The house at 90 Fishburne Street in Charleston did not play a very large role in my family’s history, but large enough when you consider what a house is and what it would be like to go without one for any length of time. And the fact that this one is still standing is remarkable, given two calamitous events — one natural, one just inevitable — that came close to sweeping it off its foundations.
My mother, Barbara Lee (Dowell) Fleagle, lived in this house at the corner of Fishburne and Coming streets for just a few years as a small child. I believe she was just two years old when her father, John Lewis Dowell Jr., moved his family from Baltimore to Charleston so he could take a new position with the Davison Chemical Company, which had operations there. My mother was born in 1936, so their arrival in Charleston was either just too late or just in time for the family to witness the devastation caused by two tornadoes that plowed through the old city on 29 September, 1938. One of them crossed Fishburne within about a block and a half of the house.
I only just learned this a minute ago; the fact that my mother never mentioned this event seems strange to me in light of the fact that her memory about this particular house is unusually vivid. My mother still clearly remembers the rooms in this house, their layout and the furniture in them. It was a duplex and they lived in the upstairs half; she remembers Mrs. Nathan, the lady who lived in the downstairs half, who Mom notes was very kind to her family.
I didn’t even know that my mother had lived in Charleston until I was in my mid-forties. It came up in conversation and I was astounded that she remembered the address — “90 Fishburne Street”, she said without hesitation — of a house she only lived in for a couple of years as a very small child and had never returned to in more than 60 years. It wasn’t long afterward that it occurred to me how easy it would be to find aerial imagery of it with the then-new Microsoft Bing “birds-eye” (oblique) views. I was completely unfamiliar with the city, but in homing in on the address I saw right away that a freeway had crashed through the neighborhood, picking up where the twisters of yore had left off, sweeping away houses and rendering Fishburne a dead-end street.
Imagine my glee when I discovered number 90 still standing. An off-ramp had laid waste the houses to within one lot away on the same (north) side of Fishburne, and an empty triangle of grass on the southeast corner of Fishburne and Coming was all that remained of the houses across the street. But 90 Fishburne and its doughty neighbor stood their ground.
When I was growing up none of my extended family lived in the South, so discovering our connection to a house in Charleston is something of a novelty. Southerners do love their porches for enjoying a warm evening, and number 90’s porches wrap around the south and west sides top and bottom. Actually, it occurs to me that I myself lived in the South when I was eleven and twelve years old and that my own family’s story echoes my mother’s; when the company he worked for needed to relocate employees to Winston Salem, my father moved us all to the other Carolina, where we lived for almost exactly a year. Just as my grandfather moved his family back to Baltimore after a couple of years, my own father moved his back to Bellevue, Washington. So my mother and I each have the memory of a childhood Southern interlude.
Last October I had the opportunity to attend a work-related conference across the Cooper River from the old town, and I made a trek to see the house. It is in good shape right now and seems to be a single residence rather than a duplex. It’s difficult for me to tell which way the neighborhood is going; the house next door, the one the off-ramp nearly grazes, is pretty run down, but even with a freeway running through it the neighborhood does not look particularly depressed. Charleston is a charming college town, so young people are everywhere. The city, so I hear, has an ordinance saying that if anything has stood in place for 75 years or more — a tree, a house, a garage — then you can’t knock it down; it can be removed only by an act of God (don’t ask me how the freeway got here if this is true, unless God is now in the business of infrastructure). This, so I’ve heard, is why Charleston still has so many of its lovely old iron-rail-adorned houses.
Number 90 has some nice details in that line. Though I don’t know if they are original or a later addition, there are clover cut-outs and a kind of beadwork in the wood at the tops of the porch and balcony posts, and an iron fence with a gate along both the Fishburne and Coming sidewalks. On the Fishburne side, purple morning glory flowers bloom from vines entwined among the rails.
It was on the Coming sidewalk long ago, between the wars, that my mother was photographed in a bright dress sitting in a kid-sized rocking chair that one of her grandfathers bought for her and shipped to Charleston. I wonder if that grandparent imagined that the little chair would still endure nearly 80 years on, or that one day his great great granddaughters would sit in it. It does and they do. The chair resides in my living room, a family treasure beloved of both my daughters. – mdf
Image archive IDs:
Top older image: 20150223-005_barbara_stairs
Middle older image: 20150223-001_barbara_hood_of_car
Bottom older image: 20150223-003_barbara_rocker
About the physical photographs:
Written on back:
Top photo: “Barbara Lee in Charleston”
Middle photo: “Barbara”; mdf wrote: “Charleston c.1939”
Bottom photo: “Barbara”; mdf wrote: “Charleston c.1939”
Printed on back of middle and bottom photos: