Classica Americana : A collection of essays

'A Beautiful Row of Ornamental Buildings' Roper House & Friends on Charleston's East Battery

Spurred by the economic prosperity of the mid-1830s and a healthy dose of civic pride, the city of Charleston embarked on two ambitious municipal projects intended to enhance the Battery and the area of shoreline along the southern tip of the peninsula known as White Point. The first was the construction of a substantial new sea wall of cut stone and a wide pedestrian promenade, both of which were completed in 1836. The second was the establishment of a public pleasure garden on White Point. Unfortunately, due to the Panic of 1837, which plunged the United States into its first serious economic depression, the city was forced to scale back on this project and to search for new sources of revenue. As originally conceived, White Point Garden was designed to be L-shaped and extend from Church Street on the South Battery, around the corner, and up the East Battery as far north as the John Bee Holmes mansion, the four-story yellow building that appears in the foreground of Samuel Barnard’s 1831, View Along the East Battery, Charleston (fig. 1). To reduce costs and raise funds, the extension up the East Battery was scuttled and the land designated for it was subdivided and sold as house lots. The commission responsible for this decision predicted that the sale of these lots would “produce a beautiful row of ornamental buildings along the whole line of East Bay Battery,” and in order to stimulate and encourage this possibility they added the stipulation “that no house less than three stories high shall be erected thereon.” The Roper house and its next-door neighbors to the north and south were the first fruits of this ambitious plan.

Figure 1
View Along the East Battery, Charleston by Samuel Barnard, 1831. Oil on canvas. Mabel Brady Garvan Collection, Yale University Art Gallery

The first house built on these city lots was for the wealthy planter, Robert W. Roper. Roper had the foresight and the means to purchase two lots, which provided him with ample space for a beautiful yard and garden facing the monumental two-story piazza on the south side of the house, which was completed for him in 1838 (fig. 2). The next house was built on a lot and adjacent to the Roper house on the north side for Charleston shipping merchant, William Ravenel. Constructed in 1845 in the form of a Greek temple (fig. 3), the William Ravenel house was badly damaged in the earthquake of 1886 when its triangular pediment, and four massive front columns tumbled to the ground and were destroyed. Sadly, this magnificent temple front has never been restored. The third and latest of these three adjacent houses was built about 1848 on the south side of the Roper house for John Ravenel, William’s brother and business partner. Like its next-door neighbor the Roper house, the narrow entrance side of the John Ravenel house faces the street, a characteristic feature of the traditional Charleston single house. Its side piazza, another feature of this house type, was not completed until 1858, however, according to a recent discovery. Also, seriously damaged in the earthquake of 1886 (fig. 4), an ornate pressed metal Italianate cornice and triangular window pediments were added when the house was reconstructed, which give the house a later and more elaborate appearance than when it was originally designed and constructed.

Figure 2
Photograph of the Robert W. Roper House, 9 East Battery, Charleston, South Carolina probably taken in the early 1880s, after its post-Civil War
restoration. Courtesy of Mr. Ash Milner.

Figure 3
(Left) The William Ravenel house, 13 East Battery, Charleston, South Carolina. Original photo taken in the nineteenth century, prior to the earthquake of 1886.

Figure 4.
Cook’s Earthquake Views of Charleston and Vicinity. Taken after the 31st of August, 1886. No. 64, St. Julien Ravenel, East Battery. The Charleston Museum Archives.

All three of these houses commanded spectacular views of Charleston Harbor and beyond. But it was the view from the water back toward the Battery that the planning commissioners more likely had in mind when they undertook their improvements. This handsome row of townhouses, the wide promenade, and White Point Garden together brought clarity, order, and beauty to a formerly nondescript area of the city and created a welcoming and highly urbane prospect for those entering Charleston Harbor after a long journey at sea. John William Hill’s 1851, Panorama of Charleston, a detail of which is shown here (fig. 5), speaks eloquently of this new prospect. In this view, we see, starting at the corner of the South and East Battery, the John Ravenel house, the Robert W. Roper house with the center column of its piazza oddly missing, and the William Ravenel house with its temple front still intact. Beyond these is the previously mentioned Holmes mansion with its unusual four-story piazza and a house then belonging to Charles Alston. This latter house, then painted white, is shown partially obscured by the Holmes mansion in the 1831 Barnard View along the East Battery (fig. 2). At that time, it was owned by Charles Edmonston, who had built it six years earlier. By 1838, due to financial reversals suffered as the result of the Panic of 1837, Edmonston was forced to sell the house. Its new owner, Charles Alston, also a wealthy rice planter, added a third story with a hip roof and balustrade much like the one on the Roper house, as well as a third tier to the side piazza with Corinthian columns based on the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens. (A case of “keeping up with the Ropers” perhaps?) This third story addition brought Alston’s house in line with the building requirement imposed by the city planners and added to the increasingly pleasing prospect of the East Battery.

