Philip Simmons, Charleston’s famed wrought iron artist
Philip Simmons is a household name among Charleston architecture enthusiasts. As a Lowcountry blacksmith, the renowned artisan spent his life, or 78 years of it, crafting everyday objects like horseshoes, tools, and fireplace pokers — most from his workshop at 30 1/2 Blake Street in downtown Charleston.
Simmons passed away in 2009 at the age of 97 and left his signature everywhere from the Smithsonian to Paris — but especially in Charleston. When he died, the city honored him by tying white ribbons on all of his known works throughout Charleston.
He lived here all his life, and it was on his walks to school that he became intrigued with ironwork, which would change his life. His first apprenticeship with a blacksmith began when he was only 12 years old. His supervisor was the grandson of slaves, and so the skills he learned had been passed down from several generations of African American artisans.
What Simmons is most remembered for are his stunning wrought iron gates and other ornamental work that can be seen throughout Charleston. His gate work began in the early 1940s when he met a businessman named Jack Krawcheck, who commissioned a wrought iron gate for his King Street store. Simmons had to source his materials from scrap iron since the demand for iron during World War II made iron scarce to come by.
But the result was impressive enough for the Krawcheck family to commission more than 30 more iron pieces throughout Simmons’ career. And over the course of the following seven decades, Simmons made a living with his newfound calling, creating over 500 decorative home pieces including iron balconies, window grilles, fences, and gates.
So where can you learn more about Simmons today? His craft continues to be honored in his shop on Blake Street thanks to apprentices and his family — Carlton Simmons (Nephew) and Joseph Pringle (cousin). His home is a museum house with a book shop that opened the year after his passing.
His family and colleagues want to merely fulfill Simmons’ last wish, and that is to make sure his trade is carried on, which is why engineer John Paul Huguley founded the American College of the Building Arts. Simmons was the “inspirational founder,” Huguley told the Post & Courier two years ago. The school restored one of Simmons’ most significant gates, the coiled rattlesnakes at 329 East Bay Street.
The Philip Simmons Foundation also ensures that his legacy lives on via everything from sterling silver jewelry fashioned in shapes inspired Simmons’ memorable works.
But you don’t have to stop in the Blake Street shop or shop for jewelry online to see his handiwork. Take your very own walking tour around the peninsula to behold his works everywhere from the Philip Simmons Garden at 91 Anson Street to the driveway gate of the mansion at 138 Wentworth Street to Simmons’ very first walkway gate at the Krawcheck residence at 313 King Street. Today 313 King houses the gentlemens’ shop Grady Ervin & Co. where the folks are nice enough to direct you to gate behind the store. They also sell a belt that includes this gate design, so shop around while you’re in there! It’s a lovely store.
We’ll talk more about his works you can find around Charleston over the next few months in upcoming posts dedicated to #wroughtironwednesday and the late, great Philip Simmons.