I was only 19 when I began to work for Frances Edmunds at the Historic Charleston Foundation. I would continue working in various aspects of the Historic Charleston
Foundation through college, eventually becoming the Assistant Administrator of the Edmonston-Alston House under Alice Levkoff when I graduated. It was in 1976, the nation’s Bicentennial year, the winter of my freshman year at the College of Charleston, when a lady I did not think liked me at church one Sunday asked me if I would like to work on the weekends to help with the Spring Tours. I did not know what the Spring Tours were, but when she said Historic Charleston, I knew God was answering my young heart’s desire to learn more of the mysteries of my native historic city.
As with my early years of worshipping Charleston from the distant harbor view from “The Provinces” of James Island, so I worshipped Frances Edmunds from afar from the humble but heart of the Historic Charleston Foundation, the Ticket Office at 52 Meeting. She was the articulate speaker introducing the guest lecturers for the docent training in Molly Weir Hall leading up to the Spring Tours. She brought in nationally and internationally renowned names to educate us in all things artistic and historic to rub into us a bit of sophistication before we met the public and represented Charleston. Sometimes these impressive names did not deliver the prescribed lecture she had instructed them to give. Especially I remember a titled Sir D.G., whose lecture was canned and did not follow the details she explicitly had laid out in her introduction. She was not one to be intimidated, but she certainly knew how to intimidate, even the nobility of England. The audience of docents unwittingly clapped long and profusely and even stood, but my eyes were on Frances, gracious, but not false, and clearly disappointed. I have always wondered if he got paid since he did not fulfill his part of the agreement..
When she spoke to us one night when there was no guest speaker, I was in awe of her knowledge and wondered why she did not dispense with the hired lecturers from off and take on the education and polishing of us herself. I wanted to take notes; I wanted to have a recording of her words, a memory of her slides; I did not want to forget any of the valuable information about the Holy City around me. The pieces of the puzzle were fitting together in my understanding, basic things I had seen in Charleston growing up and had wondered about but had never figured out on my own or had formulated into questions. The tall, mottled, pastel Charleston Single Houses, the gardens barely visible through imposing wrought iron gates, the mounting blocks on the street, the earthquake bolts, the worn flagstone side walks, and wrought iron boot scrapers were all part of the intimidating, mysterious Charleston that had been the backdrop of my school years down town. Charleston, America, and I were discovering the history and heritage of our land in the Bicentennial Celebration with an awareness of what artists like Elizabeth O’Neill Verner and writers like Dubose Heyward had been portraying for many years when Charleston was covered in a thick cloak of genteel poverty where it took an artist’s eye to bring it into focus for us.
While Frances Edmunds was formidable Old Charleston personified, her assistant, Alicia Walker Rudolph, was gracious, open Charleston hospitality personified. They were a perfect compliment working together, completing the whole image and thrust of the Historic Charleston Foundation’s work in many different directions, including the revolving fund used in saving historic Ansonborough. Alicia Rudolph’s lively and efficient sparkle in carrying out Frances’s visionary directives and in keeping the books made the Historic Charleston Foundation a team of which it was fun to be a part. Alicia’s sudden and tragic death while on holiday was a blow to the Historic Charleston Foundation and Frances Edmunds in particular from which Frances never fully recovered. Alicia made it seem as if we were all surfing the crest of a wave together for the sheer pleasure of it as we worked single mindedly for the good of Historic Charleston. Frances said in losing Alicia, she had lost her right arm. Her death was the first time I saw a good looking, fun loving, contemporary of mine, a young man, cry, her nephew Bubba Walker, sobbing as he sat with his head in his hands on a low back stoop of the Confederate Home on Chalmers before the funeral at St. Philip’s. In a few years first he and then his even more popular brother, Stewart, would join her, sending the city into the depths of grief we of their generation still carry lodged deep within us.
With Alicia Rudolph’s death came an accountant who while lively was not the known entity that Alicia was. I was reading all the wonderful books I was selling in the Ticket Office and learning the answers to the many questions posed to me by visitors as I sold tickets for the Nathanial Russell House and the newly opened Edmonston Alston House as well as the Spring Candlelight Tours, later to be known as the Festival of Houses. Occasionally Jane Ball and others would come in from the offices across the street at the Russell House to chat and ask for a glass of water, my getting it with ice from the clumsy ice tray in the tiny separate kitchen. I never could get the books to balance after a busy Saturday or even a dull Sunday. After hours into the night, I would leave long notes for the accountant and would ask her the next time I saw her what ever happened to that extra hundred dollars for which I could not account. “It all worked out,” she would say. It balanced perfectly.
Jane Ball later explained to me that money was being planted in the box when I went to get water to see where it was going. The outgoing accountant, who was no replacement for Alicia, was fired for embezzling, another blow to Frances Edmunds and the HCF. I think that this betrayal by a trusted colleague made Frances Edmunds reticent of future employees from off, despite their outstanding educational credentials.
Before my time at the Historic Charleston Foundation but later to reveal her identity to me was Miss Kitty White, who claimed to be the first employee of the Historic Charleston Foundation. She was the accountant for Mr. Richardson who provided the beginning of the revolving fund, which was matched in days to purchase the Nathanial Russell House to prevent it from being subdivided into lots. Miss White lived in a white house at 70 Church St, and owned but did not drive a white station wagon in front of her white house. Her tenant, Joanna Drake Macmurphy, who introduced my husband, Preston Hipp to me, was required to drive Miss White’s white car to the grocery store to shop for Miss White using her list. A large woman, Miss White never left her house, but unlike other Charleston recluses, she visited from her piazza with the passers by like me, asking the pertinent questions to keep up with the news. She was one of the last Charlestonians to use her piazza for daily connectedness to the City. While inside visiting with her, she told me that she could have had Frances’s job. I was doubtful. She said it was offered to her but she turned it down. She knew her talents lay in numbers not in leadership and vision. She kept up with her numbers with the stock market, daily lowering her peach basket tied to an electrical cord to retrieve the Wall Street Journal as well as her mail and the News and Courier. Miss White was never dressed in anything but in her pajamas in the years I knew her. She may be forgotten and may seem irrelevant, but think of her when you see the new steeple put atop the Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist on Broad, April, 2010, for she told me she was going to leave her money to the said church for them to complete the steeple they never replaced after the Great Conflagration of 1861. She also left an endowment for a scholarship at the College of Charleston.
