Courtesy Historic Charleston Foundation

Peek past iron gates and enter the lush, tucked-away gardens of historic Charleston homes. Open front doors and explore the insides of these painstakingly preserved houses, some dating back to the mid- to late-1700s. Visitors and locals alike can get up-close views of residential historic homes during the Historic Charleston Foundation’s (HCF) 76th annual Festival of Houses and Gardens.

The festival kicks off Wednesday and runs through April 16 with multiple tours of historic homes and gardens in addition to other events, including a luncheon series and musical performances. 

“One of the things that is really outstanding this year is we have added for the first time a finale brunch at the Aiken-Rhett House Museum,” said Roualeyn de Haas, HCF’s director of marketing. 

“We have a relatively new team because of Covid. It upended the whole events team here, so we had to reimagine things once we had one event under our belts. We really wanted to be able to have a proper farewell sendoff to this very lengthy festival.”

But in the five weeks leading up to the Mimosas at the Museum finale brunch on April 16, participants can choose from a long list of tours and events.

‘Preservation is dynamic’

The festival has three main components: street tours, “Live Like a Local” events and larger events, including “Rosé and Roses” in the garden at the Nathaniel Russell House and a music series at the Circular Congregational Church.

For those who want to explore the many homes and gardens participating in the tour, select from eight designated street tours. Each is offered on a weekday and weekend date and takes place between 2-5 p.m.

The homes included in the tour are owned and lived in by residents, which gives guests a unique perspective on preservation and the work that goes into living in an old home. De Haas emphasized that people are going about their daily lives in these houses — raising kids, caring for pets, going to work — while putting in massive amounts of work to keep the properties in great condition.

“The festival gives a time and place for preservation in Charleston,” de Haas said. “It highlights the fact that people are in these old homes that they have chosen to preserve, but it shows people living in these historic preserved houses. It’s not a museum environment. … It’s showing that this isn’t a museum city. It’s an old city with a strong heritage in which people are being dynamic and actually living their lives.”

Though the tours are self-guided, allowing guests to move between houses at their leisure, there are docents at each location to act as guides and provide historic information.

“Preservation is not stagnant. It’s dynamic. And it’s living life and designing within the context of preserving the historical value,” de Haas said.

Living in history

Anne Blessing is the chair of HCF’s board of trustees and the festival’s tour committee chair — but she’s also a homeowner who participates every year.

Blessing lives in the home in which she grew up on East Bay Street, and said she’s accustomed to opening her home to visitors as her mother and grandmother used to open the very same home to the Preservation Society of Charleston’s fall home tours. 

“We have three children and three dogs and a cat, so it’s a lot,” she said of caring for a historic house. “But, we get this funny reaction of people saying that our house is very ‘real’ because you can tell there’s a lot going on.”

Blessing’s has been on HCF’s board for about 10 years and said she enjoys participating in the organization’s annual fundraising event. 

“It’s really fun to see people’s reactions when they come through the houses and how special it is to see the inside.”

She emphasized the tours and events are just as much for locals as they are for visitors.

“Every time I do it, I learn something new,” she said. “I have a lot of experience with the history of Charleston, but I think part of living in Charleston is being hospitable and teaching others about the city, the history, how to love it and why to love it. I think if you learn through these events, then it just enriches being a Charleston resident.”

Other ways to experience history

Outside of the classic home and garden tours, the festival offers dozens of other events. HCF expanded the festival’s music series this year to incorporate jazz and bluegrass performances in addition to Gullah spirituals.

“We’re trying to allow people to be able to enjoy a variety of music genres over the course of a five week period,” said de Haas. “It’s not just a musical performance. In keeping with our mission of Historic Charleston Foundation. There is an educational component as well.”

The “Live Like a Local” series provides other educational opportunities such as morning history walks and photography walks, luncheon lectures and workshops. De Haas said this year the festival offers workshops in calligraphy, macrame, container gardening and a cocktail class hosted by Johnny Caldwell and Taneka Reaves, the Cocktail Bandits.

Blessing said she is eager for the return of one particular street tour in a neighborhood on Montagu Avenue, in addition to the luncheon lectures and this year’s new Sunset Harbor History boat tours. 

HCF historians and educators are on board interpreting the boat tour, de Haas said, offering historical knowledge in addition to information about architecture and preservation.

“The festival allows Charlestonians to become invested in Charleston,” de Haas said. “And, the overall reason for the festival is to support and fund the foundation. This is our largest educational fundraiser of the year. Supporting the festival supports our bottom line for us to be able to continue our advocacy and preservation work through the rest of the year.”

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