Remembering a Master: Philip Simmons, 1912-2009

As a tribute to Philip Simmons, white ribbons adorn the ironwork he helped to shape, at Drayton Hall and throughout the area.

As a tribute to Philip Simmons, white ribbons adorn the ironwork he helped to shape.

This past week, the country lost one of its national treasures when Mr. Philip Simmons, the famed Charleston blacksmith, passed away.  Mr. Simmons’ work has been documented and appreciated for years, and the ironwork he created, including gates, grills, panels, and railings, are now appreciated as cultural and artistic icons.

While his works are seen throughout downtown Charleston, in places both private and prominent, few people know that Mr. Simmons was also a preservationist, lending his expertise and talent to the centuries-old ironwork of Drayton Hall.

In the mid-1980s, Mr. Simmons was asked to help repair the iron railings on the land and riverfront steps during a stabilization effort of the stone steps and landings.  He repaired and even in some places, replaced, sections of the railing.  But that work was not his first encounter with Drayton Hall.

Mr. Simmons points to areas he repaired on Drayton Hall's wrought iron harp gate.

As a young man, he knew many of the African Americans that then lived at Drayton Hall, including Richmond Bowens, who he recalled as a close friend.  After Drayton Hall opened as historic site, and Richmond Bowens worked as the gatekeeper, Mr. Simmons would sometimes drive out to the site, to see and talk with Mr. Bowens, and reflect on the times and people they knew.

 Mr. Simmons’ was interviewed at Drayton Hall in 1998 and shared his recollections with staff about growing up in Charleston and learning the blacksmithing trade, as well as his inspirations as a craftsmen and an artist, and his thoughts on the ironwork of the house and the repairs he made.  From 1998 until his death, Mr. Simmons continued to be an occasional visitor, most recently with his nephew Ronnie Pringle, to help create a design for a planned African-American memorial at the cemetery and to attend Ways of Remembering, the celebration of the 100th anniversary of Richmond Bowens’ birth last September. For the next week or so, white ribbons will adorn the ironwork Mr. Simmons touched and shaped, in recognition of the significant contributions he made to the landscape of the Charleston region.  On your next visit to Drayton Hall, as you move up or down the riverfront steps, pause for a moment with your hand resting on the railings to consider not just the contributions of artisans like Mr. Simmons, but also those many blacksmiths, stone carvers, masons, and other craftsmen, named and unknown, whose work will remain preserved in perpetuity, at Drayton Hall and elsewhere.

More information on Philip Simmons, his life, and his work can be found at The Philip Simmons Foundation and in recent articles in the Charleston’s Post & Courier newspaper.