Do we have any pictures or any hints of what Laurens's childhood home looked like?
John’s first home was located in St. Michael’s Alley (south of
Broad Street in Charleston, SC). I haven’t
come across any descriptions of this home other than this description of the
By the time little Martha arrived in 1759, if not long before,
an imported cradle was a central fixture in the parental bedroom, which was
also equipped with necessaries such as a candle stand, a warming pan, and a
bedpan passed along from grandfather Laurens.
Because Henry and his wife, Eleanor, anticipated extensive use for that
nursery item, the cradle was probably one that rocked, featuring a ‘gauze
pavilion’ with turned posts at its four corners to support mosquito netting.
(The Life and Times of Martha Laurens Ramsay)
In June 1762, Henry Laurens purchased Mepkin plantation and then
bought land in Ansonborough, SC about three months later. The
Ansonborough property was on the outskirts of Charleston whereas Mepkin was
about 30 miles out. Ansonborough appears
to have been the main residence at this time while Mepkin may have been used
moreso in the summer months (particularly to escape the diseases in the
city). The home in Ansonborough had “its
own wharf and creek, four acres that included a green called Laurens Square,
and [was] bounded by Pitt, East Bay, Centurion, and Anson Streets” (The Life and Times of Martha Laurens Ramsay).
Here’s a pretty thorough description of the Ansonborough
property, provided in The Life and Times of Martha Laurens Ramsay:
Papa Henry’s pleasure in the new house glowed in his
letters. “Mahogany is the thing by all
means for your Stair case. You would
agree in opinion with me if you saw mine.”
Though the darker wood was costly, “in time it becomes abundantly
cheaper as it is firm, durable, and gains beauty whether you will or not, with
age, whereas Cedar is brittle, splintery and without an excess of rubbing and
waxing fades and loses its colour in a very few years.” He enjoyed careful oversight of every
step. “Cypress is the best and cheapest
wood for wainscot, but your [English] oak in my judgment is infinitely
preferable. I have painted one room in
my house Wainscoat color and pattern upon a coat of brown Plaister. It stands very well and is much admired.” His used of the magisterial “I” meant, of
course, that he supervised the task, not actually performed it.
Henry Laurens wanted their new home on East Bay Street to be
“worthy…to be occupied by a merchant,” to reflect his cosmopolitan
horizons. Spacious, roomy, and open
rather than ornate, and somewhat unimaginative externally, the house was a “plain
barn-like building” of brick, almost “square to the winds,” 38 and ½ ft. x 60 ½
in ornamentation or iron grillwork but in acreage and gardens, “with a wall all
upon the front of my garden [Wall Street].”
Henry had purchased a “Mulatto” slave bricklayer, Samuel, that spring
especially to create elegant garden paths around the house. One feature visible from those bricked walks
was a jerkin-head roof—a
hipped roof cutting flat angles at the corners of the house.
Inside, the house from cellar to roof featured heavy-hewn
timbers. Two floors had four large rooms
each, downstairs and upstairs, plus several small “apartments”—rooms topped by a “spacious
attic” with room for wine storage in the hipped-roof corners. Near the front door was a small hallway, “little
more than a vestibule” on the south side of the structure, and a stairway on
the left led to the upper story while a door on the right opened into the
library. (Surprisingly, Henry Laurens
had omitted the wide central hall great Charles Town houses usually featured in
hopes of luring every possible breeze.)
But the library was a huge room (18’ 8” x 17’ 2”) with two hundred
running feet of shelves, and the books were protected by beautiful decorative
glass doors embossed with geometric shapes—octagons, squares, and triangles. Behind the library was an equally hospitable
dining room (17 ½’ x 17 ½’) with a paneled ten-foot-wide chimney all the way to
the ceiling. Immediately above, on the
second floor, was the same size ballroom.
Some of the fireplace mantels were marble, others elegantly carved wood—all in the highest tone
of simplicity and dignity. The mantels
were undoubtedly imported from England, like the ones Henry had ordered for the
house of his neighbor Charles Pinckney.
