Sidewalks and alleys in the oldest blocks of the Peninsula lead to green treasures behind iron gates. Inside, private oases of plants and trees create a particular yew and boxwood and brick phenomenon, the natural-yet-cultivated, jessamine-scented legacy known simply as the “Charleston Garden.”
It’s in the layers of green that you’ll soften. Your mood will lighten. You’ll smell a sweetness and hear a buzz—of bees, or if in the steam of summertime, of cicadas. The splash of water in a fountain is like a lullaby. Bend to walk beneath the smooth, angled limbs of the crape myrtles. Brush your hand across the horizontal plane of the boxwood hedge.
This garden on Legare Street, or that one on Church Street or Tradd Street, all provide fodder for poetry, space for the romantic mind to wander and wonder. It may be a particularly steamy day most places around Charleston, but it’s actually cool on a path of bluestone deep in the one-acre garden (a whole acre!) behind the gates of wrought iron and the walls of moss-covered brick of a residence on South Battery. So lush and unfolding, with benches in garden nooks and “secret” paths, it looks possible to stay in this garden for days, unnoticed. (The 64 S. Battery property is the stately William Gibbes’s House, built in 1772 with four stories and impressive Georgian lines.)
Charleston can count many public green spaces, but the Gibbes’s property and hundreds of others are private gardens, at least in name. They come in all shapes and sizes, tucked among the three centuries of houses, churchyards, and old wharf buildings nearest Charleston Harbor. To be invited inside the gates of some of these South of Broad Street gardens can feel like being in on a secret. Even garden spaces partially visible are thrilling to passersby. Thanks to the openness afforded by the curve and twist of wrought iron fences, a peek or even a long look from the street can be had with relative ease.
LIVED IN & SHARED
“Gardens, above all, are for sharing,” according to Emily Whaley, who for nearly five decades welcomed visitors to step in through the narrow pathway to her lower Church Street home and garden during various tours. She declared, “The whole city is a garden,” especially for a few weeks each spring.
Mrs. Whaley and her Charleston Garden was published in 1998, the year before her death at age eighty-seven. The book is chock-full of beautiful descriptions and wise advice when it comes to gardens, Charleston, or just about anything else that writer William Baldwin was able to jot down in their conversations. “I want a garden that’s lived in,” she says in its pages, and talks of creating garden “rooms” for growing herbs, picking flowers, and seating.
The gardens south of Broad Street may have similar design and plantings, but each reflects the distinct flair of its residents. Walking past, you can glimpse a green-on-green palette. Palmetto trees and camellias, creeping rosemary, yews, ivy and grasses, hydrangeas, creeping fig, sweet viburnum, and holly fern that comprise pathways or rooms for entertaining, meditation, birds, butterflies, art. The garden is the outdoor counterpart to rooms in the home, to its piazzas, patios, and carriage house. While plants and trees that are native to the Lowcountry are often used, these Charleston gardens are also noticeably cultivated. An artful order pervades. A single camellia, tea olive, or even magnolia is often pruned to an espalier on the backdrop of a brick wall. At a 1770s single house on lower King Street, an ancient, woody-trunked wisteria vine creates an arbor along the entire length of the piazza.
THE BRIGGS LEGACY
The components and design of the 64 S. Battery Garden, Mrs. Whaley’s garden, and hundreds of others downtown can be traced to one Loutrel Briggs (1893–1977), a legendary American landscape architect who specialized in garden design in Charleston. Decidedly trim and known to always dress in a sport jacket and tie, Briggs arrived in Charleston from New York City in the late 1920s. By 1951 he’d written the book Charleston Gardens. It’s the book that defines the Charleston garden, with 156 pages of history, black-and-white photographs (mostly his), and precise and elaborate drawings (also his work) of gardens downtown and on Lowcountry plantations nearby. The well-defined rooms, the penchant for curves, designs on an axis with strong focal points—these are all part of the Briggs repertoire. “Houses usually outlive their gardens,” Briggs wrote. “But some of these forgotten patterns and plantings may still be recaptured.”
He was prolific in his work, designing gardens that matched Charleston’s stock of distinctive piazzas, long and narrow lots, and single houses. Briggs studied Charleston’s deep botanical history and examined the bones of Colonial-era gardens before creating his designs. Several artful illustrations of his early Charleston gardens were featured in national magazines in the 1930s and 1940s. “What is known today as ‘the Charleston Garden’ is really the Loutrel Briggs garden,” says Sheila Wertimer, one of Charleston’s leading landscape architects.
Wertimer’s firm has studied and designed hundreds of gardens here and, according to her, Briggs’s tremendous legacy was spurred by first-hand knowledge of gardens he’d visited early in his career in England and Europe. “He was a perfectionist, he understood the importance of scale, and he was quite prolific,” Wertimer says. “Loutrel Briggs stoked a real interest in garden design in Charleston, and his gardens were built to last.”
Also enduring are the iron gates and fences around many of Charleston’s finest gardens. Twentieth-century ironsmith Philip Simmons created more than five hundred of these swirling gates and fences by commission, and the beloved artist’s legacy continues today through masters like Rick Avrett at Ole Charleston Forge and Sean Ahern of Ahern’s Anvil. Real estate ads for houses downtown these days prominently note a Philip Simmons gate or a Loutrel Briggs garden. In Lowcountry circles, gardens and gates aren’t just beautiful, but they’re also a valued selling point.
Each year various homeowners open their private gardens for tours, and proceeds typically benefit garden clubs and historical societies. These tours carefully limit the number of participants, to prevent too much wear to private gardens, and tickets often sell fast. “It’s fun to be in a garden and to see Charleston from the backs and sides,” says Kitty Robinson, president of the Historic Charleston Foundation, one of the groups that organizes annual tours. “It’s a fascinating perspective to see the gardens, plus the walls and rooflines and architecture of adjacent buildings.”
Robinson married a Charlestonian and moved here over forty years ago, and it was by volunteering as a docent on garden tours that she gained true insight about Charleston. The more she saw and learned, Robinson says, the more her love for the city grew. She notes that through the 1980s the Foundation’s Spring Festival of Houses focused solely on house tours. By popular demand, gardens were officially given more attention in the 1990s—so much so that the Festival decided to add tours and give equal billing to gardens. The name was changed to Spring Festival of Houses and Gardens. Together, Charleston gardens and architecture now make for magical views and create “intimate places for sitting, enlightenment, tranquility, and personal enjoyment,” Robinson says. “It’s a real privilege to live in a property with a garden, and it’s wonderful that so many homeowners are willing to share.”
Now, back to that expansive garden on South Battery, the one you were ready to slip off your shoes to pad through. This remarkable residence was owned in the early 1800s by the Rev. John Grimke Drayton. He commissioned the making of a garden plaque that would commemorate his wish “to create an earthly paradise” as a gift to his wife. Nearly two centuries later, magnolia and cedar trees offer shade and height to some sections, and roses are in a bloom in a sunnier garden room. Intimate courtyards are planted with dozens of camellias, and the water of a square-shaped wading pool shimmers above concrete that’s stained a pale aqua blue. In Charleston, contributions by past owners and the designs of Mr. Briggs live on. At house after house for blocks, iterations of the Charleston Garden are repeated. Each a paradise, indeed.