Tuesday, June 25, 2019

A FOOTPRINT IN TIME



PUBLICATION OF THIS ARTICLE IS PROHIBITED WITHOUT THE WRITTEN CONSENT OF THE AUTHOR.
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PROLOGUE

After nearly a century of service, the once-bustling Charleston Naval Complex wrote its final chapter in 1996. 



The year was 2010, fourteen years hence of the base's closing.  

     During a visit to Charleston, a friend—who is well-aware of my adventurous 
spirit—suggested I pay the old Navy base a visit since it was open to the public.  Although it was not a sight charted on Charleston’s history trail like downtown Charleston---which was my planned destination that day—or a place that could arouse the part of me that loves to walk into the past, I decided it worthy of a quick stop since it was on the way to my destination.
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PART I

      I recognized the entrance to the base by the familiar brick guard station that marks the entrances at all our military bases. In the absence of uniformed guards with white gloved hands held in a halt, I felt a pervading emptiness commingled with the uninviting scene in the foreground and stopped the car beside the empty station in contemplation.  Do I really want to waste my time?.... I'm here, why not.
     A left turn found me driving along a lonely road where government-issued vehicles used to claim the pavement, passing row after row of vacant, neglected industrial-type buildings that once echoed with the sound of noisy typewriters and upper-ranking officers issuing orders.  Already I was forming a first impression... What used to be doesn't count anymore. 
      Ghostly though it felt, there was NO denying a lingering ambiance, exaggerated by the abandoned hunks of rusting steel, towering shipyard cranes and



crisscrossed railroad tracks that seemed to go nowhere. Not to mention those buildings with big bold numbers that suggested they once housed something Top Secret and were meant for Security Personnel Only.




      One building ran into another and I was quickly concluding there was little in the way of interesting architecture, and maybe my friend's recommendation wasn't a fit for this "intrepid" traveler as she had suggested.
      Just as I was about to exit the complex and head for downtown, a massive building standing alone on a corner and identified as the POWER HOUSE diverted my attention from the traffic light where I was about take my exit and make a left turn towards downtown Charleston.  Even in its neglected state, an appearance of ageless grandeur seemed to suggest the building had found its roots in European architecture, and being a lover of Europe and a descendant of Venetians, it definitely resonated with my European roots. 
     The light turned green and I checked the rear view mirror for cars while I hesitated....Hmm, maybe I should explore a little more and see what's at the end of the road.   
  

       An eighth of a mile or so down that same monotonous road I crossed over those same railroad tracks that trailed off in another direction and disappeared from sight.
       The boring, cold landscape that had nearly caused my hasty exit had softened to a meandering lane lined on either side with graceful, moss-laden crepe myrtle trees and old live oaks....Interesting.  Is this still part of the base?    
       The scene warranted it, and no one objected when I pulled the car onto a lawn behind the crepe myrtles, so I took the liberty of shooting several pictures and named the street "Crepe Myrtle Lane."    


     The only inkling that I might have come to another area of the base, possibly residential, was the old white house with an awning covered screened porch that seemed to creep out of the WWII era.  In the absence of any signage, I could only venture a guess as to what lie beyond Crepe Myrtle Lane.  What did it matter, I was immensely gratified by the rays of light shooting through the avenue of crepe myrtle trees, creating elongated shadows across the lane, leaving the Spanish moss tinted in soft shades of silver.    I can always return and follow the railroad tracks to nowhere if Crepe Myrtle Lane leads to nothing illuminating.
 

      At the end of the lane I stopped at a sign with a painted red arrow directing cars around an island of live oaks boasting a century or more of growth. WOW! 
     There was no guessing now that I had entered the naval military residential area, and one that could easily have been inspiration for an artist's canvas depicting the old south. This is incredible! The only thing missing is the plantation house.



      Cradled now beneath the canopy of trees I paused in silent reverence, staring through the windshield at curled moss swaying like long strands of hair in the breeze, and splashes of sunlight settling in soft patterns on the ground.  It was as if Mother Nature had smiled upon this special place and left it in waiting for someone to ponder its past. And in the empty silence, it seemed that someone was me.   


      With a peaked curiosity, I drove around the island of giant oaks and parked the car on a grassy spot, answering an urgent call to set out on foot and explore my surroundings.  
      Camera out of the bag now and strapped around my neck (means some serious photo shooting) I began the trek over a narrow roadway thick with fallen oak leaves which lay atop white sand that insisted on creeping into the spaces between my toes...If only I’d worn more suitable shoes.
     Military-like housing scattered the landscape (a white theme), my attention drawn to two desperately weathered houses. First, and most impressive was the two-story white home that boasted upper and lower sprawling porches, a copper roof turned green and an impeccably manicured landscape; I likened its appearance to a polished fingernail with a rough cuticle. 