While at the College of Charleston myself, I was asked by my professor, Dr. Douglas Ashley, if I would like to study for the summer at Oxford University. I thought what a better employee I would be for HCF if I went to England, my mother’s birthplace, to study at Oxford! But how to pay for it? I naively approached Frances Edmunds’ office, running up the three flights of free flying elliptical stairs to her room with a view from the Nathanial Russell House, to see if there was any money available for such a venture. She commented on how young and energetic I was to have run all the way up. That was the day I learned the meaning of HCF being an eleemosynary organization. She did tell me that the Hibernian Society had just formed a Foundation to reinstitute the original purposes of the Society and that they were a possibility for a scholarship; however, the word scholarship intimidated me. I knew my classmate Mary Villaponteaux was way smarter than I from a large Charleston Catholic family. I told her if I could get in to Oxford, I knew she could. She said there was no way her family could afford such foolery. I convinced her to apply and then approach the Hibernian Society as Frances Edmunds said. After much pressure, she did apply, was accepted, and received the scholarship to study with me at Oxford. Because of that experience, she went on to do graduate work at the University of Exeter in England and obtained her PhD and became a college professor. The course of my friend’s life was changed by a word Frances Edmunds had kindly given me, one small incidental in Frances’s life of immeasurable impact on all people and on all fronts.
The first time I ever saw Frances Edmunds in a different light was on a date at Seabrook Island. She was with the distinguished but short Dr. George Rogers, the renowned Charleston historian and USC professor, one of our speakers, who wrote Charleston: the Age of the Pinckney’s, which we sold in the HCF Ticket Office. I could imagine no one else worthy of her. I thought she would behave in her accustomed serious, dignified manner, but she could kick up her heels! They both had the look of eager youth with a gleam in their eye, and their feet fairly twinkled as they danced. The house George Rogers grew up in and owned then was one Dubose Heyward had lived in as a boy and is a Charleston Single House two houses down from me at 190 Tradd, now being restored.
When you are young and impressionable, certain people in your life make a bigger impact on your development than they realize. I have been forever in the debt of Frances Edmunds who I revered as a living monument. She was loyal to no one but historic Charleston, the city she wanted to preserve for future generations, as I saw and heard when attending B.A.R. meetings, (Board of Architectural Review). She did not care whose toes she stepped on in achieving that goal of keeping Charleston Charleston. As long time HCF board member Peter McGee said at her funeral at Second Presbyterian, as with Christopher Wren at St. Paul’s, when visitors ask where is her monument, the answer is, “Look around you!” The torch was passed to her from Susan Pringle Frost from the previous generation, founder and first president of the Preservation Society of Charleston in 1921. Who will carry the torch today?
At her funeral, I was seeking an answer to my private prayers for her in recent years, an affirming word that I had been heard in wanting her work on earth not to be stubble, as work for work’s sake can be, but to be for the glory of God, an acceptable sacrifice, and part of her eternal reward. Before the service started my head was nodding with the understanding that the answer would come from her black nursing help a few pews behind me. I left my pew and joined them. My tears flowed as Hattie told me how she did not leave Mrs. Edmunds each day for over ten years without praying with her, reading the Bible, and getting her to affirm with yes and no answers questions regarding her faith from the apostles creed. Despite being broken with a debilitating illness, she never lost her faith. She did, however, shift her focus away from the Holy City of Charleston to another city, the Holy City of Jerusalem. Hattie said we should be singing, “Walking in Jerusalem” just like John, because that was Mrs. Edmunds’ favorite song she would give herself whole heartedly to singing each time. It became part of her physical therapy! We in Charleston owe a tremendous debt to the untold heroes of faith within the black community who know how to prepare us for our final home in ministering to our loved ones as Hattie and her team did. For the last fifteen years, Mrs. Edmunds had such faithful help round the clock, supervised by her daughter, Eliza Edmunds Cleveland.
When Frances’s nephews led the singing of old spirituals at the burial, I thought how Frances had been connecting to a Smythe family tradition she had known all her life with the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals. “Walking in Jerusalem” was her vehicle to the reality of that heavenly city she was going to be entering, from one Holy City to the next.
May the fierce loyalty and determined faith Frances Edmunds had in preserving Old Charleston be a torch that never goes out. May we keep our debt to her alive by passing on the legacy she left us in the beauty and preservation of the city around us. May we exercise restraint with money, knowing it to be a dangerous thing when used indiscriminately, erasing the textures and colors and patina of Old Charleston that give us depth and authenticity. May we be good stewards of the patient toil and sacrifice of many individuals like Frances Edmunds who have contributed to the preservation of the City of Charleston we so enjoy today. May we pass on to the next generation the importance of each individual doing what he can to maintain the preservation of Charleston with hard work and vision and loyalty surpassing the limitations of one’s bank account, knowing that Charleston does not exist for the rich; she belongs to each one of us as our birthright. She is the Holy City in our hearts.
–Laura Wichmann Hipp