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Courtyard Gardens

The gardens of historic Charleston have few equals in beauty, variety, and old-world charm. In comparison to other American cities, Charleston's town gardens have a distinctive style and setting all their own. The term Charleston garden almost universally conveys a visual image of a small private garden enclosed by vine-covered walls and tastefully filled with a profusion of seasonal plants. Wrought-iron gates and grilles, old garden walls, antique brick and cobblestone, decorative fountains, ornamental statuary, benches, and piazzas are all characteristic features generally associated with a typical Charleston garden. While individual gardens will vary in detail and design, there exists certain base elements inherent to all Charleston gardens-- integration of house and garden, maximum use of limited space, enclosure by protective walls, and a creative use of ornamental plants. These features have evolved over time and have been influenced by a variety of factors including climate, architecture, enclosure, and the city's physical plan.


Perhaps the single most important factor that influenced the historical development of Charleston's gardens was climate. Charleston's semitropical climate is characterized by long, hot summers and relatively mild winters. Even though temperatures occasionally drop below 20F in winter and sometimes rise above 100F in summer, the average annual temperature for the city is a comfortable 65F. Charleston lies on latitude 32N, the same as Bermuda and San Diego, California. The city has a long growing season which extends almost ten months out of the year; the first freeze usually occurs in early December with the last frost by mid-February. Charleston's short winter is traditionally followed by a glorious spring as described by DuBose Heyward, noted Charleston novelist, poet, and playwright:

"Usually by the first of March, the short winter is over and Spring pre-empts the city. This is a dramatic invasion, starting with the waxy perfection of the camellia bloom and a spray or two of yellow jessamine. While the nights are still frosty it seems to hang poised and then descends, sweeping the parks and gardens with a tidal wave of color and perfume. Climbing roses foam over old garden walls. Wisteria hangs like purple clouds in ancient pine and oak, and everywhere the azalea seems to spend itself in a short breathing burst of color."

Charleston's climate is favorably influenced by the fact that the city is bounded by two rivers-- the Cooper on the east and the Ashley on the west-- and a spacious harbor on the south. While the hot and humid conditions of summer prevail from June through August, temperatures are moderated somewhat by cool ocean breezes from the south and west which are prevalent in late afternoon and early evening. This phenomenon occurs during the summer months when warm air over the land begins to rise and is replaced by cooler ocean air, resulting in refreshing cool breezes which have been described as the number one blessing of Charleston's climate in warm weather. Even with this cooling effect, by early June the heat begins to take its toll and many of the city's inhabitants go off to the beaches, or head to Flat Rock or Cashiers in the North Carolina mountains until October, while those who remain confine their outdoor activities to early morning or late afternoon. Author Robert Molloy, in describing the city, observes that the heat explains that leisurely way of getting around. "After generations of becoming acclimatized to long summers, Charlestonians know better than to be in a hurry." Another important aspect of the city's seasonal trends are the tropical storms or hurricanes that occur in the late summer and early fall. These can produce damaging winds, heavy rainfall, rising tides, and flooding.

Architecture


Charleston's semitropical climate greatly influenced the development of a vernacular style of architecture evidenced in the Single House-- a long, rectangular, free-standing structure specifically designed to respond to local climatic conditions. The single house was typically built with its gable end facing the street and its rooms strung out in a single line in order to obtain cross-ventilation. The first floor of the single house was usually raised several feet above the ground to provide protection against flooding during hurricanes and tropical storms and as a health measure since it was considered undesirable for a house to be built on damp ground.

Porches, locally known as piazzas, were constructed perpendicular to the street along the length of the south or west side of the house. There were usually as many tiers of piazzas as there were building stories. Piazzas serve several functions. During cold weather they provided an ideal spot to enjoy the warmth of sunny days that are so typical of the Lowcountry winter, and in summer they afforded shade and protection from the fierce summer sun, thus preventing the house from becoming unbearable during the heat of the day. In late afternoon and evening the piazzas caught the cool, refreshing ocean breezes and became delightful outdoor living spaces. Samuel Galliard Stoney, in Charleston: Azaleas and Old bricks, appropriately described the Charleston single house as:

"...simply a hot-weather house that can be used in winter, and a winter house habitable in summer. Its prime reason for being as it is, is the sacred Charleston wind that every hot afternoon blows up from the southwest from across the Ashley River and cools off the town for the evening. Notice and you will realize that the Charleston house has been trimmed like a sail whenever it was possible to be square against the course of this most favorable of breezes. And like a proper sail it is designed to catch any other air that might be moving."

It is widely speculated that the concept of the single house was introduced from the West Indies by early English settlers from Barbados and eventually evolved into a building style unique to Charleston in both character and form.

Access from the street into a single house was provided by an outer door that opened onto a piazza, which traditionally overlooked a small side garden. This street door provided both an element of privacy and surprise. The perception on entering was that of going through a traditional door and unexpectedly finding oneself in a garden. The real front door was located in the center of the piazza facing the garden. The piazza functioned as a transitional element between the house and garden which was intimately combined as described by Francis Duncan in The Century Magazine:

"It is difficult indeed to write of an old Charleston garden apart from the house, for the two have long been intimates, and the grace of the garden, the fragrance of years of roses, has lent a poignant sweetness to the grave dignity of the mansion, which for more than a century has stretched walls like protecting arms about the garden's loveliness; while the response of the house, born of the rare qualities of nobility of proportion, or harmony, of balance, has dowered the garden with something of its own serenity, its memories, its unvexed quietness."