In the distance where the roadway ended in a cul-de-sac encircled by more splendid live oaks, another empty house with boarded windows--much simpler in design than its neighbor--sat nestled beneath tentacle-like limbs that crawled through the space overhead.  


Looking beyond the house, an opening in the trees revealed a continuation of the railroad tracks that still led to nowhere, because that somewhere was long gone. While I shot my photos—noticing how the lens revealed the vines that had found their way between the spaces of rotting siding on the upper level--I thought… It’s evident that both homes---although different in architecture and possibly accommodating those of different rank--speak to another time, and have certainly seen far better days


    
     In addition to the fact that I felt inexplicably drawn to this place, other conflicting emotions were colliding: I revel in the pleasure of being a witness to another time. But the sight of all those homes slowly being lost to the elements, time and man’s indifference...I feel... overwhelmingly sad.  I quickly dismissed both thoughts because my imagination was tuned up for more, and the adventurer in me could not have it any other way.      
    

 Continuing on foot, that mature, old-south landscape was nothing short of spectacular and invited thoughts of a hammock and a gentle breeze.



     It was becoming increasingly apparent that the architecture, blending so harmoniously with nature, was no mistake, but indeed the result of the creators' understanding of the homes' intimate relationship to the stand of live oaks.  A hundred years of growth, combined with the addition of native trees and bushes had further enhanced that relationship by allowing the weathering homes some privacy from critical eyes.


Drifting peacefully on its path behind it all, was the historic Cooper River--a river synonymous with the Civil War; the same river where battle ships and submarines and air craft carriers were once refitted and built and stood in waiting to transport men and women to several conflicts and two world wars. 





 

     Continuing on foot, a narrow roadway cutting through the giant oaks lent itself to a leisurely stroll where side streets called, and another, even finer set of porches than before shown from the trees and called to "that part of me that loves to walk into the past."  A new-found commitment had me thinking....Downtown Charleston will have to wait 'til another day.  



In the absence of NO TRESPASSING signs, police, or residents with disapproving eyes, I was left to wander the grounds of my new-found discovery, unimpeded.   All sense of time was lost to beckoning gardens, windows inviting a peek, vacant porches lit with an afternoon sun and trodden paths that offered an empty concrete bench calling me to rest and clean the sand from between my toes.



     Immersed in a discovery I found myself looking through a window of time (96 years worth) as told in the chandeliers, curved staircases’, tall ceilings and wide porches of the old homes. It was no ordinary military base.  No, it was unique.  And the camera lens and I were partnered to capture it in perpetuity should it be lost to the likes of another hurricane Hugo, or termites, or.....












 Wherever my feet took me, those left-over relics dotted about the landscape, left hints as to who might have been the former residents. 













And because I looked down at my feet as much as I looked up, the reminders were everywhere. 





 Even the old rusted clothesline, concrete bench, broken bird bath and misplaced grill grate had a story to tell. 
And what tells a story more appropriately than a photograph.

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      The day was drawing to a close....I was weary, hungry and my feet hurt.  Despite all I'd seen and felt abundantly rewarded for, something was urging me to go just a little farther, and like a moth drawn to the flame, I followed the urge.  
     Then I saw IT, rising majestically from a landscape of sprawling oaks, flowering red camellias that sounded of clamoring bees and azalea bushes heavy with their leafy burden.  What an image.  Stunned, I was now tripping over those earlier old south scenes and skipping blithely into a scene from Gone With The Wind.    
      IT looked like an old plantation with its multi-stories, dormer windows and massive white columns that supported an elegant wide porch.  Since it seemed to demand such, I appropriately named it "THE MANSION," thinking it the perfect centerpiece.
 


     The Mansion was perfectly situated near the banks of the Cooper River affording it splendid views; it suggested a style of architecture dating it to the early 1900’s and spoke to the class of its former residents as holding positions of the highest rank. Questions fanned out of control in my mind. Who really lived thereWhat stories lie within its walls? What major decisions were made by dignitaries smoking cigars and sipping Cognac? Did a First Lady sit with the Lady of the House on that elegant wide porch?
     

ARE THESE FIGURES TO THE RIGHT OF THE MAN WITH THE CIGAR NOT WILL ROGERS & PRESIDENT HARRY S. TRUMAN? 

      I thought the Mansion a copycat of the plantation house, Tara ( from Gone with the Wind) allowing for an easy visual of ladies and gentlemen of the day enjoying polite conversation at a lawn party hosted by the plantation owner.  
I was convinced that it had hosted some of America’s finest. 


     Owing to the Mansion’s proximity to the river it was a perfect breeding place for the mosquitoes relentlessly in pursuit of my flesh; the only impediment I had experienced throughout my discovery that day. Even the breeze that sent dying oak leaves to the ground would not deter the mosquitoes from their fevered frenzy.  It was as if they were warning me to leave alone what they had claimed.  Determined to see more, I moved closer for a better look at the exterior, one hand ready for the camera, the other busy swatting and scratching. 
    
