Profile: Philip Simmons (1912-2009)

Philip Simmons was an American artisan and blacksmith specializing in the craft of ironwork. Simmons spent 78 years as a blacksmith, focusing on decorative iron work. When he began his career, blacksmiths in Charleston made practical, everyday household objects, such as horseshoes. By the time he retired 77 years later, the craft was considered an art form rather than a practical profession.

Examples of Simmons’ work, including iron gates, can be seen throughout the city of Charleston, South Carolina, as well as the rest of South Carolina Lowcountry. His pieces are displayed at the Smithsonian Museum, South Carolina State Museum, Paris, France, and China.

Biography

Philip Simmons was born on June 9, 1912, in Daniel Island, South Carolina. He was raised by his grandparents, before being sent to Charleston in 1920 to live with his mother when he was 8 years old. Simmons resided on Vernon Street and enrolled in school at the Buist Elementary School, which is now known as the Buist Academy. Later in his life, Simmons would design and create the iron arch which now stands over the school’s entry gate.

Simmons became interested in the craftspeople who lived in his neighborhood, and soon began visiting various workshops near his home. In particular, Simmons became interested in a smithy on Charlotte Street run by Peter Simmons, who was not related to Philip. Philip Simmons soon quit school and began an apprenticeship with Peter Simmons, a former slave, when he was 13 years old. He became a full blacksmith when he was 18 years old, after a five-year apprenticeship.

Simmons began working with ornamental and decorative ironwork in 1938 at his own blacksmith shop.

In the early 1940s, Simmons began working with a Charleston businessman named Jack Krawcheck. Krawcheck commissioned a wrought iron gate for the rear of his store, which was located on King Street. However, Simmons had to create the gate out of scrap iron because the demand for iron during World War II made it impossible to acquire new iron. This was the first iron gate that Simmons ever crafted and delivered to a customer. The Krawcheck family would ultimately acquire more than 30 iron pieces from Simmons during his career.

Though he had begun working on ornamental ironwork in 1938,  the Krawcheck gate marked a turning point in Simmons’ career as an iron artisan. Over the course of his seven decades long career, Simmons created over 500 separate pieces, including iron balconies, window grilles, fences and gates. For example, Simmons forged and designed five iron gates along Stolls Alley in Charleston alone. In 1976, he created a “star and fish gate” for the Smithsonian Institution, which was designed to look like the fish was swimming.

Simmons also created smaller, metal objects to supplement his income, including tools, shutter dog and fireplace pokers. In 1970, Simmons created a cup holder for a Volvo, which was crafted from a coat hanger.

Most of his work was created at his workshop at his home on Blake Street.

Later life

Simmons moved from his home to the Bishop Gadsden Retirement Community in Charleston in the spring of 2008. He died there on June 22, 2009, at 9 P.M. at the age of 97.

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