gallery, with a variety of mosaic pieces arrayed around the periphery. Sadly, photos were not allowed. The pieces are ancient and modern, sacred and secular. I assumed that the studio’s purpose was to maintain and/or repair the hundreds of square meters of mosaics in the Vatican. While this is true, the studio also produces new works that the Pope often presents as gifts to distinguished visitors and accepts private commissions from around the world. For example, once we stepped beyond this small gallery into the actual workspace, we saw one artist working on mosaic reproduction of a Monet painting.
In order to perfectly repair the Vatican mosaics the space also accommodates a mosaic library of the stones and colors used in all its artworks. These archives are stunning in both their simplicity and their extent. We were also allowed into another work space housing a small kiln where artists can fire the exact color necessary to complete a new work. There is no part of the mosaic process that is not painstakingly created and/or cared for. And of course, care is evident in every piece the studio creates. I’m not an artist, but I do like to understand the process behind art and this was a remarkable lesson.
The guide was, of course, so right to show us the studio first, because when he took us into St. Peter’s the stunning mosaic art there came alive. St. Peter’s Basilica is Christendom’s largest church; its size and decoration are breath-taking and, as our guide pointed out to us, purposely so. It would be impossible for even a “casual believer” to not be moved by St. Peter’s.
One of the options on this tour was a climb to the top of St. Peter’s Dome. I’m sure the view is stunning, but that’s not my kind of climb (or Steve’s either). So, the other couple left with another guide for that tour and we had a private tour of St. Peter’s. One of life’s better travel surprises.
Sure there were hundreds of others in the the basilica (in fact a group of seminarians was being ordained at the very front), but it felt like it was just us and our guide. Our guide walked us through several pieces, explaining the meaning and symbolism in each mosaic. We also visited the crypt to see where previous popes are buried. I must admit that although we are not catholic, it was amazing to see names recent and historic on tomb after tomb. (Many of the earliest tombs were destroyed long ago.)
We both think our guide made all of this come alive for us. He was more than just knowledgeable, perhaps trained for a religious vocation in an earlier career? As we were leaving St. Peter’s he pointed out one final mosaic in the portico which purports to tell visitors there is more work to do for God as they leave the physical confines of St. Peter’s.
We took this tour on our last day in Rome (our last day in Italy in fact), and we were overwhelmed with all we had seen. We stopped for a coffee then walked through some markets and found our way to Piazza Navona where we had a late lunch, before winding our way to the Spanish Steps and eventually back to our hotel. Here are some photos from that day.
After three weeks in Italy, we were ready to head for home. But now, three months later, I could easily go back. It seems as if there are always new layers of Italy to peel back and examine, new museums, churches, vineyards and towns. I’m not tired of it yet!
What do you do after all that fun in Tuscan hilltowns? We took a deep breath, braved the tourists, and headed to the historic heart of it all — Florence.
We waited a long time to finally get to Florence. Then we simply fell in love with the city. Steve and I both love London and Paris, but Florence is special. It’s compact and walkable (like Paris), has a seemingly endless supply of history and museums (like London), and it has what I think of as art and attitude.
The art is everywhere. The attitude is a little tougher to define, but I think it’s the total of the food and wine, shopping and sophistication, and most of all the history that ekes out of every corner. Now I can also say it’s even better the second time.
Our first visit to Florence was packed; there was so much to see. We planned differently this time, so we could wander more. In fact, the first afternoon, we did just that. After checking in at the Pierre Hotel we took a walk, found lunch, window-shopped our way to San Marco and back. We returned to the hotel and discovered they had delivered a bottle of prosecco and some snacks as a “welcome back” since we had also stayed there last year. This would be fun!
Getting serious about the Medicis
Florence was, first, a well-established medieval city, until it became the birthplace of the Renaissance and the credit for this goes largely to the Medici family. It’s impossible to spend any time in Florence without running into (and trying to understand) the financial and political power of the Medicis. Starting early in the 15th Century and lasting into the 17th century, the family enjoyed both political power (without holding office) and cultural influence.
The family’s wealth originated with its successful textile trade, which lead to the Medici Bank, the most successful in 15th Century Europe. With money comes power. The Medici’s support of the arts and subsequent impact on the Renaissance is unrivaled, starting with Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, who commissioned Brunelleschi for the reconstruction of the Basilica of San Lorenzo in 1419. Cosimo the Elder (another early Medici) commissioned works by Donatello and Fra Angelico. Most significantly Michelangelo accepted commissions from a number of Medici, beginning with Lorenzo the Magnificent, who was also a patron to Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) for seven years.
