Just a few miles north of Charleston’s historic district, one can find a lot of people who play a crucial, if somewhat anonymous, role in keeping the city’s oldest buildings looking good.
They don’t work in fancy buildings. They’re not the leaders of the preservation groups, architects or members of an architectural review board. They are the skilled workers who can look at the finest millwork, masonry and ironwork in the city and think to themselves, “I can do that.”
The Historic Charleston Foundation has been highlighting many of these craftsmen recently during its annual Founders Day event. In 1993, the foundation created a new award for them named after the late Samuel Gaillard Stoney, a legendary Charleston historian.
This year, the awards went to master millworker Lawrence Condon and master stonecarver Simeon Warren.
Condon has honed his craft for 35 years, starting at Southern Lumber under Johnny Reeves and Marion Duke, then later under Buzz Withers of Withers Industries and at LeBoeff and Carolina Joinery.
Condon works with Brian O’Neil at Historic Woodworks in a small warehouse off upper Meeting Street. There, the pair craft window frames and sashes, handrails, doors, mantels, moldings, shutters, columns, spindles and cabinets.
“The variety keeps the two of us interested,” Condon says.
“We’re not here to mass produce anything,” O’Neil adds. “We just want to stay busy.”
“Brian does all the paperwork. I get to play and make all the stuff,” Condon jokes. “He gets all the headaches.”
Condon has worked on Rose Hill in Bluffton and shipped work as far away as Virginia and Colorado, but most of his work is somewhere on or in hundreds of historic buildings across downtown Charleston. They include 95 Broad St., the historic Charleston County Courthouse, Cypress restaurant, the rear gates at the Aiken-Rhett House museum and so many more.
“It’s really satisfying when you go downtown and see the finished product being used in the building,” he says.
For the untrained eye, Condon’s millwork blends in completely with that of earlier generations.
Their woodwork is done largely the same way, with traditional mortis and tenon joinery, as Charleston’s craftsman have worked for generations. The only differences are that their power tools can make some jobs go somewhat faster and their choice of wood — Spanish cedar, fir and sapele — differs from the cedar and cypress traditionally used here.
Condon says he has been helped by expert millworkers who were willing to share their secrets and techniques, and he tries to do the same.
“I’ve taught other people, and a lot of them now are competitors,” Condon says, “but we’re still friends.”
But he also has taught a lot of people who did not have the patience to stick with it and truly learn the craft.
“Millwork is starting to be a dying art,” he says, “and if you don’t pass it down, it will be.”
That segues into Warren, a master stone carver who moved from England to the United States in 2001. Soon afterward, he was hired as the first full-time faculty member for the then-emerging School of Building Arts, now the American College of the Building Arts, founded to ensure that building crafts remain alive.
While he stepped down as the school’s dean a few years ago, he continues to teach students, while keeping active in his stone carving business and working on The Stone People, a public art project combining traditional craft and contemporary sculpture.
The Historic Charleston Foundation also honored the college for its ongoing rehabilitation of the Trolley Barn, the Meeting Street icon that soon will become the college’s new campus. And, it honored Luxury Simplified for its work on 329 East Bay St.
Also, the foundation honored Theodora Park, a small, refined city park at Anson and George streets that Ansonborough resident David Rawle helped renovate (it was renamed in honor of his late mother).
Its final, and highest, honor went to businessman John M. Rivers Jr., president of Rivers Enterprises and one who has worked for years to bring back to Charleston some of its most classic and historically significant furniture and silver.
Rivers received the foundation’s Frances Edmunds Award for three decades of work amassing a priceless collection of Charleston antiques that he has loaned for prominent exhibitions. Some of them will be displayed at the Gibbes Museum of Art when it holds its grand reopening May 28.
Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771 or at twitter.com/RobertFBehre.