What a shame! 
      Disappointment set in at the sight of the massive front door entrance secured by a chain and padlock to keep out unwanted visitors, and the orange band sprawling a sagging front porch which bore the “Keep Out” sign. That beautiful porch above, rotted and sagging felt dangerously like it could drop on my head should I venture closer. And those massive columns with their rotting base were hard at work keeping it all in place.
     

      From a distance the Mansion stood proud, maintaining its distinctive style and character
(that Gone with the Wind look), but viewing it close up revealed a desperate state that spoke to neglect and the need for a major renovation; 
  It was a beautiful, but decaying piece of history driving me to think the impossible...I'd love to own it and bring it back to life.
     


It's going to take a boatload of money to fix this Mansion. 
    The siding and overhangs revealed rotting wood. There were sections of glass missing from their decorative lead casings and the window supporting it was overgrown with vines that threatened entry through the broken pane. An ugly, obsolete pipe trailed the exterior over tired paint that curled away from the siding in large sheets suggesting it had not seen an upgrade in recent history.  Looking up, a second story window with tattered curtains felt eerily of someone  lurking behind, reminding me of a window scene from the old mansion in the movie, "Psycho".


      What better finale than to wander the Mansion's interior, fix my gaze on its stunning appointments, grand staircases and rooms that once felt the warmth from the marble-faced fireplaces.  Tempted though I was to step cautiously on the rotting porch and look behind the giant front door I knew better, for “Keep Out” meant just that.   Decidedly, I would have to be content to leave the interior to my imagination.
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     Walking the path that led me back to the road, I turned to take a final look before leaving the Mansion behind.  It was then that I made myself a firm promise to  praise my friend over a glass of wine for her spot-on recommendation, vowing I would return one day soon, armed with more information about the base's history. 
     I strapped the camera back around my neck leaving it to sway as I made the long walk back to my car.   Rewarded by all that I had experienced that day, I felt a bounce in my stride and let out a huge sigh of appreciation as my parked vehicle came into view. 
     Back at Crepe Myrtle Lane I was left to ponder the fate of all I’d seen, drifting back briefly to that earlier feeling of sadness that now lay heavy on my heart.  That emotion notwithstanding, I held firm to the hope that one day an entity with a “vision” would rescue this piece of naval history from its inevitable fate and return the Mansion to its former grandeur.  
Why not put that wish out into the Universe.  Someone just might come along and claim it. 
1906 Photograph of "THE MANSION"

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EPILOGUE

       It is now 2019, some 9 years hence of that first encounter. 

I am pleased beyond words to say that the Charleston Naval Base’s "Officers' Quarters Historic District" is hardly a forgotten piece of Naval History.  In fact, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the process of restoration is well-underway.











     In addition, and since I am not a full-time resident of Charleston, I have, on recent visits, been privileged to be a witness to the current restoration project of the “ADMIRAL’S"  house (MANSION) where I’ve been able to go inside and satisfy that earlier desire to explore its corridors, climb the three stories of stairs, look across the lawn from that sprawling second story porch and press my ear to its walls.

SORRY,  I'M AFRAID IT HAS TOLD ME TO KEEP ITS SECRETS TO MYSELF!











     
Is it any wonder I was drawn that day in 2010 to what has since been classified as: "Late 19th and 20th Century revivals: An IMPRESSIVE mix of Colonial Revival, Neo-Colonial, Brick Classical Revival, Neo-Classical Revival, Italian Renaissance, Mixed, Concrete Panama, Prarie School, International and Italian Revival Architecture." 



        I am a frequent visitor to the housing area, forever discovering more of its mysteries.  It is my plan to spend a night in the Admiral’s house which is earmarked as a Bed and Breakfast upon completion.  And if I should be so fortunate, perhaps that person that I hoped for with a “VISION” -- who did indeed come along--might afford me the honor of being the first person to spend a night there.   
And I repeat: "There’s certainly no harm in putting it out there."
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 PART II

IN MEMORY OF THOSE WHO SERVED OUR COUNTRY


      I want to dedicate this piece to all those military families who were stationed at the Charleston Naval Base from its inception in 1901 to its closure in 1996.   
     

      To those men and women who went to war from its port, gave their lives for this great country, stayed behind to shed their tears in loss, gained pride in their accomplishments, and made decisions that forever changed the course of history, I thank you for your service. 


     I feel you each time I travel through that avenue of crepe myrtles (Crepe Myrtle Lane) and walk beneath the sea of live oaks, staring again in wonder at ALL you left behind.  There may be newly applied coats of paint, but the feeling is always the same.

     If you, or someone you know left their footprint on the old base, I'd love to hear their story.  There's a comment section for you to leave your contact information.


Nanine Case, Author/Photographer