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TRAVELING IN STYLE : SEDUCED BY MEMORY : Behind Its Historical Facades and Old World Manners, Charleston in Springtime Is a Sensualist's Delight

March 07, 1993|BARBARA HAGERTY | Hagerty writes a column for the Charleston Post-Courier and has contributed to Travel & Leisure and Ladies' Home Journal, among other publications

I WAS BORN IN CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA, IN THE month of September, at the height of the hurricane season, and all my life I've been partial to the moody, mercurial weather and poetically charged architecture that help define the city.

Being born in Charleston confers upon one more than an address: It's a birthright, an identity forged from this matrix of saltwater, palmettos and urban antiquity, inseparable from one's DNA--a complicated heritage, luminous and elegant, but also bloody and disaster-strewn. Charleston breeds a fierce devotion among its sons and daughters. In an age noted for transitoriness, Charlestonians stay put for generations, rooted, somehow, in this vortex of swift tidal rivers, light-stung marshes and deep languid shade. We have an intense pride of place, a conviction that, despite all the calamities that have befallen the city over the centuries, no other place on earth is quite so preferred by God.

You don't have to be born in Charleston, though, to fall under its spell. Legions of visitors come here every year--about 5 million of them to the city and the surrounding area in 1991--and almost inevitably find themselves smitten by the city's seductive blend of natural beauty, colorful history, European atmosphere and palpable tradition.

With 3,600 or so period buildings inside a 1,000-acre historic district, this water-girded principality owes its singular character to a blend of factors--a gilded colonial age and impoverished post-Civil War period, a tough and visionary preservationist policy and a contemporary economic and artistic renaissance. The mix of past and present makes for interesting temporal dislocations and a number of odd, appealing juxtapositions.

Charleston contains all the contradictions of a dream. And beneath its proper surface, it is really a sensualist's domain--a Garden of Eden after the fall, something out of Baudelaire or Tennessee Williams. Charlestonians love to drink, party, let their hair down. "Even though we claim to disapprove of it," opines one of my fellow natives, "debauchery's really what we do best." Charleston-born writer Blanche Boyd says that the city "smells like sex and cabbage."

CHARLESTON WORKS ITS MAGIC ALL YEAR LONG, BUT THE CHARM INTENSIFIES IN spring. By late March or April, the air turns balmy. Visitors loll on old-fashioned benches in the White Point Gardens park along the Battery, watching the whimsical peregrinations of clouds. Tiger cats doze atop sun-warmed gateposts. Lavender wisteria twines around old iron fences. Gardens explode with color--vivid tulips, azaleas in hot lipstick shades, perennials in paint-box hues.

The city's infinite permutations of light and color always dazzle me. As I walk around Charleston--a superb pedestrian's city--my eye takes pictures, freezing frames constantly. Many of the best visual pleasures are long views and panoramas: the oak-lined boulevards, the rows of pastel houses; the High Battery, with its old sea wall and promenade, with a regatta's worth of sailboats in the harbor beyond; a fanciful skyline that looks as though it has been cut out by a silhouettist's scissors. But the vignettes are lovely, too: a fat stone Buddha meditating under a fern; a lacy iron gate; red geraniums in a marble urn; fountains splashing in the sunlight, presided over by cherubs or mythical fish.

Old peninsular Charleston, the historic center of the city, can be easily traversed on foot. Indeed, feet are the best means of transportation for the visitor (though bicycle and horse-drawn buggy are good options, too). Broad Street, which transects the lower part of the peninsula, is the original commercial artery of Charleston--the local version of Wall Street. Row upon row of stuccoed edifices house the city's top law, real estate and financial firms. Old-fashioned lanterns take the place of modern street lights. Nearby Legare and Church streets are residential. Each has been called the most beautiful street in America. The difference between them is largely one of scale. The houses on Legare are mansions, really, set on huge lots that were laid out in the original 17th-Century "Grand Modell" of the city. The houses on Church are smaller and generally quainter, with tiny, perfect gardens tucked behind them. The maze of small alleys and lanes behind these streets is worth wandering through, too. Three of my favorites are Longitude Lane, Stoll's Alley and Zigzag Alley, each chockablock with small visual surprises.

IF FOR VISITORS CHARLESTON IS A LIVING MUSEUM, THEN FOR NATIVES IT'S A living biography. As a Charlestonian, you navigate across a web of memory, history and blood connections. Children whose great-grandparents played together also play together. Families intermarry, genes do a tumble; a chin is replicated here, a nose there. Even names, especially the aristocratic French Huguenot ones, get scrambled around and reused. At a party you might meet Legare Gaillard--or Gaillard Legare.

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