90 Fishburne

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.

A Charleston survivor: 90 Fishburne Street in October 2014.

A Charleston survivor: 90 Fishburne Street in October 2014.

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.

Charleston in 1938. The gray bands define the paths of two of the five tornadoes that struck the area that morning. The tip of the yellow arrow locates the house at the corner of Fishburne and Coming.

Charleston in 1938. The gray bands define the paths of two of the five tornadoes that struck the area on the morning of 29 September. The tip of the yellow arrow locates the house at the corner of Fishburne and Coming streets.

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.

My other at the Charleston house at about two years old. The house was a duplex in the 1930s, and I believe these stairs were on the Coming Street side. They allowed access to the top floor.

My mother at the Charleston house at about two years old. The house was a duplex in the 1930s, and I believe these stairs were on the Coming Street side. They allowed access to the top floor.

It was duplex in the 1930s. The Dowells lived upstairs.

The Coming Street side in 2014. The stairs in the previous picture would have been where the bushes left of center are, I think.

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.

The house at 90 Fishburne (indicated by the yellow arrow) narrowly escaped a second disaster when the freeway was built in the mid-20th century. The off-ramp nearly clips the house nextdoor, and the houses across the street were razed.

The house at 90 Fishburne (indicated by the yellow arrow) narrowly escaped a second disaster when the freeway was built in the mid-20th century. The off-ramp nearly clips the house nextdoor, and the houses across the street were razed. Fishburne is the street coming from the lower left corner and dead-ending in the freeway’s armpit. Image captured from Bing maps. Click image for larger version.

My mother, Barbara Lee Dowell, in front of 90 Fishburne in about 1939. I'd love to know what kind of car this is. The house nextdoor, visible here, still stands, but the houses further along Fishburne are gone.

Barbara Lee Dowell, in front of 90 Fishburne in about 1939. I’d love to know what kind of car this is. The house nextdoor, visible behind her upraised arm here, barely dodged the wrecking ball. The ones beyond were razed decades ago.

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.

A close up of the Fishburne Street side.

A close-up of the Fishburne Street side.

Number 90 from the edge of the freeway, looking across the onetime lots of the houses on the south side of Fishburne.

Number 90 from the edge of the freeway, looking across the onetime lots of the houses on the south side of Fishburne.

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.

Clover cut-outs and other fanciful woodwork adorns the porch and balcony.

Clover cut-outs and other fanciful woodwork adorn the porch and balcony.

Wrap-around porch on the ground floor.

Wrap-around porch on the ground floor.

The fence railing and gate along the Fishburne side.

The fence railing and gate along the Fishburne side.

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

Barbara Lee Dowell c.1939, Charleston. As of 2015 the rocking chair and the house are still in use; their occupant is still bright and beautiful.

Barbara Lee Dowell c.1939, Charleston. As of 2015 the rocking chair and the house are still in use; their occupant is still bright and beautiful.

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:
“PANEL-ART
JACOBS
PHOTO SERVICE
CHARLESTON, S.C.”

Advertisements

7 thoughts on “90 Fishburne

  1. After a little research, I’m of the opinion that the car in the sixth photo is a Model A, probably a 1930 coupe, maybe 1931. This perhaps explains something that happened last week that shocked me: I was eating lunch at a cafe with my mother — she pictured above — and when an old car drove by she perked up and followed it with her eyes and excitedly blurted something about that one having a rumble seat. I’ve known my mother for 52 years and I’ve never in all my days heard her say anything that would indicate she had any interest in or knowledge of cars, much less rumble seats. But as I’ve been studying the car in this photo, noting that the back windows seem to curve down earlier than those of the sedan version, it makes me realize that what we saw the other day was very likely a Model A coupe of about the same vintage as the one above. She was excited, I think, because she saw her old family car.

    Like

  2. More on the car. Rich Reinhardt, a Model A owner at my church, had a look at the photo in this post and said it was definitely a Model A. Because of the slight slant to the front windshield, the absence of the windshield visor, the fact that the wiper motor is mounted inside the car and not outside, and some particulars of the front grille, he believes it to be a 1931 Model A of the “Victoria” (a.k.a. “Vicky”) type. Rich, who was featured in the Seattle Times a week or two ago with his own Model A he’s had since before he had a driver’s license, says that the Vicky, being a less common type of Model A, would have been a real prize of a car at the time and is highly collectible today. Too bad my mom’s not still sittin’ on it.

    Like

  3. Nice write up! I do a lot of research on historic houses in Charleston, South Carolina. A family who lived down the street from 90 Fishburne shared some photos with me a few years ago. One of the photos shows 90 Fishburne in a rare snow. It’s not a fantastic picture of the house, but I’d be glad to share it with you. The photo was undated, but was probably in the 1940s based on a car on the street.

    Kevin Eberle (KEberle@CharlestonLaw.edu)
    (You can find me through the faculty page for the Charleston School of Law also.)

    Like

  4. Kevin, thanks for stopping by and for leaving a comment. You’re lucky to live and work in such a beautiful old city. I would love to see your photo and to have a copy at as high a resolution as you are comfortable sending via email. I’m going to contact you “offline” about it.
    -Matt

    Like

  5. Here is a photo sent by Kevin Eberle, Legal Research, Analysis and Writing Professor at Charleston School of Law. 90 Fishburne is partially hidden by the greenery. He says it looks to be from the 1940s, based on the cars visible. Photo courtesy of Carl Jessen.

    Kevin adds: “I was researching a house in my neighborhood many year ago, and I got in touch with an elderly fellow named Carl Jessen. His family had owned a house on Sutherland Court. He had a great photo of it from about 1938, and I told him that if he had any other old photos, I would dearly love to see them.

    “He said that he had some, and he would be happy to share them. He scanned them and sent me a CD with them on it. His family had earlier lived on Fishburne in a house that was bulldozed for the Crosstown in the 1960s. Some of the photos picked up nearby buildings.

    “This is a shot of the intersection in the snow with 90 Fishburne. It was taken to show the snow, so the image is not great for purposes of documenting the house, but you might like it.”

    From what Kevin reports above, and from the orientation of the photo with regard to No. 90, it is clear that Mr. Jessen’s family home was one of those across the street in the area now covered by the new highway.

    Professor Eberle is the author of “A History of Charleston’s Hampton Park” (History Press, 2012), a book about Hampton Park, which is hard by the old house at Fishburne.

    Like

  6. Pingback: Barbara Dowell with grandfather William Carl Rohde at Hampton Park | Fleagle and Dowell Family History in Photos

  7. Pingback: “We had to brace ourselves…” – Dowells at Folly Beach, South Carolina, 1938 | Fleagle and Dowell Family History in Photos

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s