The Medici impact on the church and royal houses in Europe was equally significant. The family produced three Popes of the Catholic Church, Pope Leo X (1513-1521), Pope Clement VII (1523-1534) and Pope Leo XI (1605) as well as two Queens of France, Catherine de Medici (1547-1559) and Marie de Medici (1600-1610). In 1531, the family became hereditary Dukes of Florence. In 1569, the duchy was elevated to a grand duchy and the Medici family ruled the Grand Duchy of Tuscany until 1737
So much for name dropping.
The Medici family, and its money, were behind many of the ionic structures in Florence, and we visited a number of them with a guide from Context Tours who took us through the San Marco Convent and Museum, the Medici Palazzo, Baslica di San Lorenzo, Medici Chapels, and the New Sacristy (designed by Michelangelo).
(Context Tours are perfect for independent travelers. Guides, or docents as Context calls them, have with MAs, Ph.D.s or other terminal degrees in their subject matter, tours are limited to 5 or 6 people. We were the only ones on this tour. We have also used them in Rome and Paris.)
The convent was one of our first stops. After a brief period of upheaval during which the convent (which was really a monastery for branches of the order of Benedictine monks) deteriorated, Cosimo di Medici the Elder commissioned architect Michelozzo to rebuild it. The result is an elegant but spare, Renaissance structure. Like other monasteries, the convent features two cloisters, a chapter house, etc. The friars’ cells are each decorated with a single fresco, many by Fra Angelico in collaboration with other artists. Cells are walled off but topped by a single trussed roof, and the entire structure is finished in white-washed plaster. It’s easy to see how the residents could pray and meditate in this atmosphere.
The convent was home to painter Fra Angelico and preacher Girolamo Savonarola (of the infamous bonfire of the vanities). Cosimo de’ Medici also had a cell in the convent, adjacent to those of the friars, for use as his personal retreat.
The Basilica di San Lorenzo was consecrated in 393 when it was still outside the city walls. Later it became the parish church of the Medici family, as well as the burial place for the family’s principal members. The current basilica is actually the “new” building, completed in 1449 (financed by the Medici family), well after Brunelleschi died in 1446.
The Old Sacristy was designed by Brunelleschi and is the oldest part of the present church. It is also the only part completed (in 1440) in Brunelleschi’s lifetime. The Old Sacristy contains the tombs of several Medici family members.
The New Sacristy was designed by Michelangelo. Work began on it in 1520. The artist also designed the Medici family tombs to be included, but did not supervise the completion of the project. This is a far more elaborate structure. I was especially struck by drawings by Michelangelo, discovered in 1976, on the walls of a concealed corridor under the New Sacristy!
The Medici Chapel, designed by the family working with the architects, and begun in the early 17th Century, reflects a very different aesthetic, featuring elaborate marble mosaics in a domed octagonal space. The octagonal shape is distinctive on the Florentine landscape. Family remains were actually interred in a crypt below the chapel.
After these heady lessons in Medici history, art and architecture, we thought we needed something more light-hearted, so Steve signed us up for a tour of the hidden stairways and spaces at the Palazzo Vecchio. (We did this the next day. Two tours in one day would have been way too much to wrap our heads around!) Most often known as Florence’s city hall, the palazzo was, for awhile, also a Medici Palace. But that’s another history chapter.
The tour begins with an introduction to the Florentine Guilds, or Priori, who ruled the city. In 1342 the existing building was enlarged to resemble a fortress, including the addition of secret stairways allowing guild members to come and go in the night. The tour guide escorted our small group up and down some of these stairways, which, of course, included passing in and out of a number of secret doors. We had toured the building before, so this look at its “inner workings” was especially fun.
My husband and I loved the idea of these hidden doors. If you have read Dan Brown’s Inferno, or seen the Tom Hanks movie, you undoubtedly recall the crazy chase thru the Palazzo Vecchio. Remember the scene above the ceiling of the Hall of 500? After climbing dozens of narrow stairs, we were up in a corner of it. The space was more cramped than it appeared in the movie, but still very cool to see how the Renaissance building was assembled. Alternating rafters support the roof above and/or hold the ceiling below. What genius Renaissance architects displayed!
Whew! This is not all that we saw or did in Florence, but it gives you a good idea of how we spent our second visit in as many years. We enjoyed the fact that the city was somewhat familiar, we stayed in the same hotel (because we really love it!) and even ate at a restaurant we enjoyed last year. We also found some great new places. We ate lunch one day at the bustling the Central Market and I spent an afternoon at the Bargello. We spent a morning at the Pitti Palace (more Medicis) and found time to explore the tiny streets of the Oltarno. I think this second visit allowed us to “peel back another layer” on all there is to see in Florence.