The piazza also served as an outdoor room from which the side garden could be viewed and enjoyed. Many of Charleston' early gardens were laid out as small patterned gardens which were simple versions of French and English parterres fashionable in Europe during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. The plans of these gardens were based on a combination of geometric shapes including circles, squares, and rectangles which during the Victorian period were often replaced by diamonds, hearts, and stars as well as paisley and floral designs. In some designs the number of individual beds was small (six, eight, or ten) while in others it was much greater. Beds were usually slightly raised and bordered with boxwood, brick, or sometimes tiles and were planted with old-fashioned annuals, perennials, and flowering bulbs. Paths were made of sandshell, gravel, or tamped or crushed oyster shells. Pleasing views of Charleston's small patterned gardens were afforded from the piazza from which their layout could be easily observed and enjoyed year around.

Enclosure


Another distinctive feature of nearly all gardens in the older sections of Charleston was their containment by high brick or stucco walls. These formidable enclosures were not built originally for aesthetic reasons but, in reality, were constructed to provide protection against intruders. According to Shaffer, in Carolina Gardens, the walls ensured that household slaves were secured in the confines of the property at night, since a fine would be imposed on the owner if a slave was found in the streets after curfew had sounded. It can certainly be assumed that these protective walls provided privacy which was needed because of the closeness of individual houses and lots. They also helped to contain domestic animals such as cows, chickens, and horses which were housed at the rear of many properties up until the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Over time these protective walls took on a more decorative character and became an integral part of a garden's overall design. Beautifully designed, they were frequently constructed of brick or tabby-- a mixture consisting of oyster shells and lime. Many of these early walls incorporated fanciful arches covered with stucco in soft pastel colors of light green, blue, peach, ochre, and yellow, reflecting a strong influence of early settlers from the West Indies. The color of stucco was determined by the addition of natural pigments or the application of color washes. The extensive use of stucco on Charleston buildings and garden walls during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries also resulted from European customs and architectural styles.

City Plan


Another factor which greatly influenced the evolution of Charleston's single house and integrated garden plan was the development of the city's overall plan. With limited area in which to expand, high land costs, and the development of a multidirectional street layout, a very compact city plan evolved, as confirmed by the reverend Mr. Hewat in a description of the city in 1779: "the streets from east to west extend from river to river....These streets are intersected by others, nearly at right angles, and throw the town into a number of squares with dwelling houses on the front ad offices, houses (dependencies) and little gardens behind." To accommodate the physical restrictions imposed by this layout, land lots were generally long and narrow, with few being serviced by alleys or public easements to take care of access to stables, servant quarters, detached kitchens, and working yards that were an integral part of Charleston households. It can be surmised that this dense living arrangement was acceptable in part because Charleston inhabitants had come from European cities where conditions were crowded and houses were traditionally built close together. As noted by architectural historian Kenneth Severens in Charleston--Antebellum Architecture and Civic Destiny, "the single house offered a masterful but still vernacular solution to the residential problems of comfort, privacy, and propriety. Single houses were sensitive compromises between the public need for urban density and the private desire for domestic seclusion."

The rectangular shape of the single house not only appropriately responded to Charleston's climatic conditions but also readily fit into the space alloted by the city' dense urban plan. To maximize the layout, the long side of the house opposite the piazza was generally located directly on the lot line at the northern or eastern corner of the property in order to provide adequate space for domestic service needs. This arrangement provided space for a small side garden and service drive plus ample room at the rear of the property for slave quarters, kitchen, carriage house, stables, privy, and well. A typical property layout is shown in Figure A, with the outer rectangle representing the property line and the footprint of the house adjoining the sidewalk on the lower left. A slight variation, with garden and service drive reversed, is shown in Figure B.

By the early part of the twentieth century the need for servants quarters, stables, carriage houses, and other utilitarian elements had all but disappeared, thus allowing the typical side garden to be expanded to the rear of the property, as shown in Figure C. Over the years there developed many variations of this layout due to differences in lot sizes, architectural diversity, and building configurations, but as a general rule tremendous consistency has prevailed in the traditional arrangement of the overall house and garden plan.


In contrast to Charleston's traditional layout of house and garden plan, in nearby Savannah an arrangement developed which was distinctly different in overall form. Similar to Charleston in the development of many long, narrow residential lots, the one important difference in Savannah's city plan was the placement of central alleys, referred to locally as lanes, that extended down the middle of its residential blocks. These public easements permitted the building of traditional townhouses which could be positioned on the site with their front facades close to the street and ample space remaining at the back for a porch and small garden. Architectural historian John Linley speculates in Georgia Landscape that

"...had Charleston been laid out according to the Savannah plan, the typical Charleston house would likely have been a row house. Those facing south, like those facing South Battery and the park at the tip of the peninsula, would doubtless have had the garden and porches in front; those facing north, like those in Savannah, would likely have had the porches and gardens in the rear. Instead, old Charleston houses appear to be completely unconventional. Tall and narrow, partly classical and partly vernacular with porches that seem more of the garden than of the house."

These contrasting site layouts are responsible for the hidden gardens of Savannah that are located at the rear of the property and thus secluded from view, and the private gardens of Charleston which can be seen, or at least partially viewed, from the street. It is this public exposure of small, side gardens that gives Charleston the impression of being a city set in a garden. Charleston gardens serve as personal contributions to the overall beauty of the town and are as integral a part of the fabric of the city as the houses which they embrace.


The preceding essay is adapted from the book Gardens of Historic Charleston by James R. Cothran; ©1995 University of South Carolina Press. It may be ordered for $39.95 plus $4 shipping and handling. SC residents please add 5% sales tax. Toll-free orders: 1-800-768-2500. Photographs, used here by permission, are the author's.