It is written

Roy Smith, associate director of the Karpeles Manuscript Museum, walks through the current exhibit of letters and documents from the life of Charles Darwin. 'I'm turning 74 when Darwin leaves and Freud comes,' said Smith, referring to the next exhibit arr

When you enter the Karpeles Manuscript Museum, Roy Smith most likely will be sitting at his desk inside the re-purposed sanctuary. He will rise to greet you, ask where you are from and turn on the lights over the display cases, which he turns off when nobody's there to look.

"We don't get that many people; we don't really expect it," said Smith, 73, associate director and principal tour guide at the museum. "We know that people who are interested for one reason or another will come."

On Wednesday, the museum in downtown Charleston had a grand total of seven visitors for its exhibit on the letters of Charles Darwin, bringing the monthly sum to 133.

Smith said he knows it's not the most inviting place: "It says out front, 'Manuscript.' That doesn't bring the thundering crowds."

What's more, it can be difficult to tell if the museum is really open, with the main sidewalk entrance being a barely-ajar iron gate bearing the old church's name and with the front door being beyond some overgrown grass and up a set of 18 unwashed, weather-worn steps.

The place is not without its attractions, though. For history and architecture buffs, the classical revival building is itself an artifact. Smith, a retired high school teacher who has been a registered Charleston tour guide since 1978, is quick to bring up its past.

The building, at the corner of Spring and Coming streets, spent most of its history as the home of Saint James Methodist Church. The church was used as a Confederate and then a Union hospital during the Civil War, when cannon fire from off the Battery rained on everything south of Calhoun Street. It retains the balcony seating where, according to Smith, African-American congregants sat before the war.

It bears scars from the 1886 Charleston earthquake, and white neon lighting from the 1920s casts a warm glow on the interior at night.

Thursday marked the 154th anniversary of the laying of its foundations, and for Smith, the building's rugged appearance is suffused with meaning. He recalls a woman from Naples, Italy, who made a comment to him about its appearance during Spoleto: "Well, it really isn't restored, is it?"

"No, it's not," Smith said to her. "It's just how it is."

Saint James Methodist Church left the building in the early 1990s after Hurricane Hugo damaged the roof and ruined the pipe organ, this coming after years of suburbanization had caused the congregation to dwindle.

A lawyer bought the building and renovated it, then sold it to David Karpeles, who made his fortune in California real estate investment and began collecting historical documents in 1978. The Karpeles family now boasts over a million manuscript pages in its collection and rotates special exhibits through 10 nationwide museums, including the one in Charleston.

Cynthia Friddle, who visited the museum Wednesday, said she knew about the Darwin exhibit ahead of time from an e-mail newsletter.

"I just came into town; this was my first stop," said Friddle, who is pastor of a Methodist church in inner-city Memphis, Tenn.

Smith met Friddle at the front door and walked her past the succession of humidity- controlled glass cases. The contents included handwritten pages of "The Descent of Man," a letter addressing someone who would today be called a creationist and a thank-you note for a prankster who'd sent Darwin a bouquet of bananas.

The documents, though protected from external damage, are themselves flawed: Darwin's scrawling cursive contains scribbled-out corrections and is at times close to illegible. Smith said that in many of the letters Darwin is "discussing some detail of what he said or was reported to have said."

When Smith finally closed up for the day, it was a full 20 minutes past closing time. He never rushes anyone out. As he walked Friddle to the door and turned off the display lights, he talked about the value of historical manuscripts, unscrubbed windows on the past.

"The more we explain things truthfully and dispassionately, the better off everyone is," Smith said.