What about you? Are there destinations you would happily return to? What about places you could happily say, “been there, done that” and move on? I’d love to hear from you.
Thank you so much for stopping by. See you next time!
So, I have been thinking about the pictures of our life lately.
If you follow me on Instagram, this photo of the Chicago River is not new. I took it last week, walking down Madison Street from the train station to the Art Institute. This is workday Chicago, part of what the commuters see (or maybe don’t even see any more) on their daily travels to work or school. It’s not as glamorous as Michigan Avenue or the lake front, but it’s very much the city.
As I was flipping through a week’s worth of photos, I was thinking about how they capture life. We all get cameras (or phones!) out for the big moments: birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, etc. And then there are the vacation photos: the beach, the mountains or even the backyard. But lately I’m thinking about daily life, like this photo of construction at Madison St. and Wabash Ave. My challenge is to capture that.
Last week started on a tough note with the pictures from Charlottesville, Virginia, animated by a sound track my mother would describe as “ugly talk.” Yesterday the country was captivated by the power of Mother Nature and a total eclipse that stretched from coast to coast.
Resilience may be one of life’s most valuable assets.
When I took the shot of the Chicago River, my husband and I were headed to the Art Institute in Chicago to see a current show, “Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist.” (If you’re a regular reader, you know this is my idea of a great day and it seemed like a good antidote to the noise of Charlottesville.)
Most of us think of Paul Gauguin as the painter of vibrant and exotic scenes like “Tahitian Women on the Beach.” But this exhibition took a much closer look at his creative process, especially his ceramics and wood carvings. (I know, who knew he even worked in these mediums?)
Gauguin actually began his artistic expression as a wood carver, something he was easily able to do as a youthful sailor. Before he was a painter, before he was a businessman, before he was a husband and father, he was a commercial sailor and traveled the world more than once. The experience had a significant impact on his artistic expression. This single figure, right, is something a sailor would carve.
A number of the wood carvings in the exhibition were flat, including some that were applied to pieces of furniture. We were impressed with the way Gauguin married the finished carving with the rough texture of the original wood.
I also think it’s interesting that this piece and the one below both feature figures similar to many of his south seas paintings, but in the carving, below, he has added color.
In addition to working with wood, Gauguin also created several pieces of pottery, though not all remain due to the fragile nature of the material. Doesn’t the design on this bowl reflect the colors and designs in his paintings?
This smaller vessel with added decoration and figures and all done in a free-form manner is representative of a number of ceramic pieces in the exhibition. The amount of color and detail he added is also reminiscent of many of his paintings.
Regrettably, I did not capture images of his printmaking. I really got caught up in the processes he used. Typically woodblock or woodcut prints are made to create identical copies of a single design. However, in Gauguin’s hands process was different. He purposely tweaked each print, with a wash of color, with different papers and inks. In many cases the prints were displayed as progressions of a design, but not duplicates. Still searching for a better expression.
Steve and I were both struck by how much more Gauguin did than his paintings and about how much more there is to his artistic vision. He tested, experimented, and tried new mediums, always searching for a better way to express himself.
When you think about it, challenging ourselves to progress — in our work, our art, our life — is pretty essential. In this “back to class” season, what are you challenging yourself to do?
My husband and I, along with our children and grandchildren, spent last week on Kiawah Island, South Carolina. It’s safe to call this a family tradition since we have taken this same vacation for almost all of the last 25-plus years. (Some people might call that a rut, but I like to think of it as a home away from home.)
We look forward each year to familiar days at the beach, bike rides on the island, and favorite restaurants, but each trip also seems to have its own adventures. (On the first morning of the first year my daughter-in-law joined us a baby shark was discovered swimming along the beach. We really worried that she’d never come back!) It’s the kind of place where a waiter in your favorite restaurant turns out to be the boy who lived across the street 20 years ago and an old friend from those mommy-and-me days walks by on the beach where you’ve settled in with a book.
Part of the charm of Kiawah (apart from 10 miles of pristine beachfront, protected dunes and a lush, protected landscape devoid of chain stores or restaurants) is that it’s just 20 miles from Charleston, recently named (again) one of the top destinations in the US. We knew this early on. Charleston is ground zero for American history, foodies, and charm.
I am totally charmed by Charleston’s many gardens, some of them public, some more private, and some completely hidden. At this time of year they are very lush and green.
This year my husband and I were in Charleston a day ahead of the rest of the family and stopped for lunch at one of his favorite restaurants. We’d barely settled into our booth when another diner stopped by our table and asked if we were visitors.
