Sometimes my grown-up daughter tells me she was deprived because we never took her to Disney world for March break. No, I reply. We took you to Savannah, Charleston, and Williamsburg instead. Count your blessings.
Growing up in Michigan, I heard the tales of the magic of these cities from my grandparents and my mother. They cherished recipes from the cookbooks they’d brought home and they took great care of the bits of china and silver they’d found there. And now, as I haunt the sale rooms of auction houses, I keep a sharp eye out for some of the southern antiques that turn up very occasionally.
Savannah, GA: one of the South’s great centers for antiques
When someone asked me once why I love Savannah so much, I said its because its the sexiest city I know. Here you have an exquisite late 18th-/early 19th-century town with attached houses arranged around more than 20 public squares. The facades are classic Italianate, Greek Revival or Gothic Revival, most in brick or stucco with raised entrances. Because the main access to the houses is through alleys at the back, there is a closed, secretive feeling to the streets.
But then you touch the lush, tropical greenery, hear the bubble of fountains in hidden gardens, see ivy tumbling down walls and wisteria and roses twisting around iron gates. You might smell the briny tang of crawfish on the boil, or the sweetness of praline cooling in a window. It feels like Tuscany, or perhaps Provence.
Savannah is hanging onto its air of decadence, says Charleston writer Susan Sully, an expert in Southern architecture and design. That’s what makes it so damn sexy you cant tell whats going on behind those facades.
Until John Berendt published his wonderful book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil in 1994, a story set in Savannah, I had hoped the place would remain a bit of a secret. After that, I knew it was all over, and I was right: tourism has soared nearly 50 percent since then. But if you love antiques, this is one of the Souths great centers. You’ll find a mix of the best 18th-century British furniture, porcelain and silver, along with early American furniture, earthenware and rare Chinese export porcelain.
Although there were hundreds of silversmiths working in the United States from the mid-17th century, and most of them flourished in the north, around cities like Boston and Philadelphia, there are many fine examples from southern silversmiths here as well.
Charleston, SC: a city truly devoted to antiques
Charleston, just north of the Georgia border in South Carolina, and about 100 years older than Savannah, is even more devoted to antiques. While it’s just as spectacular a city, it feels much more open. Here, most of the great houses are rooted in the classic Georgian style, detached, with access from the front.
Although its Golden Age, as Charlestonians call it, happened before the Civil War, its always been a wealthier city than Savannah and has rebuilt itself again and again after fire, war and hurricanes.
You’ll find a marvellous contrast in houses and decorative arts by visiting two historic houses: one is the 1740 Thomas Elfe House, home to the area’s most celebrated cabinetmaker, the other is a far grander and newly restored neo-classical masterpiece the Nathanial Russell House built in 1808, which boasts an extraordinary three-storey, free-flying staircase.
Today, there are at least 40 antique shops in Charleston, most on King Street, with a few spilling onto the side streets. And here is where you can find the blue and white Chinese export porcelain so highly prized in these parts, and an 18th-century mahogany rice bed, patterned after the rice plants that made many plantation owners so wealthy.
In the late 1700s, Charleston had more than 300 craftsmen working on furniture, silver and the decorative arts many of them using patterns and designs brought over from England. In its day, Sully says, it was the most important furniture center in the United States, but only until the 1820s, when New York and Philadelphia took over.
Williamsburg, VA: a concoction of American country charm and European sophistication
The third great Southern center of style and design is, of course, Williamsburg, further north in Virginia and closer to the influences and talents of the great workshops of New England, New York, Rhode Island and other northern states.
Williamsburg is a strange city today; part of it the most famous part is controlled by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and is a theme town, brilliantly executed; the rest is a normal city (like the outskirts of Charleston and Savannah) full of bad motels, fast-food restaurants and malls. But from 1680 through the 18th and 19th centuries, craftsmen here were producing furniture and decorative arts pieces of the highest quality.
What it means to the visitor today is that in each of these seductive cities, antiques take a pride of place. You’ll find some of the most wonderful pieces of furniture, silver, china and decorative arts you’ve ever seen anywhere and yes, plenty of fine reproductions of the best pieces from historic houses and museums.
I’ve bought many pieces in each of these cities over the years, but my favorite is a pair of reproduction Bruton brass sconces with hand-blown lanterns that I bought in Williamsburg. Each time I light them, I think of the Governors Palace there a concoction of American country charm and European sophistication. They are simple, perfectly balanced, a good size, and pretty enough to please me so many years later.
Each of these wonderful places will teach you how the Southern craftsman took the best patterns of old Europe and turned them into unique American style.