Saturday, February 03, 2007

George Washington Really Slept Here

For lovers of colonial and antebellum American architecture, Charleston is a treasure trove. The compact historic district features scores of homes built before the Civil War, and many before the Revolutionary War.

One of those pre-revolutionary homes is known as the Heyward-Washington House. It was built in 1772 by planter Daniel Heyward for his son Thomas, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. One of their descendents, DuBose Heyward, used the surrounding neighborhood as the setting for his novel Porgy, upon which "Porgy & Bess" was based. George Washington stayed in the house for a week, in 1791, while the Heywards were out of town (in order to avoid showing preference to any of the local aristocracy, the town fathers made sure to find a vacant residence for Washington). It is now called the Heyward-Washington house in honor of that visit.

The first two floors of the home are open to the public, as are the garden and kitchen building. The rooms are furnished with period pieces from the collection of the Charleston Museum, which maintains the house.

Being in a place where George Washington actually did sleep reminded me of a piece I wrote many years ago, ca. 1975.

How to Prove to Your Friends That George Washington Slept in Your Bed

First make your bed, then lie in it. Don't go to sleep, just pretend. When George Washington arrives, do not stir–he'll hop in, lie down next to you. Be patient. When George falls asleep, carefully slip out of bed. Quickly get your Polaroid and snap his picture. Show it to your friends.

* * *

As interesting as the Heyward-Washington House is, the most fascinating house one can visit in Charleston is the Aiken-Rhett House. This large 1818 "urban plantation" lies north of downtown and was spared bombardment by Union troops. It remained in the Aiken family into the 1970s, though over its history various rooms were closed off for years at a time. Here one can visit the slave quarters, the stable and carriage house as well as the family's rooms. While the house features many original furnishings, one of its most interesting aspects is the fact that it has not undergone comprehensive restoration to give it a pristine look. In the rooms one can see, as a palimpsest, the various layers of history. In some of the rooms the down-at-the-heels look of the interior makes one feel as if there are ghosts about. It put me in mind of "Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte."


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