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Philip Simmons collection

Identifier: AMN 1125

Collection Overview

The collection contains biographical/personal papers, business and financial documents, with photographs and printed brochures relating to a segment of Simmons' blacksmithing career from 1977-2007. The majority of the collection holds preparatory graphite drawings (originals and photocopies); with numerous mechanical reproductions of preparatory drawings with graphite embellishments and/or notations by Simmons' ironwork for commissions and estimates to institutions, businesses, private residences and individual clients.

The collection is divided into three series:

1. Personal and Professional Papers includes brief biographical papers with letters, newspaper clippings (photocopied); photographs; programs and invitations, in addition to financial statements and correspondence regarding potential ironwork commissions. This series also contains brief information on Simmons' mentor, Peter Simmons (no familiar relation) and his son, jazz musician, Lonnie Simmons. The sub-series, Business Related Documents, contains financial documents, correspondence and other materials relating to Simmons' ironwork and his commissions.

2. Commissioned and Estimates of Simmons' Ironwork contains several sub-series with original and photocopies of Simmons' commissioned work for institutions, businesses and private residences in Charleston, the state of South Carolina and nationally. The majority of the commissions are located in and around areas of Charleston, South Carolina. The collection also holds commissions/estimates for work completed in the state of South Carolina and national work done mostly in the Southern region of the United States. The drawings are listed alphabetically under property addresses or by city/town/state location. Also included are various commissions for private residences and clients, listed alphabetically by last name (1996, undated). Highlighted in this collection is Simmons' work on the grounds of St. John's Reformed Episcopal Church. Known as "The Philip Simmons Garden," a commemorative landscaped plot located at 91 Anson Street in Charleston, South Carolina, which displays his ironwork. Also referred as the "Heart Garden," it features Simmons' "Double Heart Gate," the collection holds two original graphite sketches (1993-1994) with several photocopies and architectural layout drawings.

3. Additional Simmons' Sketches holds numerous original and photocopied sketches, mostly undated. Sketches are categorized by type and design. Included are designs of entrance gates; stand alone gates and arches; staircase and porch railings; hinges and finials; decorative motifs (birds, fish, palmetto trees, and letters); window gates and coffee table frames. Also contains various unidentified structural sketches created by Simmons.


  • Creation: 1977-2007
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1990-2000

Copyright Notice

The nature of the Avery Research Center's archival holdings means that copyright or other information about restrictions may be difficult or even impossible to determine despite reasonable efforts. The Avery Research Center claims only physical ownership of most archival materials.

The materials from our collections are made available for use in research, teaching, and private study, pursuant to U.S. copyright law. The user must assume full responsibility for any use of the materials, including but not limited to, infringement of copyright and publication rights of reproduced materials. Any materials used for academic research or otherwise should be fully credited with the source.

Biographical Note

Over the course of an 80-year career, renowned master blacksmith Philip Simmons has been called the "gate keeper of Charleston," South Carolina due to the hundreds of ornamental wrought-iron gates he has made to adorn the homes, institutions, businesses, churches and gardens. Born on June 9, 1912 to Rosa Simmons in Wando on Daniels Island, South Carolina. He was raised by his grandparents, William and Sarah Buncombe Simmons until the age of eight. Relocating to Charleston, Simmons lived with his mother while attending the first class at Buist Elementary School (presently known as Buist Academy). At the age of thirteen, Philip apprenticed himself to wheelwright Peter Simmons (no relation); a former slave. The young apprentice was exposed to numerous branches of ironworking, later describing himself as a "general blacksmith" as he could shoe horses, repair wagons, fashion iron fittings for boats, make and mend tools, and structural iron for buildings.

With the advent of the automobile, Simmons transitioned into the specialized fields of ornamental iron in 1938, and quickly realized he could accomplish this type of work since he "could mash out a leaf the same as a horseshoe." His first commissioned gate was for Jack Krawcheck, a Charleston clothier, on King Street in 1944. Between 1938 and 1990, Simmons produced more than five hundred fifty documented works of ornamental art, which included gates, fences, window grills, interior and exterior railings and balconies in Charleston alone, with his most elaborate work located at homes in the Battery District. Best known for his gates, Simmons incorporated symbolic images from his childhood on Daniels Island; birds, fish, trees and stars, into his ironwork.

