Philip Simmons: Charleston’s most adorable craftsman with over 500 decorative pieces

by Duke Magazine

In every enterprise of human endeavor, there is always a footprint to describe people’s contributions to their immediate society. African-American Philip Simmons is one man whose memorial will not fade off, at least not any soon in the world of art with majors in ironworks, which he is known for. His great expertise in the craft of making use of ornamental iron for decoration earned me so much of respect being the most celebrated ironworker of the 20th Century.

Simmons, who was raised by his grandparents from the cradle in South Carolina, left for Charleston at age 8 to live with his mother.

Fortunately for him, he started earning money for shining shoes and sales of newspapers, this regular menial job he was doing until later at age 13 that he went for apprenticeship in the trade of  blacksmithing at a shop in Charleston.

Luckily for Simmons, Charleston and its environs were the Mecca for several craftsmen having blacksmith shops, shipwrights, coppers, and pipefitters. Peter Simmons, who is Simmons’ master had his shop at the foot of Calhoun Street in Charleston.

Simmons once said: “I liked to see sparks and the fire, and hear the hammer ring,” and this keen interest of his led him very deep into the craft, which made him to become the master craft in 1930. 

Simmons was able to take charge and handle the craft business well at the sick absence of Peter for a while. At that time, Simmons was able to successfully fix three huge metal tubs for the Johnson Coal Company. This great work made his salary to rise from $4.00 to $17.50. 

With his huge accrued wealth of experience in blacksmithing in the lates 1930s, Simmons later delved into decorative wrought iron. 

Simmons got his first decorative job in Charleston by an installation at 9 Stolls Alley, and “it exemplifies the local style of ornamental wrought ironwork in the city,” according to a report by the National Endowment for the Arts

“Topped by an overthrow of spear points, it has S and C scrolls, two of the major motifs in the Charleston tradition,” the report also added.

Simmons has since that very time worked on numerous decorative pieces, including gates, fences, handrails, window grills, and balconies. He was able to fashion more than five hundred decorative pieces of ornamental wrought iron.

In 1982, Simmons was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts, which is the highest rank of award to be conferred on a local artist. Subsequently, he was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the South Carolina State Legislature, and the commissioning of public sculptures by the South Carolina State Museum and the Charleston City. 

In recognition of his landmark success in craftsmanship, he was a recipient of several awards and recognitions; Simmons was inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame in Myrtle Beach, SC on January 31, 1994; “The Order of the Palmetto”, South Carolina’s highest award, was also presented to him on August 11, 1998, by Governor David Beasley; In 2001, Simmons was the recipient of Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Governor’s Award for “Lifetime Achievement in the Arts”; On May 12, 2006, he received the Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts by South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, his website added.

Several art houses and museums have been able to acquire pieces of his work, such as, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution; the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, NM; the Richland County Public Library, Columbia, SC, and the Atlanta History Center, Atlanta, Georgia.

Simmons officially retired at the age of 75, but he continued mentoring younger craftsmen until his death in 2009, at age 97. 

An exclusive documentary on Simmon’s life titled ‘Keeper of The Gate’, won the 1995 Southeastern Regional Emmy Award in the category of Cultural Documentary.

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