By Martha Zink for The Island Connection
The Kiawah Island Garden Club is about more than gardening, as the recent meeting showed. On Jan. 9 the Club heard a fascinating talk, by Karen Prewitt, about the well-known Charleston garden designer Loutrell Briggs. Prewitt moved to Charleston in 1981, after receiving her BA in interior design and then studying architecture and art history in Europe, teaching interior design, and studying at the Winterthur Museum. In Charleston she has been president of the Garden Club of Charleston and an officer and on the board of many statewide and regional garden and environmental organizations. In 1990 Karen was an archivist at the South Carolina Historical Society and was asked to catalogue their collection of 1000 drawings done by Loutrell Briggs. She published a definitive article and has worked to save his Charleston garden designs. She inherited Loutrell Briggs’ estate and is his official biographer, holds the copyright to his book and has many of his paintings, drawings, plans and memorabilia, including a silver vase presented by the Charleston Garden Club. He has become her life’s work. Loutrell Winslow Briggs was born in New York in 1893, only child of a wealthy Huguenot family, which provided an introduction to Charleston society in the 1920s. He died in Charleston in 1977. Briggs was educated at Trinity Prep and the Art League of New York before graduating from Cornell with a degree in “rural art”, as landscape design was called then. After 14 months working as a railroad inspector for the French High Commission, and teaching at what is now the Parson School of Design, he started his own business, though it was mostly working on industrial and commercial sites. Loutrell met his wife Emily, an interior designer, soon before she got a job in Charleston. She then moved here to open her own business at 77 Church St. His first visit to Charleston to see Emily was in 1927. In 1928 Briggs purchased Cabbage Row (a derelict set of two houses now known as the Porgy and Bess buildings on Church St.) to make studios for artists, including himself. His first interest in Charleston was restoring the architecture to attract visitors. The Charleston Renaissance movement claims humble beginnings at the gallery he opened. Charles Hutty inspired Briggs to try engraving, which he mastered. Loutrell and Emily married in 1928 in Philadelphia. During the Great Depression, when 124 historic houses in Charleston were pulled down because the owners could not pay the taxes, Briggs saved much of the woodwork (some from the Mansion House became the Charleston Dining Room in Winterthur). He even put the woodwork on gas stations he designed, including what became the Historic Charleston building. Briggs designed gardens for plantations including Mulberry and Mepkin, designed public housing, was involved in urban planning and stopping high rises from being built downtown, and planned the Gateway Walk through the lower peninsula. He designed a park all along the Ashley River, but it was never built. He worked all over the country on 30 schools, 14 cemeteries, banks, military bases, corporations, offices, museums and gas stations. He designed the grounds of Ashley Hall, the Citadel, the Mills House courtyard and the Cistern area of the College of Charleston, but is probably most well known for the small ”pocket” gardens which are commemorated in his book, Charleston Gardens. After this informative talk the Club can now look forward to another on Feb. 12, at the new Town Hall. Dick Wall will be flying in to talk about the book his wife Carol wrote entitled ‘Mr. Owita’s Guide to Gardening.’ Carol was a casual gardener before her diagnosis of cancer but when she hired an enigmatic gardener to help her, he changed her outlook and life as well as her garden. Carol died soon after her book was published but her husband and children are successfully travelling and talking about this inspirational work. For more details go to kiawahislandgardenclub.org.