Along with drawing buildings that exist in Charleston, Ramsey has also created volumes of drawings of so-called imagination buildings, all influenced by the particular details he studies on real buildings. A selection is below:
Commissioned for the exhibition “Ahead of the Wrecking Ball: Ronald Ramsey and the Preservation of Charleston,” this film gives viewers an inside perspective on Ramsey and his quest for preservation.
by Winslow Hastie
In order to fully understand the value of a building or artifact, one must document it utilizing standard historic-preservation methods. In a nutshell, the idea is that you must know what you have before you know whether it’s worth protecting. This is the first step toward understanding the importance of a building. The documentation process can take many different forms: a measured drawing, a photograph, a survey profile. Combining that record with historic research leads you to understand how the building was used, who lived or conducted business there, and how the property has evolved over time. Then you can begin to assess its significance, and in the preservation world, the concept of significance is really important. Believe it or not, not all old buildings are significant in the eyes of the preservationist. This research, when combined with the documentation, begins to breathe depth and context into your perception of the building so that you and the broader community can connect with it in a truly meaningful way.
That is how preservation professionals go about this business. Other, normal people just appreciate old buildings for a wide variety of legitimate, though perhaps more romantic, reasons: aesthetics, nostalgia, memory. That response to buildings is important, too, but it’s less methodical and objective and, ultimately, less defensible. This is because, at the end of the day, historic preservation is about protection, and protection typically requires the crafting of an argument. You have to make the case for why a particular building is more special than another in a language that is somewhat bereft of emotion, and this argument has to be convincing to a broad audience that usually includes the property owner, governmental entities, and the massive economic forces that tend to render a building obsolete before its proper time. If you can’t convince the powers that be, and the building is indeed destroyed, the documentation becomes an extremely valuable resource for archival posterity. Even better, salvaging actual elements of the building—windows, siding, decorative elements, hardware—is an important effort as well. Better to recycle parts than to lose the entire building to the dumpster.
Enter Ronald Wayne Ramsey, a staunch Charleston preservationist but one who has certainly bucked the system, operating outside of the established preservation apparatus of Charleston, which is quite formal and hallowed. He came to preservation out of an instinctual passion for our built environment. Ronald’s father was a health inspector for Charleston County. A newspaper article from 1948 shows the elder Mr. Ramsey inspecting a slum clearance project on Coming Street in downtown Charleston. One can imagine young Ronald accompanying his father on work visits, inspecting old buildings and ramshackle “slums” to make sure that they passed sanitation standards. Perhaps the artist’s passion for preservation was born out of seeing some of these buildings torn down.
Ronald, who has been documenting the historic architecture of Charleston for decades, has an incredibly keen eye for what is significant. Operating at both the high and low ends of the spectrum, he has drawn railroad buildings, laundry facilities, single houses, and civic landmarks with the same enthusiasm and proficiency. The preservation movement has only recently caught up with him in its appreciation for simple, vernacular architecture. The early twentieth-century industrial buildings of the Charleston Upper Peninsula were in his sights well before any professional advocates began discussing their value, and we have yet to catch up with him in his campaign to raise awareness about worker’s housing in the Neck area of North Charleston. Ramsey was also dumpster diving and salvaging fragments of historic buildings way before it was the hip thing to do, well before reclaimed became synonymous with boutique and expensive.
