An appreciation for Charleston's console brackets

Vanderhorst Street home

Many of Charleston's historic homes are relatively plain, more so than one might think.

But hundreds share a certain ornate feature, a piece of architectural eye candy that greets everyone as they approach.

I'm referring to console brackets, ornamental brackets often in an "S" or scroll shape and mostly used to support a small hood or pediment over the front door.

Most are made of wood, painted white and look custom built rather than ordered from a catalog or master supplier, but there are surely exceptions to all that.

And like the homes to which they're attached, these brackets vary in size, detail and age. They're found on homes built in the Georgian era and those built just recently, though most seem to be found on homes built somewhere in between: in the mid- to late 19th century.

Many seem to have been made by carving three to five thin wooden boards just so, then gluing them together to make a composite rich with recesses and decorative motifs. Some also have finials, stars or other medallions fastened on.

And most owe a singular debt to an Italian architect who worked 500 years ago.

What got me thinking about the city's console brackets was a recent lecture by Calder Loth, an architectural historian now retired from Virginia's Department of Historic Resources.

Loth spoke at Charleston's Vitruviana symposium earlier this month, and he talked about the legacy of Andrea Palladio's Fourth Book, which he argues has been overlooked as a source of inspiration for early American architecture. (The first three books, on classical orders, villas and engineering and public buildings, have received more attention, he says).

But it's the fourth book, a study of the ruins of Roman temples, some of which have since been lost, that has details such as the block modillion decoration, which is found underneath the portico of St. Michael's Church, among many other places in Charleston.

And it's where Palladio outlined the concept of "Eustyle," creating a slightly wider space between the central most two columns: between the two that frame the front door. That's found on the Trinity Methodist Church on Meeting Street, among many other places in Charleston.

It's also where he outlined the ox skull in the frieze, which appeared on the Temple of Fortuna Virilis and was reproduced on the frieze of Charleston's Market Hall.

But it's the bracketed console, which provides architectural support, much like consolation is emotional support, that may have been seized on the most in Charleston. They're used to support pediments, windows and small roofs over the front door.

One of Charleston's earliest and grandest examples of it is on the William Gibbes House at 64 South Battery. These imposing console brackets support the central pediment above the second floor on the front facade.

But so many more are much closer to the ground, flanking the door, just above eye level. Some share the same classical acanthus leaf detail of the Gibbes' house, while others have a more abstract set of carvings, like a carpenter showing off. Still others are quite plain.

Loth noted that Palladio wasn't necessarily the direct inspiration of architects; others created pattern books that were used since his death in 1580. But those pattern books also may owe a debt to him.

"We need to appreciate that Palladio's drawings in Book Four are the only record we have of some ancient Roman monuments," he says, adding they have inspired countless architects since, in this city, in this country and beyond.

All it takes is a leisurely walk or bike ride around the city to show how that inspiration led to such rich and varied brackets on homes built over three centuries. These are interesting ornamental flourishes too often missing from what is built today.

The Historic Charleston Foundation will hold its Founders Day awards program at 6 p.m. Tuesday at First Baptist Church, 66 Church St. The public is invited.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.