"Following where my camera leads me!"

"Following where my camera leads me!"

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Ashley Hall

I became intrigued with the house on Rutledge Avenue while getting lost in the past.

Long before laying eyes on the house, I had already been there and started on my journey through the memoirs of  Laura Witte.

Laura was born in February several years after the end of the Civil War. The era was called "Reconstruction", but little Laura was blessed to be born into happy and affluent home. Little Laura's mother Charlotte was a known beauty, with long hair down to her knees and many suitors.

 She received many proposals of marriage and one day when she was nineteen years old she accepted the proposal from a Mr. Otto Witte, who was from Germany. He was in his early forties.

 After the wedding, the happy couple honeymooned in Europe for almost two years. Their first child was born there, a baby girl they named Alice. 
When they decided to return to Charleston, he worked for the People's National Bank. He did quite well there and became the bank President in 1870. 
The couple went on to welcome five more daughters. Six lively beautiful daughters needed a large home so the family moved into the Trenholm House, the big mansion on Rutledge Avenue. It was a big, beautiful and luxurious home with a huge lawn and the family happily settled in. Mr. Witte moved on to work at another bank, where he also became President of that one. He was evidently very successfull in the banking world, and Laura grew up in a household with many servants, including a children's Nurse, a Cook and a Butler.
Mr. Witte had an interest in plants, botany,  and gardening and his gardens and lawns became well known.
The wonderful memories of early Charleston and what it was like to grow up there in the 1800s came from this book:
Laura in the middle, in her fancy bonnet
"Though Laura must surely have heard, or overheard, some talk of the Civil War experiences of her mother's family, her memories are free of painful and somber memories. She enjoyed her childhood and took pleasure in her recollections of it. She told her own children of those halcyon days , and they persuaded her to write it down for their own children and grandchildren to read. Though half a century had passed, she wrote--without benefit of records of notes of any kind--in a natural, flowing style about the people and and things of a time long ago. "....Thomas R. Waring, Jr. (Laura's grandson)
I got lost in Laura's memories. I loved reading about life in that bygone era. Such a different world. 
The society of this port city as it slowly recovered from the war was fascinating to read about.
Laura played with dolls that had faces of bisque and she loved doll houses. 
Maybe Laura would've liked my doll?
She wrote about frilly party dresses with wide ribbon sashes and big bows in the back, high button shoes and white lawn or dimity aprons trimmed with ruffles.

 Clothes were made by dressmakers and often skilled seamstresses came to the home. Laura loved books and especially the Little Women books. She said her father had married so late in life and that he was very generous and indulgent with all six daughters. He loved working in his gardens after his banking job, and they bought a house on nearby Sullivan's Island, where he would move the family to every summer, where the girls would splash in the warm waves and sleep underneath mosquito netting enclosing their beds. The family, with the help of the servants, would pack up pretty much the entire  house, including the dishes, animals, cookware and linens to transport it to the island. There were no bridges and you had to take the ferry to get there.
Laura and her Sisters
Laura's sisters were Alice, Fay, Beatrice, Carlotta, and Belle. They grew up eating plum pudding and  gingerbread, attending church on Sunday, and having the Bible read to them every night before bed.

 Their enormous home had tall windows and sparkling chandeliers, beautiful and heavy fine monogrammed table linens, and they had a playhouse in the yard to play "house" in with their many pretty dolls and the doll trunks full of frilly clothes. The girls had tricycles and played musical chairs and adored the family pets--large and strong dogs like Great Danes and Newfoundlands and St. Bernards. Elegant and colorful peacocks roamed the property, and their dad enjoyed keeping cockatoos, macaws, parakeets and parrots. Alligators lived in the fountain by the fence. 

In the old days, a corner/section of the private backyards were used for the "unsightly" chores such as laundry, stables, a cow for milking, chickens and ducks being raised and then killed and prepared for that night's supper.Rugs were beaten, boots polished,  laundry hung, and bedspreads "sunned" out there, and other unpleasant sights that had no "curb appeal". 

Laura lived in a time when shrimp/crab men and flower and` vegetable peddlers strolled the streets with carts heaped with radishes, squash and  carrots to sell and beggars came to the side door of their home for food. At dusk young boys would come light the gas lamps. Chimney sweeps came to clean out your fireplaces. She remembered the great Earthquake on August 31, 1886, and seeing the fires burning as they watched from Sullivan's Island. She could remember feeling the aftershocks for a long time afterwards, shaking their spacious home. 
Miss Laura (picture from the internet)

When Laura was older, she attended boarding school in Boston.It took almost three days to get there by train from Charleston. It was a time of concerts, matinees, and hearing famous pianists and composers. Going to see the Boston Symphony Orchestra was enjoyable to Laura, now a young lady. She made close friends and learned to live with house-mates. She made memory books and collected silver knick-knacks and jewelry.

