Student Tanya Matthews clasped the colossal page with both white-gloved hands and slowly began to turn.
What greeted the international studies major on the other side? A three-foot long image of ducks.
“I’m so excited students are actually using these,” says donor Katie Levi, eyeing, with Matthews, the birds’ emerald feathers and chestnut flanks.
The ducks depicted – North American shovelers – are common, found in shallow wetlands and marshes across the Palmetto State. The image itself, however, is anything but.
“Drawn from nature by J.J. Audubon,” says Harlan Greene, head of Addleston Library’s Special Collections, reading aloud the caption tucked below the spoonbills’ webbed feet.
Yes, that Audubon – John James, the famed naturalist and illustrator of Birds of America whose name is synonymous with avian art and the wildlife conservancy bearing his name.
During her visit to Special Collections this past January, Levi donated a double elephant folio reproduction of Audubon’s seminal work first printed between 1827-1838.
Bound in dark green leather and heavily stamped in gilt, the facsimile features 435 life-size portraits of every bird then-identified in the United States. “Double elephant” is a printer’s term referring to the size of the facsimile’s four folios, each of which stand a staggering 40 inches tall.
Many Cougars will be familiar with Audubon’s work – modern prints perch in homes and hotels across the Holy City as well as in the College’s historic King George IV Inn.
The College of Charleston Foundation in fact owns a complete original set of Birds of America, one of an estimated 120 still intact today. As part of a perennial display in Special Collections, the four folios take turns in a secure glass case.
This treasure is necessarily restricted. In 2010, an identical set sold at Sotheby’s in London for $11.5 million, the second highest price ever paid at auction for a single printed work.
The Pentagon-level protection required by the original Birds of America is what makes Levi’s donation of a full-size facsimile so important for students and researchers. It is meant to be touched.
“Mrs. Levi’s generous gift allows our patrons to experience the collection without there being any chance of damaging the too-valuable originals,” Greene says. “It’s as close as possible to getting up close and personal to one of the most magnificent works ever published.”
Flipping through the flock of folios during Levi’s January visit, one can’t help but wonder: How did this set make its way to her in Sumter, South Carolina?
The answer comes down to a bird. But not the Carolina Parrot or some other rare and resplendent flying fauna. Rather, it’s that most common of our feathered friends: Columba livia domestica, the domestic pigeon.
The story begins with Levi’s father-in-law, Wendell Mitchell Levi, Sr.
A proud and athletic alumnus of the College (Class of 1912), he captained the Cougars’ track, baseball and basketball teams during his senior year. The latter he led to local and state championships. His robust frame and coiffed hair make him easy to spot in the period’s yearbooks.
A lawyer by training, Wendell Levi, Sr. served stateside during the First World War as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. He was placed in charge of a particularly important aspect of the Signal Corps’ South Eastern Department: The Pigeon Section.
No, that is not a codeword.
The Great War of 1914-1918 witnessed the inaugural use of airplanes, chemical weapons and other complex industry. But when it came to battlefield communication, the pigeon still carried the day. At least 600 American birds saw service in France. One in particular – Cher Ami – received the Croix de Guerre for conspicuous gallantry.
Following the conflict, Wendell Levi initially returned to his law practice. But his professional and personal lives merged in 1923 when he helped found the Palmetto Pigeon Plant. It quickly became – and remains – one of the world’s largest squab producers.
“Daddy Levi was the pigeon man,” says Katie Levi.
A compelling case could be made. Wendell Levi penned a series of monographs still consulted today. Pigeon fanciers from around the globe flew to works such as The Pigeon and Making Pigeons Pay, among others for guidance about the birds’ breeding, training, racing, care and commercial applications.
Wendell Levi, Sr. himself was confident in the appellation’s accuracy.
“His mail was addressed to ‘Levi the Pigeon Man’,” reveals Katie Levi.
For a sense of the pigeon’s popularity at this time, consider that the bird had its own magazine, The American Pigeon Journal. Such was the volume of reader queries that the magazine established a “Questions and Answers” department. And who served as its editor for nearly 50 years? Who else but the Pigeon Man, Wendell Mitchell Levi, Sr.
Later in life, Wendell Levi, Sr. donated to the College’s libraries his immense science collection and professional papers documenting not only pigeons, but poultry science, camellias, genetics and parasitology. Today these materials form important features of the libraries’ Special and Jewish Heritage Collections.
In recognition of his lifelong support, a wing of the former College library – today’s Robert Scott Small Building – bears Wendell Levi, Sr.’s name. (The inscription is visible directly west of Clyde the Cougar on Cougar Mall).
“Daddy Levi was determined to be at the wing’s dedication and went to bed happy that night,” remembers Katie Levi. “It may have been the last time he stood on his feet.”
We can be fairly certain that Wendell Levi, Sr. would have taken a particular shine to plate no. 62 in Birds of America,which depicts the now-extinct passenger pigeon. But the provenance of the facsimile is traced not to “Daddy Levi” but his son, Dr. Wendell Mitchell, Jr.
A Family Legacy
The younger Levi – Katie Levi’s husband – inherited his father’s interest in all things avian. A general and thoracic surgeon by training, Wendell Levi, Jr. raised a variety of fowl at Sumter County’s Sans Souci Plantation. He purchased the Audubon facsimile for his family’s enjoyment. And there, in Sumter, it would reside for nearly three decades.
Dr. Wendell Levi, Jr. passed away in 2015. To honor his legacy, Katie Levi donated not only the Birds of America facsimile, but also several linear feet of family papers to Special Collections. Katie Levi accompanied their delivery to Addlestone Library on Jan. 25, 2018. The date held an especial significance: It was the 60th wedding anniversary of Katie and Wendell Levi, Jr.
“[Bringing the Birds of America and family papers to the College] made our anniversary a very happy day for me. [Wendell Levi, Jr.] would have been pleased and honored,” she says. “And it would make both of them [father and son] happy to know they live in a place where people can see and enjoy them.”
The facsimile is currently being processed with the cataloging of each folio and preparations for use by patrons. Once available in Special Collections, the set will join the annual Wendell M. Levi Scholarship and Levi Family Papers in providing unique resources for the College community.
“Through their commitment to making accessible our shared documentary heritage – especially those items traditionally off-limits to all but a fortunate few – the Levi family’s multi-generational support represents the mission of the Libraries in action,” says John White, dean of the College of Charleston Libraries. “Such support is as rare as an original copy of Birds of America.”