Ronald is part of a local continuum of survey, documentation, and advocacy that began in earnest during the Charleston Renaissance period of the 1920s. (It is interesting to note that the first federal preservation program, the Historic American Buildings Survey, commonly referred to as HABS, did not begin until 1933). Charleston artists, concerned about the slow march of progress that had begun to chug along for the first time since before the Civil War, started capturing the unique beauty of the city’s architecture and urban fabric through watercolor, etchings, and pencil drawings. The names are familiar: Alfred Hutty, Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, Elizabeth O’Neill Verner. Their artwork is imbued with a plaintive romanticism that is endearing and beautiful, yet somewhat parochial. An early effort that was much more concerned with actual documentation and historic appreciation is the 1917 book The Dwelling Houses of Charleston, South Carolina by Alice R. Huger Smith and her father, D. E. Huger Smith. In it the artists valiantly attempted to capture the architecture of Charleston through a unique blend of media: research text, photography, penciled renderings, and architectural plans and elevations. This comprehensive snapshot of Charleston’s most important residences remains a landmark achievement of documentation and education. Famed local architect Albert Simons’s role in producing the measured drawings for that book likely led him to continue his efforts by producing in 1927 The Early Architecture of Charleston with his partner Samuel Lapham, Jr. Their focus for this book project extended beyond residential architecture to include drawings and photographs of churches and civic buildings as well. Their composite approach to documentation encompassed building sketches, site plans, photographs, and measured drawings of ironwork and interior elevations. The draftsmen maintained a keen focus on the interiors of important buildings, recording details such as sections, molding profiles, and ornamental motifs.
This artful presentation of such building details so popular at the time was most notably disseminated by the White Pine Series of Architectural Monographs, which existed in various guises from 1915 to 1942 and was then resuscitated in 2006 to become an important documentary canon of historic American architecture. The series’ arrangement of images laid the groundwork for some of Ronald Ramsey’s most compelling work, wherein he combines a fascinating array of drawings, newspaper clippings, photographs, and text into a creative collage. By juxtaposing elevations with building details, signage, and even social history, we gain a more complete picture of why the building was significant. Architecture is important, but the lives and activities that inhabited old buildings is an equally important dimension. By humanizing the buildings, Ramsey is creating a more accessible element for people to connect with. Connection equals engagement and engagement results in protection. This is the ultimate preservation formula.
Another magnum opus that catalogues Charleston’s unparalleled blend of architecture is This Is Charleston: A Survey of the Architectural Heritage of a Unique American City. This endeavor was the first attempt at conducting a systematic photographic inventory and then assigning a categorical value to each of Charleston’s buildings. These assignments of rank ranged from “Nationally Important” to “Worthy of Mention.” The project began in 1941 as an exhibition at what was then known as the Gibbes Art Gallery. It generated such interest in the community that a book was ultimately published in 1944 to serve as a lasting catalogue of Charleston’s most significant structures. As the author, Samuel Gaillard Stoney, so eloquently states, “If you use these photographs properly, you will find that however they fail otherwise, they help to tell the story of Charleston as no words could; and that, after all, is what illustrations are supposed to do.”
As art is an act of storytelling, so is historic preservation. Capturing the imagination of the community, and generating a desire to fight for the protection of a building, is essential to any preservation effort. Unfortunately, the academic, formal approach to documentation that is ensconced in the HABS program and evident in the earlier survey efforts mentioned above, presents a cold and clinical veneer devoid of humanity. Ramsey’s work, on the other hand, practically gurgles with personality and expressive color. The viewer may characterize some of the art as childlike, but closer inspection of many of the drawings reveals an incredible level of detail. You can’t help but speculate: how does he do it? Does he use measuring tape and a scale? Does he draw in the field or does he work from photographs? In the end, it does not matter, and the mystery of his process actually adds to its wonder.
Our duty as a community of preservationists is to translate Ramsey’s body of work into a greater awareness of Charleston’s built environment, which can then foment action. These drawings tell an important story, one of beauty and utility, of past lives, and of the rhythm of this beloved peninsula. In This Is Charleston, Sam Stoney said it best: “The problem of preservation is largely one of appreciation. You get from a thing interest on what you bring to it. On the other hand, a study of what you have at hand is a direct help to good life, and the Charlestonian who neglects his opportunities to see and know and understand his own city renounces a birthright unsurpassed on this side of the Atlantic.” Open your eyes and appreciate the buildings around you; they deserve your focus.
