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Slow dance with Charleston

When the days turn sultry, life decelerates in South Carolina's old port city. Linger with hidden gardens, historic homes and tantalizing cuisine. There's no hurry.

July 30, 2006|Robin Rauzi | Times Staff Writer

Charleston, S.C. — WHEN George and Ira Gershwin were adapting DuBose Heyward's novel into the opera "Porgy and Bess," they decamped to the Charleston area in the summer of 1934.

They got very little done.

Summertime ... and the living is easy, in a desultory kind of way. With temperatures and humidity in the high 80s, you're forced to slow to a saunter. And that, it turns out, is the most appropriate pace to take in and fully appreciate Charleston's residential lanes, pastel-colored row houses and hidden gardens.

That secret is starting to slip out. Tourism here is booming, up from 3.2 million visitors in 1997 to 4.7 million 2004, and the onetime summer "low-season" hotel rates in the city are starting to disappear. The gap between the peak spring home-garden tours and the fall conventions has closed, mostly filled by family vacationers.

A family reunion on Sullivans Island, about 15 miles east, brought me to the area just as summer was starting, and I decided to linger for four more days in a town whose history and character are as contrarian as its cuisine is tantalizing.

With my family, I got my first overview on a one-hour carriage tour. The city has divvied up the historic district into four routes, and only 20 total carriages can be out at any one time. But it's such a popular tourist activity that on a weekend afternoon, carriages back up on Market Street and down Anson Street like airliners queued up at LAX.

Waiting for our tour to start, we ambled through the open-air Old City Market, which was full of souvenirs: watercolor paintings, photographs and coiled sweet-grass baskets that women weave in the shade of outdoor umbrellas. I'm not a trinket buyer, but I walked out of the market wearing a woven straw hat with a 3-inch brim. A good shade hat isn't an accessory here; it's an essential.

Our midday carriage tour meandered through the streets south of Broad, the tip of the peninsula where most of the city's oldest and grandest houses stand. Charleston boomed in its first 50 years, becoming the fourth-largest city in the American Colonies. It quickly became the wealthiest too as a result of its slave-plantation economy and thriving port, which shipped millions of pounds of rice to England.

At Broad and King streets, we passed the John Lining House, thought to be one of the oldest in the city. Like others surviving from the Colonial period, it has no foundation, so its sits practically atop the sidewalk. The distinctive single houses are tall and skinny, only one room wide, and perfectly scaled to the one-lane streets. The oval bronze plaques affixed to houses indicate whether a resident paid for insurance and which fire company would fight a blaze at that address.

Plate-sized discs indicate a different kind of rescue operation. At joist-level, they were installed much like the earthquake retrofit bolts commonly seen on masonry buildings in Los Angeles. The bolts aren't preventive here; they pulled the walls back together after a devastating earthquake in 1886. I always thought one had to choose between earthquakes and hurricanes but apparently not.

The bolts are subtle reminders of an unlikely impetus for the city's preservation: dire poverty. After the Civil War, the onetime richest city in America was suddenly among the poorest. Grand homes were converted into schools, boardinghouses and businesses.

A few days later, I toured the Heyward-Washington House, built in 1772 as the brag-worthy home of a wealthy planter but by the late 19th century was a bakery with an upstairs apartment for the baker's family. The Charleston Museum bought it and has restored it to its 1790s grandeur. Today, it looks as it would have when George Washington stayed there.

The rooms are filled with locally made early American furniture. Atop one of the mantels was a ceramic figurine that, at the time, was sold as Washington, Ben Franklin or "a country gentleman" -- as if the characters were interchangeable.

Right size for strolling

THE marshy Atlantic coast of South Carolina resisted colonization for 150 years before British planters from Bermuda and the West Indies dug in for good in 1670. The settlement, named Charles Towne for King Charles II of England, was upstream a bit, but shortly moved to the more defensible peninsula pointing into Charleston Harbor, with the Ashley River to the west and the Cooper River to the east.

Although the greater Charleston area now has nearly 600,000 residents, these natural boundaries keep the city itself smaller, about 96,000 people. The peninsula is also pedestrian-scale, less than two miles across.

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