My fondness for old houses is no secret to those who truly know me. It started at an early age and, as the years go by, becomes more and more what I’d call my “passion.” (I’m baring my nerdy soul here.) There is nothing that captivates me as much as entering an old house—furnished or unfurnished, preserved or not—and walking through, absorbing its lay-out and quirks, and running my imagination in high gear. It’s a feeling that is hard for me to articulate to other people because, frankly, I imagine that other people find old houses about as interesting as lawn clippings or anything else mundane. But for me old houses are quite the opposite of mundane; they offer a perfect marriage of my liking for history and my love of stories.
An old house holds an endless echo of questions and, hopefully, answers that tell a story. Who built the house? Who were the workmen who wielded the tools? Could the owner afford it? Where did the furniture (if it’s still here) come from? Who slept in this bedroom? What did they eat in this dining room? Who cooked the food? What were they wearing when they sat here by the fire? Who cleaned the house? What life-changing events took place here? Was it a house filled with happy memories?
In a city like Charleston, South Carolina, where you can look up one side of the street and down the other and just about the only modern disturbance you’ll see is cars parked and passing by, my mind literally goes crazy. So many houses, so little time. So many stories, so little knowledge of them! I want to immerse myself in them, know everything about them, and tell their stories. Of course in my life as it is the opportunities and outlets for this are few and far between (okay, nearly nil), but when I dream, this is how I dream.
There is at least one house in Charleston for which someone else had a similar vision. The Miles Brewton House on King Street (which I’ve never entered because it is a private residence) and the family that lived there are the subjects of a book entitled Mary’s World: Love, War, and Family Ties in Nineteenth-Century Charleston by Richard Coté. Coté served as the historical researcher when Peter Manigault, a descendant of Miles Brewton and the owner of the house, decided to renovate the house in the 1990s. He had a privileged view of the house, inside and out, and access to the innumerable historic resources connected to the house and its centuries’-worth of inhabitants. Concurrently, Coté worked on a collection of Alston, Pringle, and Frost family papers. Coté pulled all of these resources together into a narrative form in Mary’s World.
While Mary’s World is primarily concerned with the life of Mary Pringle (1803-1884) and her descendants before and after the Civil War, Coté’s story begins with the Brewton family of Charleston and its most well-known member, Miles, Mary’s great-uncle. Miles was one of the foremost merchants and land-owners in colonial South Carolina and began building his King Street house in 1765 when he was only 34 years old. The house—then and now—is considered to be one of the best Georgian-style homes in America. Miles and his family were lost at sea in 1775 and the house passed to his sister, Rebecca, Mary’s grandmother. [I have to say, right up front, that my favorite anecdote from the book involves Rebecca hiding her daughters in the house’s attic from the British soldiers who made her home their headquarters during the Revolution!]
Mary Motte Alston was born in the house in 1803 and married in its drawing room to William Bull Pringle in 1822. While the Alston and Pringle families both owned many rice plantations in the lowcountry, Mary and William lived in and managed their empire from the Miles Brewton House. There Mary delivered thirteen children, all but one of whom lived to adulthood, and there she died in 1884.
It is difficult for me, the modern reader, to grasp just how different Mary’s life was from the life of any modern Southern woman—just how complex the rice plantation system was and how wealthy the families at the top of it came to be. I imagine that with running her household, personally educating her children in their youngest years, and her involvement in the running of their rice business, Mary had more on her plate than the average CEO. While her life was certainly one of privilege compared to other Southern women of her time, Mary did not live a life of ease.
All busyness aside, the Pringles did live in grand luxury. Coté’s book details the layout of the house and its gardens and outbuildings, the decoration and uses of each room, and the inventories of furnishings and art in the house during Mary’s lifetime. For me, the early story of the house’s construction, the important events and people surrounding it during its first years, and this tour of the house in Mary’s time made for some of the most fascinating reading in the book.
With the hindsight of history, the reader knows that the way of life familiar to young Mary and her children was rapidly coming to an end. Unfortunately for the Pringles, they allowed themselves to fall into financial trouble even before the Civil War began. Their overspending before the war, combined with the tight economic situation during the war, doomed them to disaster. When the Union troops occupied Charleston in 1865, all was lost.
The tale of the Pringles after 1865 is, at best, “grim.” The aftermath of the war seems, now that I’ve read about it, to be obvious, yet I think the lives of the plantation class in the months before Reconstruction came in full force are mostly unknown or ignored. In their confrontation with the Union, the Pringles lost not only one-third of their sons, but their country, homes (several plantations burned and they fled the Miles Brewton House in the city), labor force, food supply, and income. Most of the “wealth” that the Pringles managed to hold on to was so devalued as to be nearly worthless. This family, who had for generations lived in comfort and luxury, did not know where their next meal would come from.
The Pringles, having retreated up the state and scattered their belongings among relatives in hopes of preserving them, waited months before returning to Charleston and haggling with the occupying forces to re-enter the Miles Brewton House. When they finally returned home, the house was bare and they slept on the floor. They sold off more possessions to make ends meet and gradually turned away the few remaining house slaves because they could not afford to pay them. Their plantation fields were in ruins, their former field slaves unwilling to work. Despite years of effort in trying to revive rice production, the Pringle family never recovered. Mary and William died house-rich but impoverished in every other way.
The account of the twelve adult children given in Mary’s World illustrates how strikingly diverse life could be for the former plantation class after the war. The war itself took several Pringles—one died in battle, one of typhoid, and one of mental illness a few years later. One son became immensely wealthy as a planter in Louisiana and avoided the war by living in France. Another stayed in Charleston, becoming a distinguished civic leader. One daughter became an uncomfortable Yankee and endured years of separation from her family. Another daughter and son-in-law tried to revive the plantation lifestyle and failed. Three children migrated to California and nearly convinced their parents to join them. Truly, life in post-war South Carolina must have been devastating for thorough Southerners like Mary and William—who had given nearly everything in the war—to consider leaving their ancestral home.
Thankfully, for posterity’s sake, Mary and William never left the Miles Brewton House. The house eventually passed to a grand-daughter, Susan Pringle Frost, who must have been a true kindred spirit. Susan founded the Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings in 1920, an institution which is still going strong and doing good work today as the Preservation Society of Charleston. Thanks to Susan’s initiative, many of those beautiful old houses are still standing, just waiting for someone to tell their stories.