Winslow Hastie is the Chief Preservation Officer of the Historic Charleston Foundation, Charleston, S.C.
by Harlan Greene
At first glance, the exuberant and engaging art of Ronald Ramsey may seem like nothing you’ve ever seen before. In some pieces, elements vary from simple to sophisticated, imparting both an innocent and a complex finish. In others, the viewer is faced with an image that seems to lack all perspective, yet at the same time, a startling dimension, that of time itself, enters the picture—literally—through clippings of a building’s earlier incarnations, along with details marking the days the artist worked to complete the drawing. Then, as if doubting his renderings’ ability to speak for themselves, he gives them voice in captions that often adorn the drawing like a frame or which function like a conversation bubble in a cartoon. His art is an eccentric and eclectic blend that may bring many things to mind: maps, plats, cartoons, architectural drawings and elevations, and even old samplers with their artistry of cross-stitched borders, images, and text.
It is this complex simplicity, this art of simultaneity, referencing various different art forms that suggest something else, that makes his work different. But despite how unique and idiosyncratic the artist and his art are, both fit neatly into a tradition of referencing and reverencing Charleston’s built environment. This tradition extends back to the early 1700s, when cartographers charged with delineating the walls and streets and creeks of the town seemingly could not restrain their enthusiasm for their subject and, instead of merely depicting angles and lines, added innocent little images of prominent structures like churches and dwellings that seemed important enough to somehow signify.
The same force animates some of the work of Charleston’s famous surveyor, Joseph Purcell, active in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. While his “real” job was to note property and lot lines for surveys attached to deeds, he nevertheless often felt compelled to embellish his linear plats with sophisticated elevations of the structures that stood on them or nearby. As other surveyors did, he often included a fine wash of color and enclosed his presentation in bracelets of geometric shapes and lines, while always giving the exact date of the survey, anticipating the much later work of Ronald Ramsey, who may have been influenced by them and their reproductions.
The effect of these “aberrations”—breaking out of the confines of the mapmaker or surveyor’s basic purpose—can be compared to that of a dull speaker, overcome with his subject, suddenly breaking into song. Similarly, Ramsey can’t seem to contain himself to a flat plane or a single drawing for particular buildings that catch his fancy. For these, a compiled dimension is necessary. Just as one might document oneself, or a family, over time, so he has created scrapbooks—layers of images, objects, and texts—to suggest the life span and history of a beloved building, such as the old G. W. Aimar Pharmacy at King and Vanderhorst streets. In seeing how he has laid the items in and arranged them, one gets the same sort of sense his drawings bring: that brick by brick, pane by pane, shingle by shingle, he has not so much drawn a building as reconstructed it.
In his depictions of Four Mile House, and other destroyed buildings, such as a fortress-like hotel on Rivers Avenue, Ramsey repeats, in his own special way, what other artists did in the nineteenth century. When, for example, the early St. Philips Church burned in 1835, two native sons, artist John Blake White and planter Thomas Middleton, immediately tried to resurrect it, to ensure that if it did not survive physically, it could at least exist on canvas to give others an idea of its beauty. When another fire three years later destroyed the 1794 synagogue of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim on Hasell Street, local artist Solomon Nunez Carvalho immediately did the same, giving us interior and exterior paintings. Like them, Ramsey has recently defied time by reconstructing in line a once-handsome wooden house on Spring Street that burned in October 2016.
While Ramsey’s work displays parallels with the work of artists in the early life of the city, he fits most neatly in with those of the first part of the twentieth century, the era between the World Wars, which saw a burst of creativity in the arts that has earned it the name of the Charleston Renaissance. Alice Ravenel Huger Smith and her father D. E. Huger Smith launched the movement in their tribute to the built environment in a portfolio of twenty drawings of the Pringle House, followed by a book of dwelling houses of the city. Alice Smith, the artist, like the poets and writers and artists of that era, found herself in a time of rapid change, fueled in part by a tourism boom that bolstered the local economy. It was a cusp period, when a distinctive way of life was giving way to modernization, and when the tangible fabric of the city was being lost.
