Secrets Revealed: Find the Hidden Gardens of Charleston

By:Kerry Egan

Date:9/6/2017

A glimpse through the wrought iron gate on this shady sidewalk reveals quite a frog party going south of Broad Street in Charleston. A half-dozen bronze frog statues lounge, drink wine and swim in a perfect brick-lined pool under shady trees and surrounded by perfectly clipped boxwoods. It’s the sort of party you never knew you wanted to go to, and the sort of garden you never knew you longed to enter, until you see it.

The frogs might be one of a kind, but that shady private garden in front of a house on Meeting Street is just one of dozens of perfectly charming hidden gardens scattered throughout the historic neighborhoods on the Charleston peninsula. You can't join them, but spotting them from the sidewalk is a time-honored tradition in the Holy City.

The enormous gardens of the Charleston plantations are justifiably famous. But just as beautiful, and perhaps even more enchanting, are the tiny gardens that make the old neighborhoods in the vicinity of Church and Meeting streets some of the most beautiful in the world. Sometimes the most beautiful gardens on a street are the window boxes—the tiniest gardens of all!

Much of the fun of these hidden gardens is discovering them. The private houses on Meeting, Church and Legare streets south of Broad, and on the cross street of Tradd are good places to begin your search. Charleston is a walking city, and this hidden garden search is one best conducted on foot and without a map. Just wander. Let yourself walk down those little green alleys. Let your heart and curiosity and the sight of something intriguing down the road lead you. You won’t be disappointed in Charleston. If you walk all the way down Meeting, Church or Legare, you’ll find yourself in historic White Point Garden, a 5.7-acre public park overlooking the harbor.

Most of the houses in these neighborhoods are private, and their gardens must be viewed from the public sidewalk. But if you’re just dying to step through those wrought iron gates and wander among the boxwoods, ferns and hydrangeas, some of the grand houses have been turned into museums, and their gardens are now open to the public.

Nathaniel Russell House Museum is surrounded by serene formal gardens that were common in the 18th and early 19th centuries, as is the Heyward Washington House and the Joseph Manigault House.

The Calhoun Mansion was built in 1876, after the Civil War. Its intricate gardens are filled with beautiful sculptures.

The Phillip Simmons Gardens (on Anson Street behind St. John’s Church) are some of the most mesmerizing in the city. Simmons was a famous blacksmith who made some of the most beautiful ironwork in the city. The gardens that commemorate him are filled with his work and the amazing topiary of Pearl Fryar.

Behind the Gibbes Museum of Art is a cool and tranquil garden surrounding a peaceful modern fountain. You can find it if you walk down the concrete path to the right of the building.

And for what feels like the most secret garden tour of all, explore the Gateway Walk, a series of linked churchyards and gardens that quietly threads its way through the busiest part of Charleston, but makes the visitor feel like they’ve discovered a hidden world.

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