CHARLESTON, S.C. - The circa-1800 Gaillard-Bennett house at 60 Montagu St. boasts the kind of elegant features found in Charleston's finest house museums. It has an all-marble gray-and-white checkerboard sidewalk and early 19th-century locally made rice beds, named for the sheath of rice carved onto the tall bedposts. The ceilings, cornice moldings, and fireplace mantels feature plasterwork as decorative as a royal wedding cake.
Other elements in the 9,400-square-foot manse are decidedly not museum-like. Consider the backpack with books flung open beside the bed in one room, the rows of Disney figurines lined up on a set of shelves, and the pug named Havoc scampering up and down the U-shaped staircase.
Though 60 Montagu may look like a house museum, it's actually the new home of former Orange County, Calif., developer Steve Stewart, his wife, Mary Caroline, and their two daughters. They moved in last year but are still ushering in carpenters, like many people who have tackled a big house renovation.
They're opening the door to the public as well: The house is one of about 180 private properties on the annual Fall Tours of Homes and Gardens offered by the Preservation Society of Charleston. The monthlong festival runs through Oct. 28. The Gaillard-Bennett house is open Oct. 13 and 26.
The tours are a chance to get inside the wrought-iron gates and see some of Charleston's amazing properties. If you miss the fall tours, you'll have another chance in the spring, when the Historic Charleston Foundation hosts its own monthlong series.
Charleston, with its flickering gas lamps, horse-drawn carriages, and restored antebellum mansions, can feel like a throwback to another time. Before the Civil War, the city was among the wealthiest in the country. Its distinctive look, which includes houses with covered porches called piazzas on each story, mixes Colonial, Georgian, Federal, Classical, and Gothic Revival styles of its early settlers with elements brought from trade with Barbados.
Cynthia Cole Jenkins, executive director of the Preservation Society of Charleston, says, "What people think of as Charleston architecture is these classic styles mixed with vernacular interpretation to meet the climate and the topography. The orientation is south toward the rivers, because that's the way the breezes blow. They learned to build the houses a little above ground to protect from flooding. Also, the higher a house is, the more breeze it'll catch."
In 1931 Charleston was the first city in the nation to pass zoning ordinances to protect historic buildings. The advent of automobiles prompted the action, says Leigh Handal of the Historic Charleston Foundation. "They wanted to build gas stations downtown. It caused so much alarm. Ladies in town would throw themselves in front of a bulldozer to stop them."
Zoning rules may have preserved houses from the wrecking ball, but it was the destruction from September 1989's Hurricane Hugo that sparked a restoration boom - as well as soaring real estate prices. "The money from insurance helped turn the city around," says Handal. "People got money to fix up houses, including many that needed long-deferred maintenance."
"A lot of times we're doing what I call the 100-year tune-up," says Glenn Keyes, the architect who oversaw the restoration of 60 Montagu. "There was no money in Charleston for 100 years after the Civil War, so people just put Band-Aids on problems."
The multimillion-dollar renovation at 60 Montagu includes many tasks all too familiar to owners of old homes. "We scraped and removed all the paint, resealed and recaulked everything, and replaced every single rotted item," says Stewart. "We had rotted sills and rotted siding, windows that were deteriorated and had to be taken out and rebuilt."
Two of the projects Keyes has been involved with, both Historic Charleston Foundation properties, represent two very different approaches to historic presentation.
At the brick Nathaniel Russell House, completed in 1808, a harp stands beside an elegant gold-colored chaise in an oval drawing room, and it's as if you've stepped into the early 1800s. Handal says there's not a stick of furniture inside that's newer than 1820, and everything from the paint to art to teacups is historically accurate. "We've frozen it in a moment of time at the peak of its grandeur."
Visit the Aiken-Rhett House, circa 1818, and as in the Nathaniel Russell House, the second-floor ballroom has upholstered furnishings and a large harp. But the upholstery looks as if mice have pulled out bits to make a nest, and the harp has only a few strings, including one that's sprung and hanging loose.
"People either love this or they want their money back," says Keyes. Where the Nathaniel Russell House is a restoration, Aiken-Rhett is an example of the conservation method.
"This house was owned for over 150 years by one family," explains Handal. "They never redid or restored it. So it ended up with layers of history intact."
Kathy Shorr can be reached at email@example.com.