DuBose Heyward, to gain fame with his novel Porgy (1925), first used poetry to give voice to what he saw happening. “Shatter, shatter, shatter,” he wrote in “Chant for an Old Town” (1922) as he witnessed wrecking balls and building crews demolishing old buildings. Whole blocks of the city were vanishing, he wrote, with “ancient flagged pavements like faint pastel mosaics” disappearing, replaced by “all asphalt and concrete.” Steeples no longer ruled the skyline as developers instead dedicated themselves to building “hotel[s] the mate of twenty others in great American cities.”
City boosters called it progress, good for business; others called it barbarism. And rising to the challenge of safeguarding the past were artists like Elizabeth O’Neill Verner and Alfred Hutty, who featured the architecture of Charleston, grand buildings but also those in disrepair and in danger of disappearing, in their paintings and etchings. (It is interesting to note that while Ramsey takes as his subject buildings now lost or in danger of demolition, unlike those before him he respects them too much to show them in a state of dishabille or decay; no siding is gone, no doors are ajar, no shutters hang loose. Despite their condition, he shows them instead as they should be, formally dressed, in their original glory.) Alfred Hutty’s love of the beauty of the city prompted him to attend the founding meeting of the organization that became the Preservation Society of Charleston, demonstrating the direct link between artistry and activism. The same impulse informs Ramsey, who often draws attention to less-celebrated vernacular buildings, the ones in danger of demolition. He has said he wants to meet with mayors of our local towns to show them that not only architectural icons, but also more humble structures have grace of line and expression that can be returned to their proper states, as he portrays them.
Ramsey, a great collector of publications documenting Charleston (which is how our paths first crossed in the 1970s), may have imbibed ideas and been influenced by these and other Charleston Renaissance artists and draftsmen. Many of his detailed drawings recall the interior and exterior elevations published in the White Pine series of pamphlets on American architecture produced in the 1920s; and many Historic American Building Survey (HABS) drawings of Charleston done in this era were disseminated widely. Charleston’s first great preservation architect, Albert Simons, came into prominence during the Renaissance era, and his elegant drawings of local woodwork, doorways, moldings, and the like are featured in The Early Architecture of Charleston, Plantations of the Carolina Low Country and other iconic books on Charleston that anyone interested in the city would have encountered. Similarly for ironwork, Richard Jenkins Bryan created pencil drawings for Alston Deas’s The Early Ironwork of Charleston, another possible influence and forerunner of Ramsey’s spectacular drawings. Ramsey’s art resembles these predecessors, but his drawings are more dynamic and have more personality.
In many ways, Ramsey also has much in common with the man considered the first modern artist in town, and the namesake of the Halsey Gallery. Born in 1915, just after Alice Smith’s first architectural work was published, William Halsey studied with Elizabeth O’Neill Verner and was intrigued, as she was, by the life of the side street. Yet his vision was different from Verner’s, not as sentimental, often stripping away the vague human forms present in her etchings as well as Hutty’s. (One sees no human forms at all, or even trees, in Ramsey’s work; architecture is his sole focus.) As if taking DuBose Heyward’s “shatter, shatter, shatter,” dictum as a directive—in art, at least—Halsey began to break up his realistic buildings into lines, angles, and planes. Ronald Ramsey has held on more strongly to realism than Halsey did, yet his structures stand in an unshaded, unshadowed space, sharing the innocence of early American primitivism that influenced 20th century artists like Halsey. Experimenting with form, Halsey laid on collages and used newsprint, as does Ramsey. Both are intrigued with the very texture of the city. Halsey salvaged shattered decorative pieces and architectural fragments and put them together in sculptures he called constructions. Ramsey has done something similar, but he has made it more personal: Almost as if he can feel the pain and shame and indignation of buildings overcome by time or neglect, he rescues and labels them, not so much reconfiguring as transforming them into architectural reliquaries.
This exhibition allows us to look into the private and passionate relationship of one man with his city. Others have come before him and more will follow; few, however, may ever be as compelling as he, for his work is fresh and unique. Seeing him in this continuum does not diminish him in the least but instead serves to honor both Ramsey himself and the tradition he is in — simultaneously.
Harlan Greene is the Head of Special Collections, Addlestone Library at the College of Charleston. A prize-winning author and archivist, he writes often on lowcountry topics.