In 1976, Simmons demonstrated his artistry at the Smithsonian Institution's Festival of American Folklife by creating the "Star and Fish" gate, at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. The gate was acquired by the National Museum of American History in 1982. The same year the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) inducted Simmons in their inaugural National Heritage Fellows program recognizing American traditional folk artists. The NEA issued a proclamation that read, in part, "...Simmons is probably the most important single reason Charleston has remained Charleston."

The work which is considered Simmons' masterpiece was a gate created in 1987 for the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia. Simmons fashioned the gate highlighting South Carolina symbols, the palmetto tree and egrets, designating it as "the gate for the state." Upon completion, the museum chose to honor its creator by naming it "The Phillip Simmons Gate," making it an permanent installation at the entrance to the history galleries. The following year, Governor David Beasley presented Simmons with, "The Order of the Palmetto," the state's highest civilian honor.

In a continued testament to his craft, Simmons has been awarded the South Carolina Legislature Lifetime Achievement Award (1981), the Elizabeth O'Neill Verner Governor's Award for "Lifetime Achievement in the Arts" (2001), along with being inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame (1994), and an honorary degree from South Carolina State University. Simmons work has been acquired and displayed in museums and institutions around the country including, the National Museum of International Folk Art (Sante Fe, New Mexico), the Richland County Public Library (Columbia, South Carolina), the Atlanta History Center (Atlanta, Georgia), Buist Academy (Charleston), the Charleston Visitor's Center and the Charleston International Airport.

In 1991, St. John's Reformed Episcopal Church, Simmons' place of worship, formed the Philip Simmons Foundation, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization designated to the documentation and preservation of his work and legacy. Their first major project was to develop and maintain a commemorative plot known as "The Heart Garden" on church grounds. The church and garden is located at 91 Anson Street in downtown Charleston, South Carolina.

Phillip Simmons passed away at the age of 97 on June 22, 2009.

SOURCES: (1) "Charleston Blacksmith: The Work of Philip Simmons" by John Michael Vlach (2) "A Tribute to: Philip Simmons" by Stephanie Hunt, "Charleston Magazine." (3) "Behind God's Back: Gullah Memories, Cainhoy, Wando, Huger, Daniel Island, St. Thomas Island, South Carolina" by Herb Frazier


0.8 linear feet (2 archival boxes)

Language of Materials



Philip Simmons (b.1912-d.2009) was an African American blacksmith and artisan specializing in the craft of ironwork in Charleston, South Carolina. Working out of his shop and home on 30 1/2 Blake Street in Charleston, Simmons spent seventy-seven years crafting utilitarian and ornamental ironwork. His work is recognized within the state of South Carolina, nationally and internationally. This collection donated by the Philip Simmons Foundation, holds personal papers with photographs and business related documents from 1977-2007. The bulk of materials feature preparatory graphite drawings (originals and photocopies) of commissioned and estimates of Simmons' decorative ironwork (1984-2004 and undated). Preparatory drawings for commissioned work for institutions includes the Philip Simmons Garden Project at St. Johns Reformed Episcopal Church (Charleston, South Carolina); Liberty Square at the Fort Sumter National Monument (Charleston, South Carolina); the Charleston International Airport (South Carolina); the Richland County Public Library (Columbia, South Carolina); Brookgreen Gardens (Pawleys Island, South Carolina); the Atlanta History Center (Georgia), in addition to numerous businesses and private residences in Charleston, the state of South Carolina and throughout the United States. Also included are various sketches completed for potential commissions, with various unidentified sketches, categorized by design type.

Collection Arrangement

1. Personal and Professional Papers, 1977-2007

2. Commissioned and Estimates of Simmons' Ironwork, 1984-2004, undated

3. Additional Simmons' Sketches, undated

Related Materials

Portions of this collection are available digitally on the College of Charleston’s Lowcountry Digital Library website.

Processing Information note

Funding from the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelly Foundation supported the collection processing, encoding and digitation of this collection.

Philip Simmons Collection AMN 1125
Finding aid prepared by Georgette Mayo
Description rules
Language of description
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Repository Details

Part of the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture Repository

125 Bull Street
Charleston South Carolina 29424 United States