This essay has been adapted from Lost Charleston.
A son of one of the wealthiest men in British North America, Peter Manigault, and his wife Elizabeth, Gabriel was born into Charleston’s planter class, a landed gentry that generally avoided vocations. If you were a planter, that's what you were; you needed no other occupation, and to have one, could reflect poorly on your family implying that you needed money.
Like many young Charleston men of his day, Gabriel traveled to London in the 1770s to study law. While there, he came to admire the work of prominent Scottish architect Robert Adam, who promulgated the neoclassical style of architecture inspired by the simple, symmetrical designs of ancient Rome and Greece.
With the outbreak of the American Revolution, Manigault returned to Charleston. He participated in Charleston’s defense, though once the city fell to the British, Manigault took the King’s oath of allegiance to protect his family’s properties.
After the Revolution, thanks to his inheritance of 25,000 acres of rice plantations, Gabriel was able to pursue his passion for architecture - if not as a vocation, at least as a serious avocation, thus his popular nickname as Charleston’s Gentleman Architect. He would generally create the plans, then turn them over to others to manage the construction process.
In addition to the Joseph Manigault House, now a house museum, other works credited to Manigault include South Carolina Society Hall, Blacklock House, Branch Bank of the United States (now City Hall), and the Orphan House Chapel (demolished).
Earlier in the decade, Standard Oil had sought to purchase and raze Gabriel’s brother’s residence at 350 Meeting Street to build a gas station. In response to that threat, a group began to coalesce into what would become America’s first preservation organization, the Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings. They were successful in saving the Joseph Manigault House, which had been designed by Gabriel.
Unfortunately, when the oil companies came for Gabriel’s house at the corner of Meeting and George streets, preservationists lost the battle. Yet the demolition of Gabriel Manigault's house in the late 1920s was a watershed event for Charlestonians who were fed up with losing their city’s irreplaceable historic fabric to modern development. It fired them up so that shortly thereafter, in 1931, they successfully lobbied Charleston City Council to create the nation’s first historic district, protected by zoning ordinances, as well as the city’s Board of Architectural Review.
In a nod to angry preservationists, Standard Oil allowed architectural elements of Manigault’s house such as pilasters, windows and balusters, to be salvaged and incorporated into several of their gas stations: the one that replaced Manigault's house (since also demolished), as well as one on the corner of Calhoun Street and Rutledge Avenue, and one at 108 Meeting Street, which now serves as the retail store for Historic Charleston Foundation. Twentieth century Charleston architect Albert Simons also used some of Manigault’s pilasters in another gas station, a twin to the one he designed at 108 Meeting Street, in Cheraw, S.C., which was demolished in the early 2000s.
As these stations were torn down, Historic Charleston Foundation sought to collect and preserve the architectural fragments, storing them for many years in a warehouse. Today some of these pieces are back in the public domain on long-term loan at the American College of the Building Arts library at 649 Meeting Street. The exhibit is free and open to the public.