November 1992

Philip Simmons

Blacksmith

Philip Simmons

Charleston is known for beautiful and stylish ironwork gates, fences, balconies and walls. Philip Simmons, a native of Daniel Island, across the Cooper River from Charleston, is the blacksmith who designed and built hundreds of these wrought iron fixtures.As a youngster, he observed the work of his grandfather who perfected the skill of carpentry by building barns, sheds and smokehouses in addition to his own home. Simmons first saw Charleston in 1920 when he was eight years old and his grandfather sent him there to pursue an education.

During the late 1920s, Philip Simmons developed his craft as an ironworker. He became knowledgeable of the works of famous artisans by going from blacksmith shop to blacksmith shop. He seldom asked questions; instead, he was keenly observant of what they did and how they did it. His friendship with experts of the craft and his willingness to learn set the stage for his knowledge and his citywide fame. He became an apprentice in the shop of Peter Simmons. In 1935 the business was turned over to Philip. The automotive age had begun and blacksmiths were needed to do body work – to shape iron or steel into productive and meaningful images. Philip Simmons survived by repairing wagons, trucks and cars. By 1939 he was able to focus on the career that became his major contribution as a blacksmith.

He started by repairing iron gates. In less that a year he was making them. In a period of more than 40 years, he made more than 100 gates. He also mastered stair rails, balconies, fences and window grills. His designs ranged from simple to very complex. Many were so precise that they were taken for pre-Revolutionary War artwork.Mr. Simmons’ first decorative piece in 1938 was an iron stair rail in Georgetown. It was his gate at 9 Stolls Alley in Charleston, however, that set the stage for his fame.

Of his craft, Philip Simmons has asserted, “I’ve never made anything I didn’t like. I take a long time on the drawing and when the customer likes it, I already liked it at first.” In his book on Philip Simmons, John Michael Vlach maintained that the work of this outstanding blacksmith shows “carpentry and creativity welded together’. Prominent and average citizens as well as the Historic Charleston Foundation have commissioned Philip Simmons’ work and the South Carolina State Museum.Simmons has been recognized for his work both in the state and in the nation. In 1993 he was voted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame, which was created to honor the contributions of South Carolinians. The Smithsonian Museum named him a National Heritage Fellow and the National Endowment for the Arts named him a “master traditional artist.” An iron gate that Simmons created for the Smithsonian with a star and fish design has been displayed all across the country. The State Museum in Columbia commissioned a gate, which is on permanent display. The city of Charleston commissioned a gate for the Visitors’ Center. Photographs of his work are on display at the Avery Center in Charleston, and a stroll through the city’s historic district offers a legacy to this great South Carolinian