While we were in Charleston last month, I took a morning to revisit some of the locations I used in Damned Yankee. In some ways, tha was a case of "shutting the barn door after the horse ran away," but I wanted to see what my readers might notice if they hunted down some of these locations. I was hoping my descriptions had been accurate, but some of them had been written from memory. So off we went.
First stop was Legare Street south of Broad-- the neighborhood I had chosen for Susan's wealthy planter family. I had even picked out my favorite house on that block to stand in for the Dubois house. Here it is, with all its tropical elegance, multiple stories, wide piazzas, bay windows, sleeping porch, and elaborate gardens. I was momentarily tempted when I saw that it was unoccupied and for sale. Known now as The Rebecca Screven House, its $1.825 million dollar asking price was more than enough to scare me away. Even if I could sell the 500,000 copies of the book that it would take to raise that kind of money, two other items gave me pause -- the work being done on its foundation, a sign that said it was being sold "as is," and the termite control truck out front, pumping some lethal mixture into the parlors. Still, it's a beautiful house -- first mentioned in the records in 1828 but likely built in the late 1700s. And it was a perfect setting for the Dubois family.
While we were there, a small horse-drawn carriage came by, reminding me that in many ways Charleston has not changed a great deal in the past 150 years. Oh, there are sidewalks now, and painted street markings. And the people in the carriage were surely tourists. But on Legare Street it is easy to feel as if it is still 1860.
The next stop was Logan Street, where I had placed the house that Jonathan and Susan Grenville occupied with their seven children -- the house that burned to the ground during the Great Fire of 1861. It was surely never as grand as the Dubois mansion. After all, it was slightly north of Broad. But it would have been large enough to accommodate their large family and a staff of slaves, with a slave yard in the rear. I wondered what I would find -- not the visible scar of a fire. That had long since passed. -- But a scar, nevertheless. These "new" houses, sturdy though they might be, sit right at the street edge. They are utilitarian -- functional -- not a symbol of wealth and social class. Instead of a horse-drawn carriage, a pick-up truck sputtered past.
Even more obvious, the trees were different -- thinner, shorter, healthy enough but young. There are no centuries-old oaks here on Logan street. They disappeared in the fire. I knew from reading old newspapers that one house on Logan Street survived the flames, and it didn't take long to spot it. It sat well back from the road, surrounded by a brick wall, its walls made of that "tabby" cement that contained beach sand and oyster shells. It looked lonely in this new neighborhood -- a relic of the past.
If Legare Street draws us back into the world of the past, Logan Street stands as a reminder that time moves on, leaving some behind. It was a lesson that Jonathan and Susan had to learn for themselves.