Great homes have good stories. Not just abundant space or modern amenities or lovely architecture: Those things require merely money. Good stories take time. Spaces must be lived in and experienced and enjoyed. Best of all, perhaps, are spaces lived in generationally, a locus for entire lives. I know of a dear old Charleston lady, recently deceased, who passed away in the same house she was born in some 94 years earlier. In a country and culture that celebrates transient things, how fine a life, to always know where home is and to know it so intimately.
In that vein, a good story (and an incomparable endorsement) for 31 East Battery must be told. When, at the start of the 20th century, Henry Porter Williams (son and heir of the illustrious George Walton Williams) was offered his choice of dwelling, 31 East Battery or his father’s grand home on Meeting Street (better known as the Calhoun Mansion), he opted for 31 East Battery.
And as opulent as the 24,000 square-foot Calhoun Mansion is, the lure of 31 East Battery — sometimes cited as the Henry Porter Williams house, but now more often titled the Shackleford-Williams House — is easy to understand. The views from the double piazza stretch over the High Battery and open up the house to the water — Castle Pinckney and Fort Sumter and every sail on the harbor are your morning view waking up here. It takes little imagination to ponder the things viewed from that aerie — from the somber opening shots of the War Between the States to the annual joy of summer regattas.
The home was built by James Shackleford, a merchant and trader, in 1837. The corner-lot location directly by the waterfront sensible for someone whose living came from shipping; much of the hallmark beauty of the neighborhood would come later, as the home predates the High Battery wall and White Point Garden both. Indeed, with the notable exception of the Edmonston-Alston House, it is one of the oldest mansions on East Battery (notably Alston purchased and renovated 21 E. Battery a year after Shackleford’s mansion was complete.)
Soon, however, the home was sold to banker Daniel Ravenel, whose family maintained ownership for the next six decades. Indeed, the block could have been reasonably been called “Ravenel Street” in that era — numbers 5, 9 and 13 East Battery were also Ravenel residences in the mid 19th century.
For a time in the late 19th century, the home was a rental property with a number of local worthies for tenants. The 1903 purchase of the home by the aforementioned Henry Porter Williams, though, was a major turning point in the home’s history. Repairs from storm damage were made, as were a number of gentle improvements in the dwelling’s fabric to “modernize” the living space. Senator “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman was the Williams’ first guest in the new home (a fact we hope never adversely affects its property value.)
Staying put at the Calhoun Mansion while renovation work was done, the Willamses spared no expense in their labors. The home was raised, the rear of a piazza enclosed to create a new dining room and extensive work was done to the outbuildings. Louis Comfort Tiffany was commissioned to design the mantles and lighting fixtures in the home. The beauty of the era is still present throughout the house today. On the outside too and perhaps most charmingly, a Victorian-styled playhouse built for the Williams children still stands in the backyard, a century after it was built.
Passed through the Williams family to their Geer descendants, the home is currently on offer through Lyles Geer of William Means Real Estate. Its fine tradition of grandeur and hospitality are ready to be continued anew; the home is certainly ready. At more than 7,400 square feet, with six bedrooms (including dual masters) and five baths — even plenty of off-street parking — 31 East Battery is a truly great home, ready for new stories.