And she was homesick. Homesick for her Charleston. 
I was mesmerized by Laura's story and soaked in all the information about the culture and what it was like to live in that slower, more gentle era and the account of growing up in luxury but with good strong morals and character. She and  her sisters were not spoiled. As members of the household, they all had jobs to do, especially if they were giving a party or reception.

Sadly, Laura's mother died in 1890. Their Dad passed away in 1908. 
When Laura was 21 she married Thomas Richard Waring. He was the Editor of the Charleston Evening Post. Laura became a mother to four children.
After Laura's Dad passed away, the house was sold to Mary McBee. She began a boarding school for girls there and named it Ashley Hall. 
Laura lived to be  98 years old. 
I wished for the story to not end...and would've liked to know more about Laura's mothering years. All I could find out was that her last child, a little boy, died in a tragic accident on Sullivan's Island. He was seven years old. Most of Laura's babies, and the babies of all her sisters, were all born at the Rutledge house where the girls had grown up. 
 Laura's sister Fay lived to be 103 years old!
I waited until I had read the whole book....and then I went searching for Laura's home.
Below......my first glimpse of Laura's childhood home. 

"Thinking in retrospect, the house and garden where one's childhood was spent have to be considered in perspective. After a lapse of years scenes revisited are seldom as large or as imposing as they seemed in childhood. This, however, is not true of the Georgian house on Rutledge Avenue, built in 1810."....Laura Witte
The home where the Witte sisters grew up

"The magnificent trees as long as they live, cannot but be admired. Covering such a large amount of ground, bordering on three streets, the garden lasts over the years in all of its beauty."....Laura Witte
Huge old trees on the property...big and strong

Ashley Hall...now a day school

"Memory takes me back to the endless variety of trees, flowers and shrubbery. Although so profusely planted, the garden was never overcrowded, owing to its size and to the many lawns around the house."...Laura Witte

Were any of Laura's babies born up there?
"To name all of the growing things there would require reference to a book on horticulture. But the really fine old magnolias, oaks, cedars, bays and other trees take their place ahead of the myriad shrubs and flowers."....Laura Witte
Brand new and bright white magnolias peek over the old  brick wall
Was one of these windows Laura's?

"Formal beds, where bulbs were cultivated in season, were always furnishing masses of cut flowers for the decoration of the house. Hyacinths, tulips, lilies, daffodils, daisies, and pansies, heliotrope, anemones, ranunculi, and mignonette bloomed in a profusion of colors and scented the air. Violets grew as borders to flower beds; flags were around the fountain and in shady moist places along brick walls."....Laura Witte
Is this the place where the alligator lived?
The small house with the white door beyond the fountain in the above photo is where Laura's Dad kept all his exotic birds.
Did Laura and her sisters play on these balconies?

"Star jasmine grew on trellises, while the delicate ladyslippers, various colored hibiscus, snapdragons, and pinks had special beds of their own." ...Laura Witte

"The shrubbery included many gardenias, grown to huge size, oleanders, hydrangeas, both blue and pink, snowballs, pomegranates that reached tree-size proportions. Always the heralds of spring, snowdrops and jonquils showed along the paths.".....Laura Witte

It truly sounds like it was a magical wonderland for children to play in, doesn't it?
Quietly standing outside Laura's childhood home, I could almost hear the girlish squeals and laughter as they spilled out that big front door onto the big and breezy piazza. A hot summer day, six happy little girls and a beautiful green lawn to run and play upon...and a million fairy stories, flower secrets, and pony dreams for them to share. 
Do you think they climbed the big trees....picked big bouquets of flowers for their mother....put their baby dolls to bed in the magnolia shade?

