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Historic Charleston Foundation celebrates 70th anniversary with antiques show and five-week festival

March 12, 2017 GMT

When the Historic Charleston Foundation was created 70 years ago, its founders had the foresight to know that a major tool at their disposal was opening private historic homes to the public in the springtime.

To foster an appreciation for historic preservation and to sustain that mission, the foundation has taken a multi-pronged approach that tries to reach as many people across the spectrum of the community as possible.

A tour involves interest and participation not only by paying visitors, but homeowners and volunteers. Many of those have become proficient in the histories of the homes, gardens and the families who owned them, not to mention the involvement of the foundation’s own staff.

Over the decades, that formula has grown and evolved, and the foundation is marking its platinum jubilee with its 14th Charleston Antiques Show this weekend and its 70th annual Festival of Houses & Gardens.

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Today, the generosity of 140 property owners and more than 600 volunteers “allows people to experience history first hand and see preservation in action,” says Katharine “Kitty” Robinson, foundation president and chief executive officer.

“It (the festival) is a very key component to our efforts, but it also keeps us connected with the homeowners and the visitors and helps us show the value of historic preservation. We really think of it as an educational program,” says Robinson.

Festivities kick off on Thursday.

The antiques show

The antiques show starts with a preview cocktail party 7-9 p.m. Thursday at the Gaillard Center and runs through Sunday afternoon.

More than 30 antiques dealers will be coming from across the country for the antiques show, according to Robinson.

“The dealers are bringing stunning objects from the 17th century to mid-century modern, so there will be antiques and decorative objects from all of those centuries. We’re very excited about it,” says Robinson, adding that the new venue of the Gaillard Center will offer plenty of space and parking.

The show features “Intimate Talks with Design in Mind” by internationally acclaimed designers Tom Scheerer at 11 a.m. Friday, Timothy Whealon at 2 p.m. Friday, Alex Papachristidis at 11 a.m. Saturday and Mark D. Sikes at 2 p.m. Saturday.

Fees for the show range from $15 for a three-day show pass, $70 for each designer talk to $200 for the preview party and $700 for the “Collectors Circle,” that includes the preview party, catered food and invitations to exclusive parties in private, historic homes.

Festival of Houses & Gardens

While the show covers a long weekend, the festival runs from Thursday to April 22.

It includes daily “House & Garden Tours” and “Morning History Walks,” but also an array of special events.

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Some of those include the “Food for Thought Luncheon Lectures,” weekly “Mimosas at Middleton Place” on Monday mornings, the “Legacy of African Americans in Charleston” on March 31 and April 17, “Savor Sunday South of Broad” on April 2, “Floral Design with the Experts” on April 6 and 14, “Sunday with a Side of Jazz” on April 9, and “Picnic & Oyster Roast with Egg Hunt” on April 13.

“Glorious Garden Tours” will be held Thursday, March 24, March 31, April 7 and 13 and include a wine reception at the foundation’s Nathaniel Russell House Museum, 51 Meeting St.

For a comprehensive calendar, go to https://www.historiccharleston.org and click on the “Festival of Houses” image.

Robinson says the festival will feature a range of houses and gardens from three different centuries, including “some that have never been open to the public before and some that have been open many, many times.”

Because of the big anniversary, Robinson noted that two of the houses that were on tour in the inaugural festival in 1948 are on tour this year: The Thomas Rose House at 59 Church St. and the Deas-Tunno House on the famed “Rainbow Row” at 89 East Bay St.

Both serve as examples of the commitment of homeowners to the mission of historic preservation.

A legacy house

In fact, the Thomas Rose House has been featured in the foundation’s festival of homes all but one year since 1948.

The house was built by well-off Irishman Thomas Rose in about 1735 on property passed to his wife, Beuler Elliott Rose, by her father Thomas Elliot, considered to be one of the wealthiest men in the colony. He had 18 children and gave each son a plantation and each daughter a property in town.

The Thomas Rose House is considered a “very fine example of the early Georgian period with an asymetrical floor plan” and “large, dignified panels, robust cornices and other early Georgian decorations.” Ninety percent of the original paneling is intact. All of it is cypress with the exception of the stair hall, which is in black walnut.

Cathy Forrester, the caretaker of the house who now lives in Camden, says her grandparents Philip and Juliette Staats purchased the house in 1942 when they were living in Connecticut and needed an escape from brutally cold winters. They chose Charleston for the architecture and history.

Her grandfather, an architect living in Connecticut, was a founding trustee of the Historic Charleston Foundation and even went door-to-door in Charleston asking for donations to purchase the Nathaniel Russell House for the foundation.

His efforts continue to this day.

Forrester says Staats created a deed setting up the Church Street Historic Foundation, which owns the house. The deed included provisions to preserve the house and to keep it open for tours. The terms also noted that at the end of his and his two brothers’ lifetimes, the Church Street Foundation would be dissolved and the property given to the Historic Charleston Foundation.

Those terms also allowed the siblings, none of whom now live in Charleston, to agree to transfer it earlier. So the property is going to be sold with proceeds to benefit the HCF, says Forrester.

“There are some provisions that will allow for some of that (keeping it open for tours). So it’s going to need to be a special buyer because most houses in Charleston don’t have those conditions. Hopefully, it will be someone else who understands about preservation and public benefit,” says Forrester.

Robinson calls the Thomas Rose House “one of the finest houses in the city” and that the Staats family has been “just wonderful to us.”

Rainbow blue

Another person “from off” also is playing a role in the foundation’s efforts.

Tom Taft, a commercial developer from Greenville, North Carolina, started coming to Charleston on weekends when his son, Thomas, started going to school at the College of Charleston. Taft “fell in love” with Charleston.

“My wife of the time and I learned how to walk and look. It’s so easy to walk and not see or just see the façade in passing. Over time, I developed a real eye for the differences in the houses and came to appreciate the architecture diversity that’s here. It’s still preserved because people had the visions,” says Taft.

“The next thing I know is, we bought Old Poinsett Tavern on Elliot Street. It’s a great little house. We started spending time down here. This house had been on the market, empty, for two to two and half years. I started looking at it and fell in love with it. I didn’t need this much house but loved being in Rainbow Row and all the features of it. We decorated it and tried to preserve as much of the original elements of the house as we could.′

The Deas-Tunno House is estimated to be built in 1750 as part of a row of townhouses that featured stores on lower levels and residences for wealthy merchants above.

When built, the house stood directly on the waterfront. One unusual part of it for Charleston is its basement, the walls of which were constructed of stones brought in as ballast on early sailing ships.

To preserve the house and gardens for perpetuity, Taft has placed conservation easements on the exterior, interior and grounds via the foundation, ensuring its preservation and upkeep. He feels strongly about that, in part, because he worries about Charleston losing its historic character.

“I think Charleston is under siege by development. It’s the third siege of Charleston and in some ways, it’s a greater threat than the previous military ones,” says Taft.

Knowing how much joy he gets from history and architecture, Taft feels obligated to give back, not only offering the house for the foundation’s tours but randomly welcoming strangers in for impromptu tours.

“I often invite them in and show them around. It blows them away. It is Charleston ... Sharing is important. I feel that deeply.”