January 18, 2024

Gone with the Tides of Time and Change

The sale of the Nathaniel Russell House

Update: Shortly after this post was published, the Board of the Historic Charleston Foundation reversed its decision to shutter the Nathaniel Russell House.

Most of my days begin just before the rising of the sun, in that brief time when the first rays of light start to streak across the sky. By the time most of the world is stirring, I have gone through a couple of cups of coffee as the bells of St. Helena’s church, circa 1712, strike 6 and echo across our sleepy town.

The year is now new, this day is new, and the world is made fresh again. None of us are living in eternity.  We have only these moments in time that melt away like snowflakes. By now, I’ve made a list of the people I intend to meet and new places to see in the weeks and months ahead. The list is long, and the excitement of new beginnings and new places stirs my imagination. By the time the first of the daffodils peak out of the ground over on Cat Island, I’ll be ready. I’ve learned not to live beyond the present but to embrace January's bleak, stormy days. 

Through the years, I’ve been a joyful food historian and teller of tales, enthusiastic about preserving our vanishing traditions and our seafood industry and honoring those unsung heroes who labor each day to bring us the bounty. I’ve spent many hours leaning against a railing somewhere waiting for a shrimp boat to come in, afternoons parked by the saltwater edge of South Carolina eating a shrimp burger with a Coke and french fries on the hood of my car. For this is the land of beach dives, cinder block fish houses, and seafood shacks. I love them all.

New thoughts came to mind somewhere in Charleston last December. I was there for a book signing on Upper King St., walking back to my hotel amidst the crowds of visitors and locals celebrating the most beautiful time of the year. Joy was everywhere in this magical place with its horse-drawn carriages dressed for the holiday, sparkling lights, and sounds of carols in the air. I was falling in love all over again with the majesty of this city steeped in history, architectural beauty, and generations of tradition.

The next morning, I headed over to The Shops of Historic Charleston, as I always did on every visit I ever made to this city. Immediately, I noticed my favorite employee behind the cash register ringing up a customer. With each new book, I would come for a signing in the fall when the house tours were underway.  We worked together and shared our lives and stories. After our exchange of hugs, I noticed a tear or two in her eyes. Her voice was strangely quiet as she spoke. “The Historic Charleston Foundation Board of Trustees is closing all of this along with the Nathaniel Russell House.” It was a jaw-dropping moment. 

The Nathaniel Russell House, 51 Meeting Street, is a National Historic Landmark. Surely, this shocking decision will affect preservation efforts throughout the rest of this treasured city and our country. One can only wonder what comes next. Will it be the William-Aiken House? Charleston has earned the reputation of leading the country in historic preservation and helping that ethos spread. 

Discoveries are continuing to unfold within this beloved structure. Only recently, valuable relics were found in the kitchen house walls: a fragment of an enslaved butler’s waistcoat, a colorful calico, and a reading primer. Someone in that space was learning to read back when it was illegal for enslaved people to do so. These walls still hold secrets yet to be found. Pictured are the peach pits, a bone and a fork found in the walls. The reading primer is a sign the although it was illegal for the enslaved to learn to read, they knew how to teach themselves.

This house stands proud as a reminder that once upon a time, we had architecture and thoughtful design in our buildings and private homes. It was not always confined to the grandiose structures for the powerful and wealthy among us but was found in neighborhoods, farmhouses, and buildings throughout the countryside. 

Today, architecture is on a slippery slope into obscurity, with builders rushing at lightning speed to rid the landscape of our cherished moss-laden oaks and create a sea of cookie-cutter cardboard boxes. 

This further reinforces the case for historic preservation, rehabilitation, and repurposing of old buildings still standing before they vanish forever. Once sold to a private buyer, the doors will be closed forever to the public. This will surely undermine so many other valuable house museums like Drayton Hall and the emerging Henry Hutchinson House on Edisto. Now, all could be in danger of closing their doors if a governing board prioritizes something else.