Charleston, George Street

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A few nice modern kitchen design images I found:

Charleston, George Street
modern kitchen design
Image by hdes.copeland
Charleston, SC. George Street. Side view from east side. Photo taken December 2008.

This mid 19th Century Charleston house with side hall is located just east of the city’s traditional retail trading district which grew up on the main road that led inland from the port city. At the time this house was built it was located only two blocks south of the city’s northern boundary. Francis Marion Hotel can be seen in the distance to the right in this photo and it marks those limits at what was formerly known as Boundary Street.

This side view of a 3 story masonry house built during a period when Greek revival was in vogue, c.1840, shows how a typical Charleston style house was arranged on a deep and narrow lot. The bulk of the main or formal living space was situated on the street with lesser dependencies stacked in descending order toward the rear of the property. This reverse telescope order of importance created a formal street front leaving informal working or service areas hidden at the rear. When an entire city block was built out with many such houses, it created a fortress-like arrangement facing the surrounding streets and provided, at lease visually, a common courtyard as the lesser dependencies appeared to be aliened toward a common center. In practice this was only implied since each lot usually contained its own courtyard surrounded by a privacy wall to contain animals, children and the prying eyes of neighbors on all but the upper floors.

In this example the order of rooms on the ground level would have been as follows, from left to right, in the photograph: 1. Formal entrance with adjacent carriage gate to rear, just out of view to left. 2. Entry opens to main stair hall with stairs to 2nd level or main living floor. 3. Main receiving room to right of entry. This would have been an office if the owner was a professional or merchant who received clients. 4) A dining room was the second or third room moving to the rear of the property, or right in the photo. 5) A covered passage way, later enclosed, connected the dining room to the kitchen in a building that was originally constructed to be separate as a precaution against kitchen fires spreading. 6) To the rear or right of the kitchen building, out of range of this photo, would have been a stable or carriage house, tack room. 7) Last in descending order, but not least except for its size, would have been the privy or outhouse. 8. Formal entertaining and family common rooms with more elaborate finishes were on the 2nd level of the main house, while servant’s quarters were smaller rooms above the kitchen and carriage house. 9) The third level was the location of additional bedrooms for family, more typically children and other servants. In each case chimneys can often be seen and used to help define the location and use of specific rooms.

This house is among the few surviving examples of this contribution to the historic urban block as a fortress. Many have been torn down to make way for surface parking lots or to construct contemporary buildings designed to newer zoning standards that often encourage the exact opposite of what the historic models would support. Current zoning regulations in many cases would require that the lowest elevations of a new building be placed nearest the street while reserving the rear for the tallest part of the buildings. This creates a step pyramid which is the reverse of the historic example shown here.

Also shown here are other examples of failures by modern planners to read the historic rules of urban design. Only in the city’s core is the concept of zero setbacks applied with precision. This would be where the oldest structures are located, or along the commercial corridors where land values were commensurate with the income potential of the businesses that occupied them. In all other areas gates, low walls and elaborate fences provided the desired zero lot lines leaving the developers of residences, large and small, to be positioned in slightly removed from the street right of way. This allowed for a slight variation in the streetscape to be seen in the more affluent residential neighborhoods while keeping the medieval model of the urban block as a defendable fortress. This very limited green buffer between a house and the public street eventually became a mark that could be used to denote one’s passing from an older or more commercial district into another slightly later or one more residential in character. The practical real estate broker’s slant on this might also lead the observer to believe that a mere 6 or 8 foot setback would sufficiently remove a house’s occupants from traffic noises and offensive stench of the city’s streets.

Another benefit of the limited setback was to allow for taller structures to face narrow secondary or side streets without overwhelming those on the street. A long understood rule only more recently forgotten was that the height of buildings on either side of the street should equal the distance between the base or front of each building as it faces the other with the public street in between. This created a geometric space resembling a square to those on the street with only the forth side open to the sky. A building would look immediately out of proportion, even to the untrained eye, if its builder ignored this geometric rule of classical urban organization for placing buildings along a thoroughfare and in relation to each other within this visual square.

The concept of receding perspective is not believed to have been used by artist until more recently, yet the arrangement of buildings along streets within cities has benefited from this application visual perspective en plain air. At least this has been the case as long as the geometric square has been applied to determining building heights and setbacks in relation to each other and the street.

Current urban zoning in this district no longer allows for this type of setback variations. Because the modern ordinances make no differentiation between historically commercial, residential or mixed use neighborhoods, it is a rule that has become the undoing of entire streetscapes, especially side streets, by turning them into uninviting canyons. The buildings within this newer model become too compressed for the street or have no relationship to each other. Good architectural design and site planning cannot function effectively within the limits of a single lot. It must relate harmoniously with its neighbors. A successful urban building exists symbiotically with its surroundings, but taking and giving in balance, just as this residence on George Street once did with its neighbors no longer standing.

George Street just west of Meeting Street, Charleston, SC. Photo taken December 2008.

Photo and text posted: 6 December 2008
Revised: 29 March 2011
Copyrights reserved: hdescopeland

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