King Streets is a Vibrant Antique District
King Street sits on a gentle rise in the heart of Charleston, just high enough to protect its businesses from nagging floods that plague other neighborhoods after heavy rainstorms. This feature has made it the main artery for merchants over the past centuries.
Originally an address for colonial furniture makers, silversmiths and other artisans, the street is now home to one of the most vibrant antiques districts in the U.S. Many of the finest shops are located on lower King, between Beaufain and Queen streets.
A. Fairfax Antiques
If you want to see world-class furniture, include A. Fairfax Antiques, 200 King St., on your itinerary. Owners Ann and David Silliman stock their shop with select, museum-quality antiques, many of which command five-figure prices.
David Silliman, 43, has a long connection to antiques, thanks to his father, who was a silent partner in a Philadelphia antiques business.
“I come from a family of five boys and we ‘custom-antiqued’ his antiques,” he laughed. “But as I got older, I began to have a greater appreciation for them.”
This interest ignited when he met his wife, Ann Fairfax, a Virginia native. She shared his interest and strove to learn more, completing a custodial program at Sotheby’s in New York. Eight years ago, Silliman decided to leave his job in corporate life to open their antiques shop in Charleston, a city he had visited often as a child.
“Charleston had five times the per-capita income of other American cities in colonial times,” he said. “The money and wealth created a market for furniture makers and other artisans. It’s always been an enigmatic city. There was a huge population of slaves and there was a strange societal mobility in which people could rise to unimagined heights.”
He cites Thomas Elfe, a legendary Charleston cabinetmaker and slumlord who became immensely successful.
“He died in 1775 and never lived in the United States,” Silliman said. “But he lived the American dream.”
When Silliman looks at the furniture in his showroom, he sees historical context.
“This wasn’t created in a vacuum,” he said, pointing to a c.1800 chest of drawers. “You understand why they made what they made. Look at the hardware on this chest. It has ‘E Pluribus Unum’ and an eagle inscribed on it. This would have been made shortly after the British had evacuated and there were probably not many fond memories of being occupied. This brass hardware reflects that sentiment.”
While Charleston furniture and other goods had a distinctly English look prior to the Revolutionary War, the succeeding goods began to reflect the melting pot that Charleston was to become.
However, the city went into a deep economic sleep following the Civil War, a sleep that continued until 1980, according to Silliman. The federal government had not forgotten that Charleston residents had ignited the war and subjected the city to punitive tariffs, the last of which was not lifted until 1970.
“But this city always has had a strong cultural spark,” Silliman said. “There was that spark of energy that was always lighted. That is Charleston. This was a city that was as large as New York City in the late 18th century. It had the first theater, the first golf course and a host of societies that helped propel the cultural community here.”
Even though New York dealers such as Israel Sack carted away a large number of Charleston antiques in the 1920s, many Charleston families hung onto their heirlooms, Silliman said. Consequently, this area continues to harbor many antique treasures. And the best of those that come to market are often found in Silliman’s shop. For example, he sold a Charleston card table at the local March International Antique Show for $58,000.
Although investing in antiques tracks loosely the same as the stock market, he cautions against buying for economic reasons only.
“I recommend against buying antiques solely as an investment,” Silliman said. “For one thing, it’s not very liquid. And if you love something, keep it in the family. Early American antiques are a good investment and will always retain value. So, keep them and enjoy them.”
Fairfax Antiques is open Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call (843) 853-2400.
Oldest antique shop
Geo. C. Birlant & Co., founded in 1929, is the oldest antiques shop in Charleston and one of the oldest ongoing antiques shops in the entire Southeastern region, according to Phil H. Slotin, the current owner. The shop was founded by Birlant, Slotin’s father-in-law.
“You might think 1929 was an unusual year to start a business,” Slotin said, referring to the fact that it marked the beginning of the Great Depression. “But he was in the real estate and insurance businesses. He was also fond of antiques, and was an auctioneer and an appraiser. So he knew a lot of influential people, and when they wanted to part with a piece of furniture, they would call him.”
Birlant originally kept these pieces in a warehouse space on East Bay Street, and sold them from there, “but it quickly started snowballing,” Slotin said. Birlant moved the business into a space downtown, then in 1931 he bought the current address of the business, 191 King Street. Birlant died in 1971.
“We’re essentially an English shop,” Slotin said. “We personally go to England and select all of our fine antiques out in the countryside. We buy at auctions, estates, manor houses, antique fairs, and we frequent some shops. We sell very fine 18th and 19th Century furniture, silver, china, crystal and glassware.”
In addition, Slotin said, the shop commissions London cabinetmakers to custom-make furniture pieces for the shop – “pieces you don’t see original examples of anymore.” The shop sells antique and antique reproduction lighting, and gifts such as would be appropriate for weddings and other special occasions.
The shop also owns the original Charleston Battery Bench® and reproduces benches and markets them across the country. The original cast-iron bench with cypress slats was made by the John F. Riley Co. of Charleston, to beautify the Battery’s White Point Gardens after destruction caused by the Civil War. George Birlant bought the original mold pattern for the bench and the exclusive rights to produce it after the Riley firm went out of business more than 60 years ago, according to the company’s brochure.
Slotin’s explanation of Geo. C. Birlant & Co.’s success?
“We’ve been in business for 76 years – we must be doing something right,” he says.
A South Georgia native himself, Slotin also says the city of Charleston is a great place to do business, with a rich history and other attributes to attract tourists.
“Charleston is a beautiful, beautiful city, and it has everything New York has, but on a smaller scale.”
He ticks them off – architecture, museums, art galleries, a symphony, theater, ballet, great restaurants and more.
“And the people – especially in Charleston – the people are so cordial and warm to strangers, from South Georgia and anywhere else.”
For more information about Geo. C. Birlant & Co., call 843-722-3842, toll-free 1-888-Birlant, fax 843-722-3846.