Figure 5.
Detail of Panorama of Charleston, by John William Hill, 1851. Hand-colored lithograph. Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, South Carolina.

The townhouses of Robert W. Roper and the Ravenels were avant-garde architectural expressions for their place and time when they were built between 1838 and 1848. The Greek Revival came relatively late to Charleston as compared to New York or Philadelphia, for instance, and it was only in the late 1830s and early 1840s that the construction of monumental Greek Revival buildings such as the Charleston Hotel (1837-39), Market Hall (1840), and Beth Elohim Synagogue (1840-41) began to change the architectural landscape of the city. At the time of its construction in 1838, the Roper house represented something strikingly new yet still familiar in domestic architecture in this peninsular city; a traditional Charleston single house with a side piazza stylishly recast with five monumental, two-story columns to resemble an ancient Greek stoa. The William Ravenel house, in the form of a Greek temple, embraced the most iconic and popular ancient model used by American architects and builders working in the Greek Revival style. The classical orders employed in the design of these two townhouses, as well as in the third-story piazza added to the Edmonston-Alston house, were sophisticated choices based on the archaeologically correct engraved plates in Stuart and Revett’s The Antiquities of Athens (London, 1762). The Ionic Temple on the Ilissus published in Stuart and Revett and copied as Plate 46 in Minard Lafever’s, The Modern Builder’s Guide (New York, 1833), was the source for the colonnade at the Roper house (fig. 6). The rare Tower of the Winds capital used in the front portico of the William Ravenel house also appears in Stuart and Revett (fig. 7), as does the Lysicrates capital in the top tier of the piazza at the Edmonston-Alston house, which was copied as well by Lafever in The Modern Builder’s Guide. Though less overtly Greek than the Robert W. Roper or the William Ravenel houses, the John Ravenel house, as originally conceived and built in 1848 (fig. 4), was classically inspired as well. The bold, deep pilasters at the corners of its entrance façade have the sturdy aspect of piers and the monumentality and beauty of classical columns, while its three-story central bay adds a picturesque quality to the overall design. In New York, the talented architect Alexander Jackson Davis frequently incorporated tall, boldly-projecting pilasters such as these into his Greek Revival building designs. He also was one of the first American architects to use bay windows which, according to architectural historian Jane B. Davies, he used not only in his picturesque country house designs in the Gothic Revival style but also carried over into other styles as well (fig. 8).

Figure 6 & 7.
James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, The Antiquities of Athens, Vol. 1 (London, 1762). Chapter III, Elevation of the Tower of the Winds (Pl. III, left) and Capital and Entablature of the Portico (Pl. VII, right).

Figure 8.
Dwelling, Gramercy Park, N.Y., Ch. Aug. Davis – Park Front. Ink and color wash on paper, 1846, Alexander Jackson Davis. Collection of the New-York Historical Society.

Fast forward to today, 180 years after the commission responsible for the beautification of this part of Charleston predicted that their plan to sell city lots would “produce a beautiful row of ornamental buildings along the whole line of East Battery.” In hindsight, they could not have been more prescient. These handsome townhouses, despite the ravages of hurricanes, the Civil War and a devastating earthquake, have stood the test of time to form the core of one of the most iconic streetscapes of any American city. The future is particularly bright for three of these houses today, all in the hands of dedicated preservationists keenly aware of their importance to Charleston and to the nation: Dick Jenrette, who in 2018 will celebrate his fiftieth year of stewardship at the Roper House; Scott Bessent, a dedicated member of the Board of Directors of Classical American Homes Preservation Trust who recently acquired the John Ravenel House and is embarking on a meticulous restoration of the property; and Charles H. P. Duell, another CAHPT Board member and founder of the Middleton Place Foundation, which administers the Edmonston-Alston House and opens it to thousands of visitors each year. They say that good fences make good neighbors. Maybe so, but give me a devoted preservationist any day.

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