THE VACATION IS OVER – Philosophically speaking

Wow!  I just noticed how long it’s been since I wrote anything for the blog.  Well, I’ve been busy!  Hey, being retired (even semi) is a full-time job (so to speak).  Truth be told, we just got back from vacation.  We had a great time, stopped at Asheville NC on our way south and spent a day touring the Biltmore Estate, stayed with friends on Hilton Head Island for four days.  Spent a day touring old Savannah and two days in Charleston SC.  The Biltmore Estate, Savannah and Charleston are all architectural treasures and I recommend that anyone interested in history, architecture and/or traditional craftsmanship visit them all.

MH in front of the Biltmore

 The Biltmore was constructed using the same traditional crafts employed in the building of the finest European Manor houses and Gothic castles.  These craft methods and skills were used to construct the cathedrals of Notre Dame, Chartres and Reims.  The Biltmore is stunning, not just in size, but in the level of demonstrated craftsmanship, craftsmanship that was on the wane, even during its construction during the late 1890’s.

Masons, Carpenters, Carvers, Glazers, Tinners and Smiths of many varieties, all Masters, erected their lodges on the grounds of the estate, much the same as they would have done in Paris or Canterbury, nearly 1000 years ago.  And there, artists and craftsmen, working together built one of the most magnificent edifices in North America.


a "clarion" detail on the Biltmore's facade


One can’t help but be amazed at the scope and, after a little mental calculation, the cost of something of this magnitude.  It can only be described as staggering.  Mr. Vanderbilt built a beautiful home and provided a home base for what has become America’s craft revival center (the area around Asheville is one of the country’s premiere arts and crafts centers).   Asheville and the surrounding countryside can only be described as idyllic.

But for all of its beauty, it is apparent at the Biltmore that there has always been a wide economic divide between Americans, those who have and those who do not.  While the gentry sat on chairs that were nearly twenty inches high, young cooks and maids read notes from home while seated on chairs that are barely more than twelve inches from the floor.  It was clear that the high-born and the low-born would never be seated at the same table.


Beautiful squares.  Live oaks and Spanish moss.  Factors Walk.  Pirates residences familiar to Robert Louis Stevenson – right here in the United States.  It’s a town that knows how to be beautiful and how to party. 

Downtown Savannah has become a thriving center of “gentrification” after the establishment of SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design).  Like many other historic areas, the old town of Savannah had become run-down, crime-ridden and simply shabby.  But due to the work of dedicated preservationists and young art students, who (perhaps due to their naivete) were willing to live in something less than ideal conditions, the old city of Savannah has been given new life.  Historic Savannah functions quite well as a movie set and, in fact, Robert Redford was shooting his new movie, “The Conspirator”, while we were there.


Old Savannah Market


Adult home of Juliet Lowe (founder of the Girl Scouts)


"The Kirk" - Church of Scotland - Highest point in Savannah



Mercer House - Johnny Mercer's home and infamous as Jim Williams' home in "Midnight in the garden of good and evil"


While most Charlestonians may be genteelily cavalier about the history of their fair city, the average bumpkin from Toledo must demonstrate significantily more gravitas.  This is a town that has been around longer than we have been an independent nation!  This city was, arguably, the wealthiest city in North America until the American Civil War.  The Constitution of the United States was ratified in the Exchange Building.  The first shot of the Civil War was fired here, at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.  And, by the way, you can get yo’self some excellent low country jambylaya and Yuengling beer here, mmm…mmm.

“Singles” and “Doubles” are the unique style of construction in Charleston.  Grand houses built only one room wide  (thus single) and fitted with parallel piazzas (porches) allowed the natives to contend with the heat and humidity that is Charleston in the summer.  Doubles, may have been grander, but not necessarily cooler.


A grand "Single" on East Battery overlooking the harbor



The splendid Georgian residence that served as headquarters for the British Army in NC during the Revolutionary War as well as headquarters for the Union Army after the 500 plus day bombardment during the "War of Northern Agression"


A typical Charleston "side garden"


The Exchange - one of three remaining buildings in which the Constitution of United States was ratified


Toward the harbor from Bay Street


Ravenell House - looking from the "withdrawing" room into the salon - a grand single on East Battery


Ravenell House Exterior

One only need remember the scenes of lovely Southern Belles fanning themselves as a remedy from the vapors during some high socity cotillion in “Gone with the Wind”, to get an understanding of the grandeur and oppulence that was Old Charleston.  While home of the North Carolina Military Institute – “The Citadel”, Charleston’s economy was not based on Military or civil industry, but on agriculture.  Rice, tobacco and indigo were the fuel for the economic engine that drove Charleston and therein lies the darker side of the city.

Charleston’s planters and bankers were no more intelligent than any of their peers.  But, they had realized one way to maximize their profits, the minimization of labor costs.  In other words Charleston, rich and beautiful Charleston was  built on the profits of slavery.  Blacks were reduced to the position of being chattels to their white masters, while white servants typically labored under contracts of indenture that usually lasted for a period of seven years.  Many historians estimate that as much as sixty percent of the colonial population was either held as chattel property or bonded by indenture.  Just a few blocks away from the grandeur is the Slave Mart.  Human beings were bought and sold as one might purchase a mule or an ox.   In 1807, the importation of slave labor was made illegal in the United States, and yet, the buying and selling of human beings continued until the defeat of the Confederate States of American in 1865.

Even now, Charleston raises the old artisan’s conundrum: does the practice of my art free me of the responsibility of my moral principles?

Explore posts in the same categories: historic woodworking, life in craft

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