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134 Broad Street - Gothic beauty, earthquake memories

February 7, 2019

The 1680 plan for Charles Towne laid out three 60-foot-wide thoroughfares for the community. Among them was Broad Street, a space intended for parades, public buildings and much of the town’s business activity beyond the wharves bordering the eastern side of the peninsula. One of the most famous buildings of the colonial period was the popular Shepherd’s Tavern, located at the corner of present-day Broad and Church streets. It is credited as the site of the nation’s first theatrical season. Later, the tavern hosted passionate colonials who discussed radical ideals that ultimately led to the War for Independence. The building was also the birthplace of Scottish Rite Free Masonry.

 

Amazingly, the historic building survived the fire of 1861 and the years of Union bombardment. After the war, it became the site of the highly successful Klinck, Wickenburg & Company, a wholesale grocery business owned by John Klinck, a German immigrant, and the Wickenburg family who lived on Ashley Avenue. Klinck lived behind the business at 116 Church Street.

 In 1872, as the business expanded, Klinck built a mansion proclaiming his success on a large Broad Street lot that was available only because the previous residence had been destroyed. The new home at 128 (later 134) Broad Street was only a block away from mansions once owned by some of Charleston’s most prominent citizens, including a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the first governor of South Carolina and a distinguished diplomat whose name still is associated with the poinsettia plant he introduced to this country.

 

Built in the Gothic Revival style, the 4,500 square-foot home was designed to impress and cost nearly $7,000, a large sum for that day. The architect was John Henry Devereux, the most prestigious architect of the post-War period. Among his many landmarks are Emanuel AME Church on Calhoun Street, St. Matthew’s German Evangelical Church on King Street and Stella Maris Church on Sullivan’s Island. He is credited with numerous other properties, some of which have since been demolished.

 

The prosperous Charleston Germans maintained contacts with German communities in other American cities and in Europe. According to family tradition, in 1871, John Klinck’s son Gustavus W. Klinck married Isabella Strybing of Brooklyn, New York. The Klinks and their kin were members of Charleston's German community, which had a more cosmopolitan culture than that of their non-German neighbors, whom they called “the Carolinians.”

 

The newlyweds first lived at 20 Ashley Avenue (now 192) and later moved to 134 Broad Street. They had five children, but those joyous occasions were eclipsed by memories of the 1886 earthquake. In 1993, Steven Semken, grandson of Edith Klinck Semken, Isabella’s granddaughter, found Isabella’s diary in which she described their ordeal in vivid terms.  Interestingly, she noted a strange atmospheric stillness before the upheaval. Sea birds, driven by a sense of impending danger, flew to and fro, while land birds started an unaccustomed chatter in the still of the hot summer night. Outside, domestic animals huddled together with a sense of impending doom while house pets sought comfortable assurance from their masters.

 

Suddenly, a strange noise resembling distant rolling thunder startled Isabella into a breathless terror. As the sound increased, she described how “the bed shakes; the thunder roars louder as the noise in the house increases and seems to totter on its foundations and rocks and sways like a storm-beaten vessel at sea accompanied by sounds of a ship’s heavy timbers. The rocking of the building causes a nauseating sensation with a smell of sulphur and brimstone in the air.” The frightened children awoke to their parents warning that “some awful convulsion of nature is in progress and that the next instant they may all be crushed to death.”

 

The family hastily grabbed some clothing and rushed into the street, fearing all the while that they might be crushed by collapsing walls. The impending doom was overpowering. “No shipwreck, no fire at sea, no calamity on earth or water can be as fearful as an earthquake, when it is so violent the your house, your castle, your stronghold to which you fly for refuge and shelter from all the threatening damages suddenly becomes transformed into a dangerous powder mine that at any moment may be spring beneath your feet and bury you beneath its ruins.” And in the street, neighbors frightened out of their homes clustered with similar stories.

 

When the Klincks examined their house the next morning, they discovered that a chimney had fallen and crushed in the roof and ceiling above the sleeping boys.  Plaster shards had fallen all around the room, but nothing touched the sleeping children. The clock, which had been thrown from the shelf and lay on its face in the hall, marked the hour when it stopped running: 10:55 p.m. on the never-to-be-forgotten August 31, 1886.

 

In the yard a neighbor’s chimney had fallen onto the place where her boys often played, but mercifully the devastation had occurred while they were fast asleep. Although their home was badly damaged from garret to cellar, the Klincks fared better than some, for they had a roof over their heads and means for providing food both the family and other less-fortunate refugees.

 

Isabella concluded her narrative:  “As I look back upon the terrible events of that awful night, I cannot refrain from tuning my heart-strings to a song of silent thanksgiving and exulting praise, and feel that the Great Earthquake was not a manifestation of God’s wrath and vengeance, but simply a grand and magnificent proof of His saving Power and Mercy.”

 

When John Klinck died in 1888, he bequeathed 134 Broad Street to his son Gustavus. According to the City Directory, the Klinck family lived there until 1913. Isabella died in 1895 and Augustus passed away in 1916. Mary Elizabeth Klinck ran a boarding house for students, teachers and social workers until she married John Carson Tiedman late in life. Both died in 1930. The family retained the property until Howard Holmes, president and treasurer of Tiedman Company Wholesale Grocers bought the house in 1932 and lived there for four years.

 

By 1938, Fred S. Poulnot, a pharmacist with a shop at the nearby Lining House, lived at 134 Broad Street and remained there for the next 30 years. (An article about the Lining House appeared in the December 2018 Mercury.)

 

In 1968, a doctor and his wife moved into the house and lived there until his retirement in 1993. The house was vacant until 1988 when speculators upgraded it by converting the back porch into a master bedroom and enclosed part of the downstairs porch system. They sold the house to buyers who installed a formal garden created by landscape architect Sheila Wertimer. The garden received the 1999 Carolopolis Award for Exterior Rehabilitation from the Preservation Society. The lovely Devereux mansion has since been acquired by new owners.

 

My appreciation to Bob Stockton, Brad Newman and Jola Newman for contributing to this article.  Anyone with interesting anecdotes about a Broad Street building, is invited to contact pegeastman@comcast.net.

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