From 8 Legare Street (last week’s post), we’ll proceed south and take a left on Lamboll Street, and another left on King Street. 21 King Street is the second house on your left after the corner. Or you could just look for the largest, tallest, most ornate house within sight - that would be 21 King.
Patrick O’Donnell, the Irish contractor mentioned in last week’s post, built this house for his fiancée. O’Donnell chose the ornate Italianate style for their home, and he surely wanted everything to be as perfect as possible for her – it took him approximately twelve years to complete (1852-1870)!
Unfortunately, he didn’t even “get the girl”; his fiancée, supposedly tired of waiting, married another. This is the reason that 21 King Street is sometimes referred to as “O’Donnell’s Folly.”
Take a look at how it dwarfs the houses around it; 21 King has almost 10,000 square feet. Notice the elaborate ornamentation near the roof, around the windows, and on the columns along the piazza. The quoins or cornerstones are also highly decorative. The message was (and still is) wealth, importance, social standing. For those invited inside, the exterior is just a taste of things to come. High ceilings, ornamental plasterwork, and double parlors create an atmosphere for effortless entertaining.
21 King has been the site of some important contributions to the culture and heritage of Charleston. Josephine Pinckney, a noted author in the early-mid 20th century and Charleston native, lived here for about 30 years. It was at 21 King that the Poetry Society of South Carolina was formed in 1920, and this organization helped establish Charleston, still economically depressed from the Civil War and Reconstruction, as a literary and artistic force in the United States. Pinckney was a major player in the “Charleston Renaissance,” a cultural reawakening between the two world wars. Her 1945 novel, Three O’Clock Dinner, won the Southern Authors Award. We can be sure that those associated with the Charleston Renaissance spent much time at 21 King.
A subsequent owner in the 20th century is said to have been Margaret Mitchell’s inspiration for Melanie Wilkes in Gone With the Wind. A more recent visitor to 21 King during his presidential campaign in 2008 was former President Barack Obama.
“O’Donnell’s Folly” is a folly no more, as 21 King Street is a house that continues to command attention and has enjoyed greater significance than the builder ever imagined.