Philip Simmons, whose skill with the hammer and anvil elevated him from a humble working man to an artisan widely recognized as a national treasure, died Monday night. He was 97.
The renowned blacksmith died in his sleep at Bishop Gadsden retirement home surrounded by family.
Simmons' great popularity can't be explained simply by his ability to bend iron. He also was one of the gentlest Charlestonians of his time.
As he carried on a craft practiced in Charleston since the 1730s, Simmons also became one of the city's most well-known ambassadors. Thousands of visitors to Charleston stopped by his house and forge at 30 1/2 Blake St. either to watch him at work or to listen to him tell tales.
And every visitor here passed one of his gates, whether they recognized it or not. His work remains all over the Lowcountry, and it also stands in the Smithsonian, the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia and as far away as Paris and China.
Simmons realized he wanted to pursue this trade soon after he moved to downtown Charleston from Daniel Island in 1920 to go to school at Buist Academy. He later designed the arch over its entry gate, one of the best examples of his unique lettering style.
As Simmons walked to Buist, he began noticing and admiring the wrought iron along Charlotte Street. He eventually passed by the shop of blacksmith Peter Simmons (no relation) and was intrigued. He began an apprenticeship there at age 13 and became a full-blown blacksmith five years later.
His 77 years at the forge spanned two eras. When he began, blacksmiths were sort of like car mechanics of their day, making horseshoes and other practical items. By the time he laid his hammer down a few years ago, blacksmithing was seen as more of an art form.
He set out on his own in the 1930s, but it was his meeting up with Charleston businessman Jack Krawcheck a decade later that set Simmons on his path to greatness.
Krawcheck requested a wrought iron gate for the rear of his King Street clothing store, and Simmons fashioned one out of scrap because World War II made acquiring new iron next to impossible. He then delivered his first gate, the first of more than 30 pieces for the Krawcheck family.
But that's just a tiny slice. A recent effort to catalog his work turned up more than 500 separate iron gates, fences, columns, window grills and other works, said Steve Lepre, who recently drove Simmons around to try to create a definitive documentation of his legacy. Simmons designed and forged five gates along Stolls Alley alone.
And those 500 pieces don't include the pokers, tools, and shutter dogs that Simmons also crafted to make a living. "There's a lot of that small stuff that's out there," Lepre said. "He was putting food on the table for many years."
Simmons even fastened a car cupholder out of clothes hangars in 1970 for someone's Volvo. "He was always inventive, an inventor," Lepre said.
Today, his most prominent local pieces include the gazebo inside the Charleston International Airport, the gates outside the Charleston Visitors Center, the egret gates at Waterfront Park, the Gadsden house gate at 329 East Bay St., the gate at 2 St. Michael's Alley, the railings and window grilles at 45 Meeting St., and the heart gates at his church, St. John's Reformed Episcopal Church at 91 Anson St.
John Michael Vlach chronicled Simmons' life and work in a book published in 1981 and updated 11 years later.
"At the outset of his career he took orders; now he gives them," Vlach wrote in a separate essay in "The Buildings of Charleston."
"In the midst of his time-bound trade and even while preserving the historic appearance of Charleston, he remains his own man. He has found self-expression in the communal tradition."
Simmons also repaired many of the city's most famous gates created by the city's earliest artisans, such as the famous Sword Gates on Legare Street. "He pointed to it exactly and said, 'I replaced these six leaves,' " Lepre said, adding that Simmons kept a pile of historic ironwork in his yard so he could repair old pieces with metal of a similar age. "He was the first iron preservationist."
Eventually, the recognition began to flow. In 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts gave him its National Heritage Fellowship because of the authenticity, excellence and significance of his work.
During his acceptance speech, according to Vlach's "Charleston Blacksmith, The Work of Philips Simmons," he took the stage shortly after a blues duo performed and explained his work like this: "My instrument is an anvil. I guess some of you have heard me play ... a tune on the anvil, the old blacksmith tune. ... I'm proud of that anvil, really proud. ... That anvil fed me when I was hungry and that anvil clothed me when I was naked. That anvil put shoes on my feet."
Simmons' last piece was for a new federal courthouse in Columbia named after Judge Matthew Perry, but his forge continued to hum with work by his cousin Joseph "Ronnie" Pringle and his nephew Carlton Simmons.
After he could no longer wield a hammer, he kept at it with his pencil. The wrought iron at Liberty Square in Charleston and at the Philip Simmons Park on Daniel Island are his designs forged by others.
While his formal education ended after the sixth grade, he eventually received an honorary degree from S.C. State University in 2006.
Simmons also gave back to the community, serving as a longtime Scout leader on the city's East Side neighborhood and served on the board of trustees at his church.
His motto, which he had framed and hung inside his home, was: "If you want your prayers answered, you have to get off your knees and hustle."
His blacksmith shop has migrated across the peninsula and has been listed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's list of 11 Most Endangered Sites list. Efforts are under way to raise money to buy the property from the family and preserve it as a landmark to Simmons' life and work.
Rossie Colter is the project administrator for the Philip Simmons Foundation, a nonprofit organization that was formed to promote Simmons'work.
"We need to continue his legacy," Colter said. "He will always be a part of us. We can walk around and touch what he made."
Up until the end, Simmons' mind remained sharp even as his hands, eyes and hearing started slipping away.
Simmons is survived by a daughter, Lillian Gilliam; a son, Philip Simmons Jr.; a sister, Rebecca Comings; 16 grandchildren; and several great-great grandchildren, nieces and nephews.
Arrangements are being handled by Harleston-Boags Funeral Home.
Read more about Philip Simmons
Master blacksmith Simmons part of national celebration: Charleston's Philip Simmons joins 75 other artisans on the National Mall, published 06/27/01Blacksmith sparks interest during I'On visit, published 03/28/02Blacksmith Simmons marks 90th, published 06/10/02 Zoning board gives ironworker a place in history, published 05/17/06 Celebrated blacksmith builds on his legacy; At nearly 94, Simmons still is shaping the future , published 06/04/06
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