Charleston’s architecture is what makes the city the most charming of southern belles. It’s beloved for horse-drawn carriages, light-colored antebellum houses and more history than any book you ever read in high school. Charleston, South Carolina is a romantic little city along low country waterways is known for its rich cuisine, maritime story, and as the holy city for its 400 church spires. These things are anchored by architecture preserved and immaculately restored over hundreds of years.
No place else can you stroll through the residential streets and admire the homes and gardens with the feeling that you have stepped back in time. It’s unique because few places have such an extensive collection of historically preserved homes in one area – and because of what it makes us realize about ourselves and our past.
While each home is different, many have similar elements: floor-to-ceiling windows, big porches on multiple levels, extensive gardens, pastel colors, ornate staircases, and decorative ironwork. Being built in the 1670s, the neighborhoods include carriage houses and various outbuildings and cobbled alleys with many details and hidden features waiting to be discovered.
I stayed in Charleston for a month and one of my favorite things to do was walk up and down the old blocks in the historic districts. While there, I learned a few things about these old houses and the uber-rich people who lived in them.
1. THESE CHARLESTON-STYLE HOMES ARE UNCHANGED FOR A CENTURY
I took a carriage ride in the Charleston historic district for the first time. It’s the most popular thing to do in downtown Charleston. The residential areas are extensive, and the carriages are the perfect speed for covering the most area, plus the guides know what’s what. My driver, Austin, pointed out the remains of the city barrier walls that I would have never noticed. At its founding, Charleston was a fortified city enclosed within brick walls. The city dismantled them after the Revolutionary War, but you can still see where they used to be if you know where to look.
Speaking of war, Austin said that’s why most of historic Charleston’s architecture still exists. After the Civil War, the owners abandoned them. They were left untouched for many years. When the city was repopulated, much of its history was intact and the historic society sought to preserve it.
Now, there are strict rules about making changes to the houses.
2. UNIQUE PORCHES CALLED PIAZZAS AND DOUBLE STAIRS
I noticed two distinct porch styles repeated often in Charleston’s architecture. Many houses are a “Charleston single house,” meaning it has a long narrow side with a roof along the street with porches that run their length. The porches, called piazzas, are on the south or west side of the house to catch the wind. These were often wood houses, three or four stories tall, with various architectural styles. Each, however, had a door at the top of the exterior stairs that seemed rather senseless until Austin explained.
He said during colonial times; puritan sensibilities meant that women must cover themselves head to toe. If any man were to see a scandalous ankle, he might be obligated to marry her. Since it is often blazing hot in the summer, women would sit on the porch to catch the breeze. The door prevented anyone from accidentally seeing her ankles. I wonder what colonial society would think of how women dress today?
Likewise, the double staircase. Many of these homes had two connecting staircases leading to the main entryway—one on each side of the door. You might have guessed—those pesky ankles. One side was for ladies and the other for men, to keep them from seeing any ankles as the woman lifted her leg and dress to ascend.
3. DETAILED WROUGHT IRON
The ironwork in Charleston is something worth noticing. The city has a large amount of wrought iron – which I learned is different than cast iron because it’s hand-hammered. Cast iron is mass-produced from molds. I saw wrought iron adorn many graceful gates and elegant windows in Charleston. Even the boot scrapers were made of wrought iron.
The city features a bizarre number of chevaux-de-frise on fences. They’re sharp spikes on top of fences meant to keep you out or kill you if you try to climb over. They also have ornamental wrought iron grilles set into brick walls called clairvoyée that allow the passersby to view the garden.
You won’t see as much decorative wrought iron in any other city in America that I’ve found.
4. CHARLESTON-STYLE COLORS
Charleston homes are well-known for their light coastal pastel colors. None are more famous than Rainbow Row along Bay Street, where each townhouse is painted a different pastel shade. To me, the residential homes in pale yellow, blue-grey, sandy beige, and faint coral are of more interest. What other city has a color pallet that is so appealing? What other city has a color pallet at all? Maybe Key West.
5. CHARLESTON ARCHITECTURE RESTORATION AND PRESERVATION
The best thing about Charleston’s architecture is that it exists. Saving it and keeping it a passion everyone who lives, associates with and visits the city is passionate about.
You can pay to go inside several homes, and I went in two, one restoration and one preservation. The difference is a hot topic in historic districts, and I’ve learned not to ask too many questions. (I once wondered if or when a preservation might have some paint restoration and pissed off a guide).
- Preservation means they’ve left the house or property exactly as they found it, not even touching up the peeling paint, or changing anything, only doing enough repairs to ensure the property does not fall into further disrepair.
- Restoration means restoring what they have found to match a specific period to the best of their knowledge and ability. This might include sourcing rare materials, recreating patterns and designs and rediscovering old paint colors and other details.
6. AIKEN RHETT HOUSE PRESERVATION
At 48 Elizabeth Street, the Aiken Rhett house is a Charleston single house, though to call a “single” anything seems deceiving. The house is enormous. It was built in 1820 and, after many additions, takes up most of a city block.
The property is doubly unique because it includes fully preserved enslaved people quarters behind the house, which is where the tour begins. A self-guided audio tour starts in the yard and takes you through the kitchen, laundry, and stables. It recounts the lives of the enslaved people as best they could from poor records. It was a refreshing perspective on the history that didn’t immediately focus on the wealth and grandeur of the times as most do.
Once you’ve finished touring the yard, you head up a tall staircase inside the house.
The audio said that this home abandoned and fell into disrepair after the Civil War. Because it was properly closed, it self-preserved. Despite their faded colors and worn fixtures, the rooms were grand spectacles.
7. NATHANIEL-RUSSELL HOUSE RESTORATION
Historians have restored the Nathaniel-Russell, 51 Meeting Street, to its 1808 glory. They’ve repaired and replicated very inch, including the furniture and accessories, as they were during that period. It is considered one of America’s most critical neoclassical houses.
If we’re talking about Charleston’s architecture, I’d be remiss not to mention the famous cantilever staircase in this home. It’s a free-floating, three-story cantilevered staircase with each step supporting the one above and below it. It creates a graceful “S” shape throughout the entire center of the house.
8. A PEEK INTO HOW UBER-RICH PEOPLE LIVED
Homes like these were for entertaining, visiting, and garish parties. Not for living as we do today. There were more spaces for showing off wealth and placing elaborate displays of art and finery than there were to sit.
Despite their size, there isn’t much to these houses. They’re gilded to the gills. People wanted showcase homes to impress, but there aren’t many rooms inside, just a few big fancy ones.
Charleston’s architecture gives us a rare and wonderful opportunity to live in history and explore these questions. To live like the richest and, lately, to better understand the enslaved. That makes it some important architecture worth seeing.