Robert Frost, Gertrude Stein and Carson McCullers hung out here. The houses at 36 and 38 Chalmers Street were built for Jane Wightman, a free black woman. The cobblestoned street simply vibrates with artistic and literary history.
Some places are seductive. Like art which is a wordless picture language, there is a language of spirit in some places. I was attracted to this place without knowing why at first. Perhaps it is intuition, or perhaps it is what the Chinese call feng shui, an ancient system of aesthetics, geography and astromomy. All I know now, after many years of practice, is to trust that wordless knowing…my ‘gut’ feelings.
Now I know why this place fascinates me, and it is more than that my grandmother, Bessie Smith, married the last of her three husbands, the red-headed Dr. Benjamin Kater McInnes whom we called Daddy Kater, when she was in her seventies. The McInnes family, Scots, have continuously owned No. 34 since 1850, and my brother lived here in college. My first intrigue with Chalmers Street might have been the cobblestones, unusually large and smooth and round, former ships’ ballast, tossed onto the street. It is one of the last ones like it in Charleston. Chalmers runs from Meeting to State Street.Visually the narrow pink house at No. 17 makes a little show.
The Pink House was built in 1712 of coral limestone imported in blocks from Bermuda by John Breton. It is one room deep and has a rare and original gambrel roof. It was a tavern and a brothel, too, perhaps. People gathered there let’s say:) Today it is an art gallery so you can climb the tiny circling staircase inside if you go. The artist, Alice Ravenel Huger Smith (1876-1958) who was influential as part of the Charleston Renaissance of the 1930’s, painted gentle pastel colored watercolors when she used the house as her studio.
But most fascinating to me is the history of 36 and 38 Chalmers Street. No. 36 was built in 1844 for Jane Wightman, a free black woman, as an investment. Josephine Pinckney (1895-1957) the writer, lived most of her life in this house. Her parties, too, were legendary. Jane Wightman originally lived next door in No. 38, the house built for her in 1835. Who was this unusual and independent black woman of means?
Elizabeth O’Neill Verner, the artist, was born in No. 38 in 1883. And then Laura Bragg, (1881-1978) the director of the Charleston Museum, lived here from 1939 until she died. She was the first woman director of a major museum in the country. It was here, where Ms. Bragg lived with books and an original Miro, that she taught “culture classes” and held Salon, where artists and writers talked about art and ideas of “meaning and importance.” The classes and salons met in Bragg’s upstairs drawing room, according to Gene Waddell, who recalled that the house was filled with books and light. It overlooks Washington Park, which is still a charming park filled with flowers and people, one that reminds me of Paris.
Last week I spent the day walking here again, and through the French Quarter, past the place where my aunt Elizabeth Blanche Smith Torrans lived most of her 82 years, at 36 Queen Street, until her death in 1817. She is buried at the Circular Church graveyard, which is on the Gateway Walk. The fragrance of blooming Confederate Jasmine crossed my path more than once.
I learned to take the new free Trolley which you can catch from Broad Street at Four Corners. Not only beautiful but fun, the charming, small trolley car feels like the one in Julie Taymor’s creatively directed movie about Frida Kahlo, the artist. At any moment I felt like we were going to swerve and slide, time would stop, and gold dust would fly through the air.