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EDWARD BRICKELL WHITE

CIVIL ENGINEER, ARCHITECT AND SURVEYOR 1806 - 1882

 

 By FRANK O’NEILL

with Neil Stevenson

 

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Between Chalmers Street and Marion Square the gravity of Charleston’s architecture thickens. The Barbadian housefronts lacquered and waiting south of Broad Street, frail as wasps’ nests north of Calhoun (but always children of the sun and breeze) change in this middle ground to an urban mixture. Still open, yet heavier, more insistent. Three things change: the buildings are often mid-Nineteenth century instead of late Eighteenth, they are often public, and their architect is often Edward Brickell White. This Central District is the germ of a very different Charleston, one that would have grown over much of the Charleston that is, just as Nineteenth century Boston supplanted the baytown of cod merchants and chandlers, and Nineteenth century New York supplanted to the old market and port of up river Dutch patroons. But in Charleston, decline, war, an earthquake and great fire arrested it at the moment of its quickening. It is easy to forget from a Lowcountry perspective that 18th Century Boston and New York were towns of charm, and that late 19th-century Charleston brought then to full development could have been a city of a immense distinction.

As it is 19th-century Charleston is to a startling degree the city of E. B. White. The Huguenot Church, St. Philip’s steeple, the Second Baptist (now Centennial Methodist) Church, St. Johannes Lutheran Church, Grace Church, the Market Hall, the Gothic parts of the old Citadel, the (old) Charleston High School on Society Street, the most striking elements of The College of Charleston the South Carolina Electric and Gas building at 141 Meeting Street, the Petigru Law office on St. Michael’s Alley, and the sturdy embankment along East Battery and White Point Gardens still stand to his name, as do various small monuments and the major post - 1865 repair of St. Michael’s Church; the United States arsenal and all but a gate of the Ann Street railroad yard have gone.

The United States Customs House rising majestically above East Bay Street, enormously impressive even in the form to which it was reduced after the War Between the States, was nominally by a Boston architect, but White devoted eight of his best years to it as Superintending Architect and the building is significantly his. This is a vast achievement. In tons of material, in ground covered, in institutions served, in sheer costs it dwarfs those of Gabriel Manigault and Robert Mills, Charleston’s more well-known architectural leaders. True to its mid-19th century formative energies it is overwhelmingly reserved to government, business, and large institutions. (White designed some houses and small charming country churches but they are of lesser importance .)Some of it is pedestrian, some of it is very nearly glorious,all of it is extremely competent, structurally impeccable, aesthetically harmonious at least. Nearly all of it is in daily use seven generations apart from its creator.

 

 

This inceptive transformation of Charleston was carried out by a man not merely a native son, but thoroughly connected with the Low Country’s patrician class. Edward Brickell White was the offspring of cultivated planters; that is, in Charleston, a class by no means bucolic, but one which used its landholdings for cornerstones for careers largely spent in the professions, business and the arts. E. B. White always direct, demonstrated this at the outset by being born in 1806 at Chapel Hill plantation near Charleston, the seat of his namesake uncle, Dr. James Brickell, a physician. His father, John Blake White, was one of those polymaths whose impassioned indecision made pockets of the American wilderness almost as cultivated as Bath: he flourished as a painter, author, sculptor, lawyer, playwright, planter, and political flaneur. His mother was an Alston by birth; her family included a more than competent painter, Washington Alston, and had a long literate tradition (the excellent surviving library of the Edmonston-Alston House on East Battery is a rump reminder of this.)

E.B.White was an intellectual child of the period bridging the classical and romantic impulses. It was also a long era when architecture was counted among the polite sciences closely allied to literature: Jefferson had not long before built Monticello. Horace Walpole has initiated the Gothic revival with “The Castle of Otranto” and then built Strawberry Hill to prove it, the medieval building boom within Walter Scott was breaking ground (Edgar Allan Poe’s architectural suggestions, with their manifold domestic inconveniences and structural failings were by contrast mainly studied in France, giving rise to the Paris apartment.) Young White, however, took the sternly conventional path of West Point, then as now one of America’s premier educations. By guiding him into military engineering, the Academy served him extremely well, perhaps focusing the multiple talents as parents bequeathed. White had the experience of war at the beginning and end of his adult life, in the Black Hawk expedition 1832 and as a recruiter and leader of troops on James Island and later in North Carolina during the Civil War. Yet there is no doubt his military interest lay in construction. By the time he left the U.S. Army at the age of thirty he had worked on or designed Forts Pulaski and Adams, a major bridge (the Potomac at Georgetown,) and a trans-mountain railroad of several hundred miles. The military, this time Confederate and much later, also provides one surviving physical vignette of White (described by an acquaintance as “a pompous, remarkebly short officer in large boots on a very large horse.”) a vision the hilarity of which should not obscure the courage of a sixty year old civilian gentleman leading troops through musket fire at its center. At all events by the time he set up private practise as a relativily young man, White was a formidable engineer, and as Beatrice St. Julian Ravenel notes, entered architecture “obliquely.”

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