The mysteries sometimes keep her awake at night.
There’s much to mull—letters penned in the early 1800s in flowing, cursive French; mentions of a “bathing-house” that once stood in the garden; merchant listings of imported Champagne and Haitian coffee.
Not to mention the thousands of little artifacts she found digging in a corner of the yard. When visitors stop by, the latest found objects are arranged puzzle-like on a dining room table. In the diffused light of piazza-facing windows, there may be cattle bones, odd buttons, catfish spines, and large porcelain pieces decorated in pagodas, sailing ships, or woodland scenes.
MEET JULIANA FALK
Dressed smartly in a black sweater and pants, her brown hair pulled into a smooth ponytail, she’s scratching the dirt with a trowel and has to look upward from the large, hand-dug hole in her yard to see where I’m standing. At that depth, I think, she could be excavating the deep end of a swimming pool. But soon she produces an object from the dirt walls, a curved piece of pottery. “Part of a rim from a pitcher,” she says, smiling and brushing it off to show me.
Falk first stepped through the gate of the large, walled lot that surrounds 48 Laurens Street about eight years ago. It was the tenth property for sale downtown that she’d visited. Falk was hoping to relocate from Pennsylvania to Charleston but had only been to the city a couple of times. But she was ready for southern climes, and her parents had visited Kiawah Island for years.
“This house spoke to me right away,” she says, even with an overgrown garden and some rooms needing repair. After moving in, she soon noticed pottery pieces in the soft dirt floor in the greenhouse. She did some research, saved each “sherd” (what she’d learn is a preferred archaeological term for shard), and discovered that what she was finding was hand-painted Mocha ware or “dipped ware” from the nineteenth century, each with a “cabling” design in brown, blue, white, and green. With her collection of artifacts growing, she reached out to experts at Drayton Hall and the Charleston Museum, and she quickly found herself on an “unexpected journey in restoration and research.”
Never subdivided or radically remodeled (only an addition added), the private home was once owned by the Historic Charleston Foundation and is a window into the life of an early nineteenth-century French consul and merchant named Simon Jude Chancognie. Falk knew immediately that this wasn’t just a residence but an intriguing part of Charleston’s early story. The six rooms of the original, three-story house have survived remarkably intact, including woodwork, mantels, floors, and plasterwork (now being carefully revealed after much detail was lost under two centuries of paint). Falk is having the original exterior colors confirmed by paint analysis, but it appears to have been cream-colored with black trim.
She’s gradually working to uncover, restore, and preserve as much as possible at Chancognie House, and becoming what she calls “The Accidental Preservationist.” Falk’s law degree certainly didn’t prepare her for this part-archaeology, part-history, and part-home renovation.
Chancognie arrived in 1801 to reopen the French consulate in Charleston. A French colonial naval secretary before his appointment, Chancognie penned his letters in French and socialized with the Spanish consulate; he once imported to Charleston a shipment of precisely 2,124 bottles of “the finest Champagne;” and he married while here—to Marie Susanne Delaire, whose family had been partners in coffee and sugar plantations in the Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue (French Haiti).
The consul and merchant sited Chancognie House at one end of a large, mostly open lot in Ansonborough—historically a “suburb” of the city’s oldest neighborhoods closer to the Battery. Along the garden wall, passersby on the sidewalk may read the Historic Charleston Foundation plaque that was updated in 2017 to note the house was built circa-1810—an adjustment because of recent finds by Falk, including 1809 newspapers backing some of the wallpaper plus a listing from 1813 that described the house and outbuildings as being “three years old.” (The residence had previously been thought to have been built in 1814–1816.)
The homesite still has its large walled garden, planted now with mature camellias, Meyer lemon trees, and what must be one of the peninsula’s tallest holly trees. Falk has learned that the grounds originally featured a garden of fruit trees and a “Bathing-House, handsomely built of Philadelphia brick.” Intrigued, in 2016 she commissioned an archaeological dig by the Charleston Museum to see if they could find evidence of the bath house, but no remnants have yet been located. “If we could learn enough about it,” Falk says, “I would love to be able to reconstruct it.”
Before I go, we’re standing on the piazza when Falk mentions that the artifacts she’s found already “could easily total ten thousand pieces,” and she realizes the discoveries and preservation of Chancognie House could be a lifetime project. I recall then how I’d seen her earlier, when she was happily digging and sifting. It’s a favorite place for Falk to be lately, she admits, deep in a hole dug in the yard of this long ago Frenchman’s house—and finding in Charleston her own joie de vivre.