Standing in her courtyard at 56 Society St., Tami McCann recalled how a previous owner loved the white rose of Sharon so much that it covered the delicate walkways now critical to this stop on the Festival of Houses and Gardens tour route.

That's probably the least interesting thing about that previous owner.

Gordon Langley Hall, a young British writer, burst into Charleston social circles in 1962. Six years later, after a trip to Johns Hopkins Hospital, he returned to town as a woman named Dawn Pepita Langley Hall and proceeded to do something perhaps just as unheard of in that era: marry a black man and become Dawn Langley Simmons.

McCann remembered Simmons' publisher calling one day shortly after McCann moved in and asking if she would hold a cocktail reception for the novelist, who had written an autobiography. McCann asked the publisher when, and the publisher told her, "This afternoon."

McCann obliged and said Wednesday, before tourists made their way into her garden, "The way I look at it, I'm just taking care of it until the next people come in. You don't get to choose your history of the house."

Hers happens to include the small but ornate gravestones of "Simon Langley Hall" and "Philip-Paul Simmons," some of the late Simmons' pets, amid the azaleas, camellias and an ancient live oak tree whose outstretched branches spew curlicues of pollen with every breeze. It's one of the largest lots in Ansonborough, which is one of the more intimate neighborhoods featured on the Historic Charleston Foundation's annual festival, now in its 63rd year.

The Festival of Houses and Gardens began in 1948 as a way to raise money to pay off the mortgage on the Heyward-Washington House. For the chance to peer behind wrought iron gates and into private homes and gardens, more than 3,000 people paid $6.

This year between 13,000 and 14,000 people paying $45 a ticket will visit some 150 homes, largely thanks to the help of 750 volunteers. The festival, which began in mid-March, ends Saturday with a repeat of the Anson Street tour.

Foundation communications director Leigh Handal said her organization bought many of the homes in this neighborhood, bounded on all sides by the city's busiest commercial corridors, in the 1960s and sold them to preservation-minded people for as little as $12,000. The foundation took the money from those sales to purchase more houses and repeat the process in what they call the Revolving Fund.

The fund still operates, now primarily in Harleston Village wedged between the College of Charleston and the Medical University of South Carolina. Its effect on Ansonborough -- attracting residents dedicated to their properties -- built the neighborhood's reputation.

Judy McAlpin, who lives at 46 Anson St., said she and her husband specifically shopped for a home in Ansonborough eight years ago.

A small fountain trickles in the quiet of her courtyard, set in front of her brick house but back from the street. Standing in the garden, McAlpin said, "It's a wonderful spot to me, in the middle of everything and yet away from everything."

John and Josephine Beall's home at 10 Wentworth St. was the first property rehabilitated under the Revolving Fund. The couple chose it because they wanted a larger yard, tough to find in the heart of downtown but not in Ansonborough.

Another strange juxtaposition: Inside the "dependency" for the Bealls' home, where slaves would have laundered clothes and cooked meals, visitors found century-old brick floors and wooden beam ceilings but also a flat-screen television.

Perhaps that's the draw. Tourists who normally stroll past facades untouched for centuries can, for two more days, peek in at the present.

Reach Allyson Bird at 937-5594 or