Outside has flash, inside has rest of the story

Above a side entrance to 67 Rutledge still hangs a series of different sized bells so slaves or servants would know who was requesting help. Downton Abbey was not unique in this way.

Charleston homes have many architectural details to savor from the street, but they harbor more secrets inside.

And their interiors also show the city’s real preservation ethic — the preservation that takes place because generations of residents preferred it that way, not because it was required under city law.

While the city’s Board of Architectural Review guards the historic quality of buildings’ facades —and whatever can be seen from the public right of way — it’s up to the owners to choose gentle renovations that make an old home more livable without erasing the past.

A case in point is one of the city’s more eclectic residences at 67 Rutledge St., just north of Colonial Lake.

What one sees from the street is a unique home described as a “Villa in Persian Style.”

What one finds inside is equally unique —and in the back is something that used to be ubiquitous downtown but has almost vanished completely.

“No. 67 Rutledge is an example of a house which has been kept in excellent condition since it was built 104 years ago. In fact, there hangs on the study wall a photo of the house taken in the early 1850s, and but for the outmoded dress of the people in it, it could be taken for the house today.”

Those words were written by Isabella Leland — in 1956. And the photo (possibly an illustration?) still hangs on the wall.

Built around 1852 by Col. James Henry Taylor, the house features Moorish arches along the front with marble steps and a marble piazza. Its interior preservation may reflect that it’s been owned by only three families since.

The house also reflects another Charleston tradition — buildings that get less formal the further one goes back from the street.

The home’s two spacious front parlors still feature ornate bronze chandeliers that operate on electricity but still can operate on gas — a feature prized by earlier residents whenever the power went out.

On the piazza outside the kitchen, near the ceiling, hang five bells in a row — a sight sure to conjure up images of the first few seconds of Downton Abbey’s opening credits.

The bells corresponded to a different room, and the one that rang alerted the slaves or servants where their assistance was requested. This feature might make some uncomfortable, but erasing evidence of the past doesn’t erase the past —and the bells are a reminder of a different time.

These probably haven’t been used in decades, maybe even more than a century, but they remain still.

Upstairs sits another historical oddity: one of the city’s earliest bathtubs. This one is lined with copper, which not only provided a durable look but also may have been valued for reasons of hygiene. Copper resists bacteria more than other materials.

Behind the main house is an old engine room and servants rters and a carriage house.

The carriage house has been used recently for storage, but an adjoining stable still has the wooden hay bale and feeding hay trough and horse feeder — and a container for salt. Even the raised, wooden floor survives, though it shows the scars of time.

Most downtown carriage houses have been renovated as residences, but its nice that some survive in a house that’s not a museum.

Preservationists have been increasingly vocal about protecting the interior of the city’s homes and other historic buildings — areas and spaces that are not protected under city ordinance. The Gut Fish, Not Houses” bumper sticker comes quickly to mind. And preservationists have scored success in getting interior easements and covenants on a growing number of properties.

These agreements give the preservation groups some say so into interior modifications, and that’s a good thing.

But even better would be the continuation of a Lowcountry ethic where if something still works, it’s still kept, even cherished, even if there are more newfangled options at hand.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.