The dining room, with fancy mirrors and a very large “chimney
glass,” boasted sconces on the wall, handsome pewter serving dishes, silver
tureens, a brass warming pan, and a tinned Japanned waiter—to say nothing of
elegant china for entertaining (family meals were served on earthenware). Martha’s father knew his merchandise: he
ordered mirrors “truly elegant and worthy of a place in a Dining Room occupied
by a merchant.” But he returned the first ones: “their fault was their
fineness. They are too fine, I will
rather say too large for my dining room.”
Unfortunately, in the shipping from England to Charles Town, faulty
packing had damaged some of the gilded ornamentation and scraped some of the “Quick
Silvering.” “The packer or workman ought
really to be answerable,” he demanded.
Upstairs in the drawing room, a harpsichord for Martha’s arpeggios and
sonatinas held a place of honor, flanked by elbow chairs, a card table, a tea
table, settees, and portraits. To
five-year-old Martha, the new home was a palace.
Since the locale and climate of Charles Town allowed a
twice-yearly harvest, vegetables and many exotic trees—peach, apricot, mulberry, walnut, chestnut, fig,
bitter orange, and pomegranate—flourished.
British gardener John Watson was employed to cultivate the new Laurens
acres into a charming botanical cornucopia.
Henry and Eleanor wanted the kind of beautifully laid out English garden
that was rare in the colonies, a display of the useful and ornamental plants
that Carolina produced or that Henry could import. In that sense, landscaping was a more overt
statement of the Laurenses’ affluence and sophistication than the house
itself. Neighbors like Eliza Pinckney,
who also prided herself on gardening, noted that “only 2 squares from her
house, the rich merchant HL was filling his extensive grounds with every rare
plant and shrub his numerous connections enabled him to collect.” Little sisters Nelly and Patsy and their
numerous cousins could fashion snapdragon dolls and chant the evocative flower
names “foxglove,” “sweet alyssum,” and “periwinkle” as their mother instructed.
Philadelphia garden historian John Bartram, named royal
botanist by the king in 1756, came for a visit the year after the Laurenses moved
in. He noted a remarkable “grape vine 7
inches in circumference” at the new home of “Col Laurance [sic] in Charles
Town.” It “bore 216 clusters of grapes,
one almost 11 in. long and over 16” in circumference, the grapes large “and as
close set in the bunch as they could possibly grow.” In addition, he admired “a fine young olive
tree 15 ft. high, luxuriant.” By
contrast with this luxuriant green, Charleston streets were deep and dusty at a
child’s eye level. Laid out in regular,
unpaved, and widely spaced design to allow breezes to reach the building from
all sides, the soft sand made its choking way into noses and eyelids. Narrow paths at each side would one day
become sidewalks, but not yet.
The following are some paintings of Mepkin
as done by Charles Fraser in Charleston Sketchbook, 1796-1806 (descriptions also from said book):
“Mepkin, the Seat of Henry Laurens, Esq.”
Mepkin was among the several tracts of land granted at the
very commencement of the Colony to the three sons of Sir John Colleton, one of
the eight Lords Proprietors. It comprised
3,000 acres and lay nearly opposite Mepshew (now Pimlico), another grant of the
John Colleton of the County of Middlesex, England, sold
Mepkin in 1762 to Henry Laurens. Vital
affairs of the Colony, of the Revolution, and of the new state, all had a
hearing there. After the destruction of
the house during the Revolution Henry Laurens built the one that is shown in
the sketch, and in which Henry Laurens, Jr., was living. As the latter had married a daughter of John
Rutledge, Fraser was again among relatives, seeing familiarly a scene where
history was made.
“Another View of Mepkin, May, 1803″
“A View on Mepkin”
The Avenue at Mepkin leads from the road along wooded
ravines to the bluff close by the river, overlooking the rice-fields and the
winding stream. There stood the house of
Henry Laurens. Mepkin had great natural
beauties, and throughout his life Henry Laurens had added to these by
continuous attention to the possibilities of agriculture in South Carolina.
The following is “The House of Henry Laurens (1763-1914)”, a
pencil drawing done by Alice R. H. Smith in 1911:
None of the buildings remain standing today, but you can
visit the streets where the St. Michael’s Alley and Ansonborough properties
once stood in Charleston, SC, and you can visit Mepkin Abbey (previously Mepkin Plantation) in Moncks Corner, SC.