Years ago, structural engineer John Paul Huguley had breakfast at Saffron’s with the legendary Charleston blacksmith Philip Simmons.
Simmons, who passed away in 2009, shared with Huguley his biggest wish.
“He said, ‘Before I die, I want to make sure my trade is carried on,’ ” Huguley recalls clearly.
It ultimately led to Huguley’s efforts to found the School of the Building Arts, the Charleston institution now known as the American College of the Building Arts. He calls Simmons “my inspirational founder.”
And this year, that breakfast conversation is coming full circle as an instructor at that college is helping to restore one of Simmons’ most significant set of gates, the ones featuring a pair of coiled rattlesnakes.
The gates are a key feature of the house at 329 East Bay St., which is just next door to where Huguley and Simmons had their fateful breakfast.
The house is far older, and its historical significance stems both from its ties to Christopher Gadsden, a Revolutionary War hero who once owned this land and whose son-in-law is believed to have built the house around 1800.
A Gadsden descendant donated the house to the Historic Charleston Foundation in 1959, and it became one of the foundation’s first successes in its revolving fund that helped preserve many Ansonborough homes.
Simmons designed the gates after that, in collaboration with Samuel Stoney, who was with the foundation.
The snake detail is a riff on the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag that Gadsden designed during the American Revolution and whose yellow background and coiled rattlesnake continue to reverberate as a political symbol today.
Stoney and Simmons discussed the snake detail, which is in a circle near the top of each gate, in depth, and Stoney told Simmons not to install it until they both agreed on the snake’s final design, says Rossie Colter of the Philip Simmons Foundation.
And then the solution came to Simmons in a dream, she says, “and he woke up in the morning and put the hole in his eye.”
Indeed, the gates are considered among Simmons’ most significant and they were among his favorites, a milestone of his evolution as an artist.
While much of their design features the traditional bars and curves historically found in the city’s wrought iron, Simmons’ use of a drill to create the snakes’ eyes shows him adding his own unique artistic touch.
When Stoney saw it, Colter recalls, “Mr. Stoney said, ‘Ooh! I think it will bite me!’ ”
The house is currently being renovated as an event space by Luxury Simplified and King Street Commercial, and the gates are getting a high level of attention as they will be a key focal point.
While wrought iron might seem like the most indestructible feature on the city’s buildings, it needs maintenance and care, too, and these gates are no exception, says Frank Verga, a blacksmith now teaching at the college.
There’s the failing pivots where the gates are anchored into the ground, and the upper journal hinges have sagged, too. It appears that someone drove their car into one of the gates, bending it by an inch or so. And there are rusty spots from poor previous repairs and failing paint.
Soon, Verga and his team will remove the gates, which weigh about 500 pounds each, strip them of their paint and repair them much like Simmons would have.
And while they do, they will get a close-up chance to savor the expertise of the man who, more than anyone, would be elated that they’re continuing his craft.
And they will particularly admire Simmons’ pair of snakes.
“Anyone can make something nice,” Verga says, “but if they can make me two or four of these things that match, that’s the difference between the professional and someone who is just tinkering with the craft.”
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.