Ah, the fickle finger of fate …
A kid gets a chemistry set and becomes a scientist. Boy meets girl in kindergarten and they wind up getting married. A wrong turn leads you to the House of Your Dreams.
A newspaper column introduced me to one of the loves of my life: Charleston, S.C.
When I was a U of I student, I read the old Urbana Courier. In about 1975, features writer Nina Rubel did a column about her recent vacation in Charleston. A travel agent had told her that going there was like going to a foreign country.
Rubel described the city as “a fly in amber.” She wrote about the historic seaport’s narrow streets, its harbor, its museums, its gardens, its ancient churches and its hundreds of beautiful historic homes.
“Hmmm,” I thought. “I’d like to go there someday.”
Two years later, I was a newspaper reporter, plotting my first solo vacation. I called Rubel for more details. Within minutes, I had decided to visit Charleston.
That first trip, in October 1977, was amazing. Through the years, I have returned several times, by myself, with a friend, with my wife, with our children, and, a few weeks ago, with both of our daughters, their husbands, and our two grandsons. It’s still the beautiful, inspiring, fascinating place that I knew decades ago.
In the past, I stayed downtown. This time we rented a house on the Isle of Palms, a barrier island where the children could run on the beach and the adults could relax, look at the ocean and gather shells.
I went into Charleston three times. It was like meeting an old friend that you long to see again and again and again. It has been like that for visitors since the city was founded in 1670.
Thanks to trade and the fabulous fortunes generated by indigo, rice, cotton and slave labor, Charleston was once the richest city in the United States, with some of the nation’s finest buildings.
In 1782, J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur wrote about Charleston in Letters from an American Farmer: “(A) European at his first arrival must be greatly surprised when he sees the elegance of their houses, their sumptuous furniture, as well as the magnificence of their tables.”
Charleston has endured hurricanes, earthquakes, wars and economic collapse. Because their owners were “too poor to paint, and too proud to whitewash,” as the saying goes, great historic buildings sat untouched until the preservation movement began in the 1920s.
In 1970, historian Wendell Garrett wrote: “Charleston is a lovely legend and a curious cult. Charlestonians cherish and protect the nostalgic charm of their city with deep-felt fervor; visitors come to it with a sense of fresh discovery and soon have adopted it as their own … it is an early American city, but it is unlike anything else on the continent. Charleston is unique.”
Amen. And thank you, Nina Rubel.