The Charleston Antique District
By Missy Schenck
An antiques auction at Birlant’s held many decades ago. Image from Charleston Mercury archives.
Since its founding in 1670, Charleston has survived earthquakes, fires, floods and the ravages of war to carry on a tradition of graceful living. Because Charleston is known for its history, architecture and gardens, it’s easy to understand why it is also a haven for antiques.
By the 18th century Charleston had become a major seaport, rich with cotton and rice plantations. Prosperous planters built beautiful estates in the country and houses for their use in town, all furnished handsomely with antiques imported from England and France or made by master craftsmen in Charleston. Many of these important furnishings and decorative accessories laden with tales of the past are much sought after by collectors today.
One of the largest and oldest antique establishments in the Southeast was founded in 1922 by George C. Birlant. Located on the corner of King and Clifford streets, George C. Birlant & Co., named for its founder, George C. Birlant, has been the anchor store for the famed King Street Antique District for 100 years. Mr. Birlant’s knowledge of antiques stemmed from countless estate auctions he conducted for which he became nationally famous. A 2004 Post and Courier editorial is quoted as saying, “His unparalleled expertise in antique English furniture, silver and Sheffield plate gained him the honorary title Dean of Charleston’s Antique District for the five decades in which he worked his trade.”
Mr. Birlant’s real dream was to establish lower King Street as the premier antique district in the Southeast. Gradually, as the nation’s economic troubles began to subside, other antique stores opened their doors and an antique district in Charleston was born. How can one forget Jack and Helen Weil Patla’s esteemed establishment (Jack Patla was the nephew of George Birlant), Schwerin’s Colonial Antique Shop, O’Hagan’s, Herman Schindler or The Antique Trading Post, to name but a few?
Mr. Birlant conducted hundreds of auctions during his lifetime in their King Street salesroom. One of my fondest childhood memories was attending a Birlant’s auction with my mother and Grandmother for my birthday. It was 1960; my two older sisters had just moved to the newly renovated third floor of our house and it was bedroom turnover time at 82 Tradd St. Up until then, my room was a sleeping porch with no heat. Don’t get me wrong — it was a great room that also served as my mother’s sewing room and crafting space. Having lived among Mrs. Frogmore (a dressmaker’s shape), the sewing machine and the ironing board, I was ready for my own domain.
Our auction objective was to purchase a set of twin beds and some sort of bedside table. My mother and grandmother were the masterminds behind our purchase. I was mesmerized by the talents of an auctioneer and wondered if I could ever talk that fast. Both of these beautiful beds and an antique sewing table signed by the craftsman are treasures of mine now and live with me in Flat Rock.
The author's Queen Anne chairs (left) and one of the twin beds with antique sewing table beside it (right). Images provided by the author.
When it was time for me to set up my own household, I started with a trip to Birlant’s. I was a young single schoolteacher working for the Charleston County Schools and making a whopping $7,000 a year — with a master’s degree! I walked in the store and immediately saw these beautiful antique Queen Anne chairs with worn red leather seats. I was in love. The antique bug bit and I have forever been a loyal follower. The price tag of $1,000 might as well have been a million. Marion Birlant Slotin was now the owner of her father’s store and could see that I was in total anguish over these chairs. With her husband, Phil Slotin, she came over to me and proposed a deal. They sold me the chairs and agreed to move them into the back room tagged with my name. Every week I faithfully took by ten dollars towards the chairs, and when one was paid off I took it home. These chairs have followed me from house to house and are very dear to me for many reasons. The kindness the Slotins showed me as a young person helped foster my love of antiques and Birlant’s will always remain a favorite in my book. Today, Andrew Birlant Slotin, grandson of George C. Birlant, and his father, Phil Slotin continue the store’s legacy and work tirelessly to preserve the company’s heritage.
During the years the Charleston Antique District has made significant contributions to Charleston and has given it the reputation of being one of America’s antique meccas. Although Mr. Birlant did not live to see his dream reach this level of prominence, it is here to stay because of him.
Information for this article was obtained by referencing the published works from the Charleston Post and Courier archives and the George C. Birlant & Co. website.
Missy Craver Izard Schenck was born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina. She resides in Flat Rock, North Carolina with her husband, Sandy Schenck, where their family runs a summer camp.