Simmons’s most elaborate ironworks were created for homes in the celebrated Battery District near the harbor.
Blacksmith. Born on June 9, 1912, on Daniel Island in a Gullah-speaking community just a few miles from Charleston, Simmons moved to the port city in 1925. He soon apprenticed himself to an elderly African American wheelwright named Peter Simmons (no relation), a man who was born in slavery on a plantation near St. Stephen and whose father and grandfather had also worked as blacksmiths. Under Peter’s watchful eye Philip would initiate an illustrious career. From Peter the thirteen-year-old apprentice was exposed to so many branches of ironworking that Philip Simmons would later describe himself as a “general blacksmith” since he could shoe horses, repair wagons, fashion iron fittings for boats, make and mend tools, and fabricate structural iron for buildings. When motorized trucks began to replace the horses and wagons that were mainstays of his business, he began to try his hand at making decorative wrought-iron gates and balconies. He quickly found that he could do that sort of work since he “could mash out a leaf the same as a horseshoe.” Shifting from the pragmatic to the artistic branch of blacksmithing, Philip Simmons would establish himself as an artistic force in Charleston.
Simmons’s most elaborate ironworks were created for homes in the celebrated Battery District near the harbor. Between 1938 and 1990 he produced more than two hundred commissions, which included gates, fences, railings, and balconies. Among the most visible of his works are the gates made for the Christopher Gadsden House on East Bay Street, which feature a pair of threatening rattlesnakes that commemorate Gadsden’s “Don’t Tread on Me” flag designed during the Revolutionary War.
Coming to the notice of the Smithsonian Institution in 1976, Simmons was invited to demonstrate his skills at the Festival of American Folklife held on the Mall in Washington, D.C. There, at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, he crafted a gate filled with a variety of images intended to show the range of his abilities. This work came to be known as the “Star and Fish” gate and was acquired by the National Museum of American History in 1982. This was the same year that the National Endowment for the Arts began to recognize and honor American folk artists with the title of National Heritage Fellow. As a member of the initial class of Fellows, Simmons was widely lauded, and he began to receive commissions from various museums.
The work that will probably stand as his masterpiece is a gate created in 1987 for the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia. It features two large egrets surrounded by numerous scrolls and is topped with an image of a palmetto tree. While Simmons was fashioning this gate he often referred to it as “the gate for the state,” but after it was installed, the museum chose to honor its creator by naming it “The Philip Simmons Gate” and placing it at the entrance to the history galleries.
While he turned his shop over to his former apprentices, Simmons continued to design decorative pieces and receive accolades into the twenty-first century. In addition to his induction into the South Carolina Hall of Fame and a lifetime achievement award from the state for his efforts in historic preservation, he has had a public garden, two parks, and the blacksmithing studio in the School for the Building Arts named for him.
Vlach, John Michael. Charleston Blacksmith: The Work of Philip Simmons. Rev. ed. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992.