Though there’s no security guard or chincy South of Broad sign made of river rock, the tip of the peninsula can still feel like a gated community. Sure, we can bike around Tradd Street and Lenwood Boulevard admiring the architecture, but the chances of actually seeing inside most of the structures in the 29401 only comes up about twice a year, during the Historic Charleston Foundation’s Festival of Houses and Gardens and the Preservation Society’s Fall Tour of Homes.
Which is one reason we’re always so excited when there’s a random opportunity to view one of the city’s unique buildings. Thurs. Nov. 6 is one such case. From 5 to 7:30 p.m., The Confederate Home & College at 62 Broad St. — the Parisian-style four-story building that sits next to Washington Square Park — will be open to the public.
But this isn’t your typical design voyeur tour. It’s a fundraiser. Since 1867, the 19th- century building has been used as a shelter, initially for Confederate war widows and orphans and today for 16 elderly women. In addition, the building that stretches from Chalmers to Broad Street also houses more than a dozen artist and writer’s studios, including those of West Fraser, Helen Warren, William Matalene, and Josephine Humphreys.
The Lee brothers, best known for their James Beard-award winning tome, The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, have had a studio at the Confederate Home for 20 years. “We were told about it from my grandmother,” Matt Lee says. At move-in time the Home allowed them a place to get started in their careers.
But despite the address, it’s a no-frills affair. Matt and Ted have a small office space big enough to house a computer, their cookbooks, and plenty of boiled peanuts.
And that’s the thing — even though the building could net a developer millions, The Confederate Home & College board refuses to sell the building. Instead, they’re committed to the plan Mary Amarinthia and Isabell Snowden began two years after the Civil War.
“The Confederate home has a three-part mission,” explains contractor Jim Wigley, who was brought in a few years ago to help shore up the space. “To provide a home for needy people, provide an educational center, and preserve the building.”
It’s that last component that continues to be a bear. The original structure, built in 1800 by Mr. Gilbert Chalmers as a double tenement, is slowly, steadily falling apart. The most serious issue currently is the Broad Street facade.
“The Broad Street side was actually not the original facade,” Confederate Home board member Barbara Zimmerman explains. “The original design was Georgian.” When the devastating earthquake of 1886 hit the city, however, it caused a lot of damage at 62 Broad. “The reconstruction changed the facade to Second Empire — a Victorian look with a mansard roof and turrets,” Zimmerman adds. “Before, it was more sedate.”
Add natural disasters to 214 years of renovations and one can imagine the wear and tear the building has endured. Prior to the earthquake, in 1834, Angus Stewart acquired the property and turned it into the Carolina Hotel. “The footprint of the building has changed,” explains Zimmerman. “There were stables to the east, but when it became a hotel, they added the piazzas and enclosed the stables.” Zimmerman and the board also believe the hotel was basically constructed on top of the two freestanding tenements. “When you strip away the plywood on the alley between the buildings you see brick,” she says. That means that a three-story structure is resting on two small, early 19th-century spaces.
In another interesting historical footnote, from 1845 until 1860 the back of the property, above Chalmers, housed a federal courthouse. When news of Lincoln’s election came in, Zimmerman says, the court erupted. “The news upset everybody and the judge dissolved the court and dissolved the federal presence in Charleston and South Carolina.” During the Confederate Home’s last fundraising push, enough money was raised to restore the beautiful courtroom and it’s now used as a wedding space — you may recall Susan Sarandon’s daughter Eva married on the property in 2012.
But there are funny rules on the book that newlyweds must abide by. No dancing, for instance. Matt Lee believes that’s a hold-over from when the building was an actual women’s college. But the archaic regulation doesn’t dissuade brides from booking the property, and the ladies who call it home are just fine with that.
Ms. Pat McKinney has been living at the home for four years and says she always gets a thrill when a newlywed couple enters the open green in the middle of the property. “I just love to see them walk in,” she says.
The eclectic assortment of tenets and functions that swirl around the iconic property seem to have a cyclical impact on one another. The fading patina of the walls delights Matt Lee, possibly inspiring him to dig back deeper into Charleston’s past and recipes. The light from West Fraser’s third-story studio informs his images, as he views the sun bouncing off the city’s steeples. The sound of a wedding party thrills a group of older ladies watching from their second-story balcony. It’s a funny charity, The Confederate Home & College, but it will continue to pursue its original mission — just so long as the building stays standing.
Tickets to visit the house are $50 and may be purchased at the door.