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The New Charleston, SC

Zubin Shroff History remembered in an antebellum portrait at Charleston's Old Slave Mart Museum

Photo: Zubin Shroff

Listening to local preservation pioneer Mrs. Joseph Rutledge Young—the Gullah inflections of her voice skittering and swooping like a wayward marsh bird—is like eavesdropping on South Carolina history. She was raised way out in the country, on Edisto Island, in a circa-1700 spread with seven siblings, going to a one-room school in a horse-drawn buggy and sailing to town for shopping expeditions. A family-pew holder at St. Michael's, Young is something of a professional Charlestonian today: her perfect little 1798 "single house" on Meeting Street—one room wide, a formal entryway directly on the street, and a garden to the side—is often featured on walking tours.

Dressed in gray pants, black flats, and white socks ("I don't like to wear pants all day, though so many women do now"), she serves coffee in her cozy front parlor. Asked about the history of her family, she walks over to a glass case of memorabilia to bathe in the grace of history: "This is the hair of my husband's ancestors, made into wreaths—when there's black ribbon, it means they're dead." In Charleston, a resident might refer to a perfectly alive maiden aunt down the street as an ancestor. But Young, whose late husband's family goes back to signers of the Declaration of Independence, is also a forward-thinking sort, believing that the newcomers in Charleston have reenergized the city; in 1952, she was the first woman in town to become a licensed tour operator. "I'd drive visitors like Bob Hope and his wife around in my Oldsmobile convertible for five dollars an hour. For a dollar, Susan Pringle Frost, who lived in a 1760 Georgian house, the finest in America, would let you see her place. For four dollars you could stay overnight and be taken care of by all her maids, have your breakfast on a silver tray. Can you imagine that?"

One morning, when old-guard society had begun to feel claustrophobic in a bad–Tennessee Williams kind of way, I aired myself out with a drive through the hardscrabble neighborhood known as the Neck, past the huge port facilities: Charleston has always been a city with muscles. On the outskirts of town, Magnolia Cemetery—all magnolias, live oaks, Spanish moss, and Confederate camp tombstones—is scented by the sharp earthiness of "pluff" mud (a local term applied to low-country marshland) along the banks of the Cooper River. Last year, 50,000 Civil War reenactors marched to Magnolia Cemetery to bury the crew members recovered from the recently discovered Hunley, a Confederate-era submarine. The city fired on Fort Sumter in 1861, but everyone talks about the "great unpleasantness" as if it happened last week.

Magnolia anchors a complex that includes the less scenic cemeteries of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, the Friendly Union Society, and a plot reserved for the Brown Fellowship Society. Together, they service every local religion and shade of skin color, in adjacent but distinctly separate facilities. In Charleston, the afterlife can be pretty much like life.

Along Highway 61, the grand old plantations on the Ashley River unfold like a diorama of dreams. The first stop is the Magnolia Plantation, built around 1676. This 500-acre estate may have been the earliest local tourist attraction, welcoming day-trippers shortly after the Civil War, and Fernanda Hastie and Taylor Drayton Nelson of the Drayton family still live there. The property is pure bucolic kitsch, complete with Biblical Gardens, alligators floating around in a gothic cypress swamp, petting zoos, trams, and antebellum slave quarters. Just down the highway is Drayton Hall, the oldest surviving example of Georgian-Palladian architecture in the U.S.: it remains as it was when John Drayton built it in 1738, without plumbing or electricity. Last on the plantation trail is Middleton Place, one of the most stunning estates in Charleston, with a precise formal garden, a butterfly-shaped lake, and hillsides draped in luxurious azaleas.

At certain moments, it seems as if the entire landscape of Charleston has been dusted in the dogwood blossoms that fall like snow, then sealed in one of those plastic dime-store paperweights: turned one way, the city is a simple proposition of pure beauty; upended, the scenery removed and the past factored into the equation, it means something darker.

Travel is often a quest for authenticity and real experiences that no one else has ever had, a quest that's virtually impossible in the modern era. The topography of the heart is mysterious, given to curious tributaries. A final stop in old Dixie gave me my electric memory of Charleston, the moment when I sensed that I had discovered new terrain.

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