Philip Simmons Photo by Tom Pich
Charleston's early ironwork, some dating back to the Revolutionary War, was wrought iron, molded into shape by a blacksmith using a forge, anvil and hammer. Of the latter-day blacksmiths of the 20th century, Philip Simmons' exquisite work is the city's most well known. Although he died at the age of 97 in June of this year, he is still Charleston's most celebrated artisan and cherished local legend.
Philip Simmons was born on Daniels Island, a Gullah-Geechee farming and fishing community near Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. He left home for Charleston at age 8 and started apprenticing, making horseshoes, with Peter Simmons (no relation) when he was 13.
This is the sidewalk entry to the street-side house, which Simmons rented out. Simmons lived in the cottage at the rear; his shop, unseen in the photo above, is to the right of the cottage.
"My instrument is an anvil ... I'm proud of that anvil, really proud. ... That anvil fed me when I was hungry, and that anvil clothed me when I was naked. That anvil put shoes on my feet." (From his acceptance speech following the award of a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment of the Arts.)
Exactly as he left it, the shop is 169 years old and has seen four generations of blacksmiths. Although the property remains in private hands, the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2007 named his home and workshop one of America's endangered historic places. My time does not permit further research into the current preservation or ownership status, but when I visited his shop, workers were on the premises, cleaning and fixing -- a good sign restoration may be under way.
Simmons had a fondness for hearts, fish and lyres, all commonly found in his graceful work.
Scrap was not thrown away -- just in case repairs ever became necessary!
When a gate, for example, had been commissioned and the homeowner later had to relocate, the Simmons gate was disconnected and moved along with its original owner. No way would it be left behind for the incoming homeowner's enjoyment!
Cast iron which could be mass produced by pouring molten metal into molds, eventually became more commonplace in Charleston. It is further distinguished from wrought iron (almost pure iron) by its high carbon content, making it less susceptible to corrosion. These are some samples of Charleston ornamental cast iron installations in my opinion, just as eye-catching as wrought iron.