"And in countless masses and varieties were roses. As vines, bushes, in flower beds, against walls and as hedges, roses were everywhere."....Laura Witte

Below...on the back side of the property

This oak is not on the property but is similar to the ones that are on the lawn

"Under the large oak tree fronting the house were rocks over which ivy twined and periwinkle grew thickly. Rare exotic specimens of palms, rubber plants, cacti, citron, lemon and orange trees, delicate ferns, and numerous flowers always grew in the greenhouses. 
Here and there in the garden were benches, carved seats, an occasional iron table, a painted Indian warrior, a large iron deer, and various smaller bronze and iron animals. If the iron figures, the many birdhouses, ponds and fountains, and garden furniture seem fantastic now, they were fashionable in their day, and can now be thought of with amusement. 
Nothing can mar the enchantment of a garden that has been part of one's earliest life, and thereby retained in love and in memory."......Laura Witte Waring


  1. Such a wonderful detailed post Debbi, I loved every minute of it! Thanks so much for sharing that with us!

  2. wow, what a story!! it makes one lust for a different, simpler time. i enjoyed your images as well, bringing the story to life!!! i hope you had a wonderful weekend!!!!

  3. oh how i enjoyed this post! what a grand place it is!

  4. Hi, Debbi, it's so nice to make your acquaintance and to visit your lowcountry home.

    This was a fascinating story, and the estate is absolutely stunning. I am a huge lover of history, so learning about people of past centuries is always such fun to me.

    Magnolias are very special to me. Before moving to Idaho in 2000, we lived in Florida---my husband is a native, I lived there almost 20 years. I had long loved magnolia trees, so for my first Mother's Day in 1990, my husband and baby daughter bought me one for the front yard of our new house. We moved out of state and, of course, had to leave my beloved tree behind. But on a trip to Florida in 2011, I stopped by my house and saw my tree. It had survived some wild hurricane seasons and was much taller than when we had left 11 years earlier. I look forward to visiting my tree again on another trip to Florida.

    Patti @ Embracing Home

  5. Lovely story! I adore the estate, so beautiful. Thanks for sharing!😊

  6. Oh my goodness, I was just enthralled with your story, laura's story to be exact. It is such a wonderful account, so well written. I want that book!! Thanks for sharing it with us all.

  7. That was such a fun post to read, and your photos brought the story to life. It is great that the house is still standing as so many were destroyed to make room for apartment buildings or other commercial buildings. You did recreate the feeling of the time when Laura lived there and played in the garden. Really, a lovely post!

  8. Debbi, this is such an amazing post! You obviously enjoyed the research and reading. I enjoyed the photos and the story. :)

  9. Hi Debbi! Oh, I loved reading this story about Laura and her family! What a most wonderful place to grow up. The house looks so beautiful and so much land with it for all those little girls to play. Even though times were so different back then, to live in such privilege must have been wonderful
    Thanks for popping in to see me.
    Be a sweetie,
    Shelia ;)

  10. What a great story to share...and the estate is magnificent.

  11. Debbi, this was such a great post. I enjoyed it thoroughly. How wonderful to enjoy the story so completely and then to see the home where it all happened. Thanks for sharing..Happy Wednesday..Judy

  12. Hi Debbi, WOW what a great post and so informative with your great pics and storytelling. The estate and the life of Laura is so interesting. The book sounds like one you hate to put down. Thanks for sharing. Thank you too for stopping by to visit. Have a nice weekend ahead. Blessings xo

  13. Thank you for the beautiful piece you posted on Ashley Hall and the life of Laura Witte Waring based on her book, "The Way It Was In Charleston." I am the great granddaughter of her eldest sister, Alice, who married John Baylis Earle Sloan. My maternal grandfather was born at Ashley Hall and grew up in the Gibbes House at 64 S. Battery in Charleston. This was truly a bygone era that most of us cannot even imagine today as we face the New World Order and "new economy." My mother has a very rich history dating back to 17th Century Charleston - composed of so many figures for whom one can Google for information -- many 18th Century Congressmen, particularly from the Earle family, the Manigault family of Charleston, the famous portrait painter, Thomas Sully, a relative of Charlotte Reeves Witte (from your posting) and Laura's sister, Beatrice Witte Ravenel and her daughter, Beatrice St. Julien Ravenel who were writers and poets. I have only visited Charleston once and had a chance to take a special tour of Ashley Hall, which was quite a wonderful experience, as we have many of the furnishings and paintings that came from there during that era, some of which can be seen in architectural books. My mother does not share much with us about her family history, as an only child who tragically lost both of her parents at a fairly young age. So much of what my sister and I have learned about our maternal side of the family has been through my father who is fascinated by it. I thank you again for your beautiful exposé with such lovely pictures and narrative. I look forward to visiting your blog again. Kind regards, Sloan Seaborn