Charleston's built landscape is one of America's greatest works of public art. Centuries-worth of meticulous ironwork provides a visual feast for anyone exploring the downtown peninsula of Charleston. Wherever you look, you are rewarded with the rich architectural details that help give Charleston its vibrant sense of place.
Each design feature -- whether the sweeping porches of the Charleston single houses or scrollwork atop the Georgian columns fronting homes on the Battery -- illuminates parts of the city's past and provides the backdrop for Charleston's elaborate ballet of life. Downtown buildings are rich with architectural details, but the wrought iron masterpieces peppering the peninsula truly steal the show.
The ironworks of Charleston are not only aesthetically stunning, but they also provide us with a singular tale that mirrors the complex history of Charleston as a crossroads of culture. Since its inception, Charleston -- as an international port city -- has been influenced by an endless stream of varying peoples and cultures from across the globe.
A Short History of Ironworks
The winding narrative behind many of the wrought iron masterpieces is a centuries-old tale that dates back to the mid-eighteenth century when Charlestonians began to import increasingly ornate ironwork for their homes. Initially, wrought iron was utilized primarily for more simplistic, functional means -- hinges and latches -- and was not focused on aesthetic character.
However, as early as 1739, Charleston houses began to feature wrought iron balconies. In the latter half of the century, Charleston's affinity for decorative iron was catalyzed by the installation of a decorative iron communion rail in the newly finished St. Michaels Episcopal Church,
Imported from London in 1722, the decorative communion rail reflects the styling of English influence and became an inspiration for many of the blacksmiths in Charleston, who began to imitate the scrollwork featured at St. Michaels and give it their own distinct spin.
Charleston's love affair with elaborate ironwork escalated in the 19th century when three German-born blacksmiths -- J.A.W. Iusti, Christopher Werner, and Frederic Julius Ortmann -- saw the chance to leave their mark on the growing city of Charleston.
It was during the nineteenth century when ironwork became increasingly ornate and more embellished. Moved by the aesthetic trends of the Greek Revivalist movement, Charleston ironwork of the 1800s used nature, such as Greek shells, and more elaborate interpretations of scrollwork as inspiration.
Some of the most notable work of this era is Christopher Werner's gate at the Sword Gate House in the South of Broad neighborhood. Through these gates, Werner crafted a lasting tribute to the master blacksmiths' scrollwork of the previous century, while adding to it his distinctly ornate interpretation.
Though all three of the German-born Charlestonian blacksmiths crafted lasting works on the peninsula, unfortunately not all the iron masterpieces survived the bombardments of the Civil War or the test of time. Fortunately, one of the finest ironwork craftsmen to ever grace Charleston with his vision found inspiration from these predecessors and carried the art into our most recent era.
Born in 1912 on Daniel Island before the growth of Charleston had extended beyond the peninsula, Philip Simmons moved into the French Quarter of historic Charleston when he was eight years old to attend a more sustainable education. At the time, the school on Daniel Island offered limited educational resources and was only open for three months annually.
Simmons, from a young age, was inspired by the ironwork on his walk to and from school and decided to pursue the trade. Drawing inspiration from the deep well of blacksmithing tradition in Charleston, the aesthetic influence of the nineteenth-century German ironworks can be seen in Simmons’s own work but, over the span of his career, he developed a distinct style entirely his own.
John Paul Huguley, founder of the American College of Building Arts, once regarded Simmons as “a poet of ironwork.” Decorated with an endless list of honors―such as the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship―Simmons is easily one of the most influential ironworkers to ever bless not only Charleston but also our globe.
Though Simmons passed away in 2009, with more than five hundred of Simmons’s wrought iron masterpieces around historic Charleston, it is clear that, through his artistic vision, Simmons has forged his legacy into the essence of Charleston and will never be forgotten.
It should be no surprise that at the much-anticipated 2016 rendition of Porgy and Bess, at the 40th Spoleto Festival USA, paid homage Philip Simmons. As the curtain rises on “Catfish Row,” Gershwin’s name for the real-life Cabbage Row, located South of Broad, the audience is greeted by a scrim featuring wrought iron gates, emulating the design work of the celebrated artist.
Ironwork has long been synonymous with the city of Charleston. From the famous complexity of the iron gates at the famed Sword Gate House to the more nuanced charm of smaller iron fences draped in ivy luring you into a friend’s courtyard, wrought iron accents to the homes of the peninsula are keystones to the essence of Charleston.
From window grills to ornate balcony railings, decorative ironwork adorns many of homes and properties across historic Charleston, but the highest concentrations are located on the southern-most portions of the peninsula. Daily, the South of Broad and French Quarter neighborhoods act as an impromptu art gallery where wrought iron is the featured medium.
The elaborate designs are the product of artistic vision and born by the inspiration cultivated by the landscapes of Charleston. The wrought iron masterpieces around the Charleston peninsula are so entwined into the cultural milieu of the city that, without them, Charleston would be unrecognizable.