Charleston furniture relives its heyday in reproductions

In the French-inspired green drawing room of the historic Nathaniel Russell House here, the late-afternoon sun glances off a crystal chandelier onto a small , graceful table set for tea.

This mahogany Pembroke table with tapered legs and distinctive bellflower-shaped inlays is among several pieces of early Charleston-made furniture chosen to be reproduced as part of a program sponsored by the Historic Charleston Foundation.

In addition to piquing the interest of visitors to Charleston, furniture produced in this historic seaport has gained increased attention from collectors and historians.

''Twenty-five years ago curators felt nothing of note was produced south of Baltimore,'' says Tom Savage, curator of the Historic Charleston Foundation. ''Southern decorative arts are just coming into their own and being seriously studied and documented.''

Through the highly successful reproductions program, a variety of local 18th- and 19th-century antiques, china, and home accessories are reproduced and sold commercially. Profits are used by the Historic Charleston Foundation to further its restoration work.

Historically, Charleston was a sophisticated furnituremaking center during the 1700s and early 1800s. A remarkable number of original pieces survived the devastation of the Civil War and Reconstruction period and are still in local homes and museums.

''Private owners have been wonderful about allowing their heirlooms to be reproduced,'' says Cornelia Pelzner, director of Historic Charleston Reproductions.

Charleston is not alone in reproducing its antiques to help preserve them. Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, Historic Newport, R.I., Philadelphia's Independence Hall, the Winterthur Museum in Delaware, and Monticello in Virginia are among the growing numbers of institutions and museums reproducing furniture from their collections to offset rising maintenance costs. In most cases, manufacturers pay the museum a fee in addition to a percentage of the profits.

In Charleston, ''It's really benefited the entire city,'' Mrs. Pelzner says.

The Historic Charleston Foundation launched Historic Charleston Reproductions in 1974 with china patterns re-created by Mottahedeh. The furniture line manufactured by the Baker Furniture Company was added in 1976 and, two years ago , the foundation expanded the program to include harleston-inspired fabrics, wallpapers, and trims by Scalamandre.

Most of the pieces chosen for reproduction are meticulously copied; others are adaptations of the originals. The furniture, handcrafted by Baker artisans, ranges in price from $294 for a chair-side book table to $8,553 for a mahogany secretary-bookcase. According to Mrs. Pelzner, the reproductions are selling well nationwide.

Charleston-made pieces incorporate such detailing as carved fretwork and delicate inlay. The principal woods are mahogany, which was readily available through trade with the West Indies, and cypress, which is indigenous to the low-lying swamp areas around Charleston.

The approximately 60 offerings in the Historic Charleston Reproductions furniture line include a Sheraton settee and side chairs in black, gold, and terra cotta; a Hepplewhite inlaid console table with a serpentine front; and a fall-front desk in walnut with herringbone banding and a star-shaped inlay.

A unique piece reproduced from the fine furniture collection in the Heyward-Washington house (maintained by the Charleston Museum) is a mahogany chest-on-chest-on-chest which can be lifted apart into three sections using heavy brass handles. Another distinctive piece from the house is a Pembroke breakfast table butterfly drop leaves and an apron carved in a traditional figure-eight pattern.

This year Baker Furniture added seven new pieces to the Charleston Reproductions line. Recent additions include upholstered pieces such as the ''Pruitt love seat'' which has pierced fretwork stretchers and a serpentine front rail.

Most of the original pieces date from 1760 to 1820, the height of furnituremaking in Charleston, when 50 to 70 cabinetmakers worked in the city.

''The taste in Charleston was overwhelmingly English,'' says curator Savage. ''Whereas prerevolutionary newspapers in Virginia and Maryland do not mention English furniture imports, Charleston papers were filled with importations of London goods which influenced local cabinetmaking.''

When pieces are considered for the Charleston reproduction program, some are too massive, too costly to duplicate, or not practical for modern-day use. According to Mr. Savage, ''There is a great gap between what is important as an original and what is marketable.''

Charleston reproductions are available through the Historic Charleston Reproductions shop in Charleston, by mail order, and in stores nationwide.m

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