Why, yes, we are.
Well, said the diner, I was just given two free passes for Fort Sumter but we’re leaving now. Can you use them? (A bit of history: Charleston’s harbor, where the Cooper and Ashley Rivers merge with the Atlantic Ocean, is also home to Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.)
This is one of the tricks of Charleston. The sense of polite, genteel hospitality Charlestonians are known for just starts rubbing off on everyone. And for history geeks like us, the passes were like finding money in the street.
We had been to Fort Sumter years ago, on one of our first trips. Our kids were in grade school then, and it was a very hot day. The best part was the boat ride out there and back; there was very little left of the fort. This time, our daughter, my husband and I made the trip one afternoon. It was not as hot and the boat ride was still fun, but we also appreciated the fort far more. We could not remember if there was a Park Ranger talk the first time around, but there is now and although it was short, we learned a lot.
Fort Sumter was built on a manmade island positioned to guard the all-important Charleston Harbor. After the War of 1812 the U.S. Army realized existing fortifications on either side of the harbor could not stop an attack on the city. Despite the fact that there is very little left of the fort, it was originally pretty large — three stories high and designed to accommodate a substantial number of men and even officers’ families. (It was not yet staffed except for Union troops who had secretly moved there from Fort Moultrie after Lincoln’s election.) After those legendary shots were fired April 12, 1861, and subsequent shelling, the Union Army was ultimately forced to surrender. However, this was still a “Gentleman’s War,” so, until he surrendered, U.S. Army Major Robert Anderson was allowed to receive supplies from the city and use telegraph lines there to communicate with his commanders. (This is, after all, Charleston.) After the surrender Anderson and the remaining soldiers were allowed to leave on a supply ship. They went to New York where they received a hero’s welcome.
And that’s how history unfolds…
For the last few years, my daughter and I have made a point of going into Charleston early one morning so we can walk and photograph the streets. Last year we did this on a very hot, humid Charleston morning and, after an hour or so, we were desperate for cool air. We turned a corner and there was the Nathaniel Russell House, one of the “house museums” operated by the Historic Charleston Foundation, so we went in and took the tour — again. We are “repeat offenders” because although houses like this are historic, they are not static. Continuing research, based on excavations, paint analyses, or even newly discovered documents or furniture often lead to changes in the house as well as its interpretation. (We really are history geeks!)
Last year we had passed the Calhoun Mansion and decided we should visit it next, so this year, after a walk that was far more comfortable (and at least 10-degrees cooler), we headed down Meeting Street in time for the first tour. We knew the house, built a few decades after the Civil War, was different than others we have toured (all pre-Civil War, often by many years). What we did not realize was just how different it would be.
A bit more history: the 23,000 square-foot house was built in the 1870s by George W. Williams, who had made a fortune as a merchant-turned-Civil War blockade runner. The docent who showed us around said the house was constructed in the early years of the Gilded Age (think Vanderbilt and Carnegie), when building mansions to hold vast collections of art, furniture and collectibles was common among men of certain stature. It became known as the Calhoun Mansion when Williams died, leaving the house to a daughter married to Patrick Calhoun, grandson of John C. Calhoun.
I wondered, out loud to the docent, how Charlestonians accepted this mansion in their midst. The city’s residents, once successful landowners and professionals living privileged lives, had suffered terribly during the Civil War and the city had struggled to survive. Post-war society was so polite that those who did have the means to repair or repaint their homes, did so sparingly, not wanting to embarrass friends and neighbors who could not afford to do the same. The docent pointed out that the construction employed hundreds of unemployed citizens for years.
The mansion is packed with furniture and collectibles, but almost none of it is original to the house. Those belongings were auctioned off after Calhoun suffered financial setbacks. The current owner, however, is an avid collector and has filled the house with the same vast quantities of “stuff.” The floors, the woodwork, the Tiffany chandeliers and the glass ceiling in the music room are all beautiful. But I found it hard to focus on most of it, along with the lovely collectibles, just because there was so much stuff. The collection ranges from Tiffany glassware and a Wedgewood-decked chandelier to Kibuki armor and English footstools made from the feet of real elephants. It’s dizzying.
People love it, but I was confused by the clutter and frankly a little “turned off” that a family really lives here part of the time and charges admission to allow tour groups. Am I weird? Probably. Perhaps I just want a “purist approach” to 19th-Century houses.
The gardens were beautiful, but on the whole I’d call this a miss. Interesting, but maybe not for the right reasons.
On the other hand, here are a few more shots from that morning in Charleston.
Whether you are traveling or staying close to home this season, I hope your summer features far more hits than misses!