Thursday, October 24, 2013

Charleston’s Black Smith: Philip Simmons, the Man behind the Iron

by Candice Bizzell
Walking down the streets of Charleston, South Carolina, a visitor cannot help but notice the wrought iron work decorating the historical buildings, houses and gardens. Unless one has a guide or book telling them about this wrought iron, they would never know that Charleston legend Phillip Simmons was the creator of the pieces that decorate the Holy City, with his unique curls and designs; his work is a part of the history of the Lowcountry.
The Philip Simmons house and Blacksmith Shop on 301/2 Blake Street was listed as one of America’s most endangered historic places in 2007.  His house and workshop are open for tourists and locals to visit on Saturdays at 2pm. There, one can see ironwork demonstrations by Carlton Simmons, Mr. Simmons’ nephew, and Julian Williams, his apprentice. Any art enthusiast would be excited to be able to view this demonstration and work by Simmons and his apprentices.
On the 4th Saturday of each month, visitors can take a walking tour with Sandra Campbell. She will “point out the works of Philip Simmons in the Ansonborough neighborhood.” Reservations for this tour are required and are $25. The tour leaves from the Simmons Heart Garden at the St. John’s Reformed Episcopal Church at 91 Anson St.

Philip Simmons was born in 1912 on Daniel Island.  Before the island was built up, it only had “one round about road” according to Simmons biographer John Michael Vlach. This road provided the only access to the island. In Vlach’s book Charleston Blacksmith: The Work of Philip Simmons, he tells about the history of Simmons and takes the reader on a walking tour of Simmons’ work around Charleston. Vlach interviewed Simmons and reveals details about his life from the age of six until 1992, when Simmons was still creating beautiful works of iron for Charleston. Simmons died in 2009 with the honorable title of Charleston’s Own Blacksmith.
The Simmons house was opened in 2010 as a museum and gift shop to visitors. When entering the home, a guide shows off his office where he spent his retired life greeting tourists and answering questions. Further into the house, visitors get to see the blacksmith’s bedroom, which has not been changed since he passed away.
           The exciting part about the Simmons house is not on the inside, but outside. His blacksmith shop in back is the pride and joy of the little house in front. The dark and rusty shop looks as if little has changed from the day it was built. The master’s anvil sits in the shop, unused, but anyone can see the nicks of the hammer and hot iron on it. One can imagine Simmons still hitting it.
When the demonstration starts, the smell of coal and iron fill the small shop and the heat intensifies. The idea of a person spending hours in this little shop during the hot muggy summers that haunt Charleston is unimaginable. Yet Philip, his nephew and his apprentice did and still do. The demonstration is a short and simple show of how the iconic Simmons curl is done. It is a unique and tedious process that became the signature of his work. His nephew and apprentice have the technique down, but they admit it took them a long time to perfect. 
           Charleston takes great pride in their art community. Philip Simmons artwork is timeless and has endowed Charleston for nearly a century now. It is well worth it for any artist, art enthusiast, or

collector’s time to visit the Simmons house and workshop while visiting Charleston. Locals are also encouraged to visit and learn a bit more history about their beautiful city.
The Philip Simmons Foundation can be contacted online at:
Here, anyone can find dates and times for special events the foundation holds. The last event celebrated 101 years of his birth and highlighted the work of Simmons around the Charleston area. The house can be contacted at 843-732-1259, and can be visited in the spring and summer between 11am and 5pm and in the fall and winter between 11am and 4pm.

Other Readings
Vlach, John Michael. Charleston Blacksmith: The Work of Philip Simmons. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1992. Print.



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