[One of the Lowcountry’s feature writers, Patra Taylor, describes some of the magnificent homes open for tours in the Charleston area.]
In the footsteps of heros
To wander the streets of Charleston is to walk in the footsteps of Revolutionary War heroes, signers of the Declaration of Independence and authors of the United States Constitution. Many of the buildings still bear their names; their descendants still live and work here. Charlestonians are quick to point out that while other “Colonial towns” may be replicas, Charleston is the real thing, a city whose people and architecture have survived the ages and prevailed through the best–and worst–of times.
By the early 1700s, the port city of Charlestown was a thriving trading center, which attracted planters, tourists, and traders to the city for business and pleasure. Wealthy merchants constructed impressive homes along the city’s narrow streets, their fortunes made in cash crops like rice, indigo, and later cotton. By the end of the 18th century, Charleston was one of the wealthiest cities in the colonies. Today, a peek through an iron gate might offer a glimpse of a European-style landscaped garden that has been restored along with the home, to its original design and splendor.
One such home is the stately Edmondston-Alston House located on Charleston’s High Battery. Proclaimed one of the city’s most splendid dwellings, the Edmondston-Alston House was built in 1825 by Charles Edmondston. The Regency-style home was a gracious example of the early 19th century commitment to elegance, style, and comfort. This neoclassic house was one of the earliest constructed in the developing waterfront location which became known as South of Broad. In 1837, the home was purchased by Charles Alston, a member of a well-established Lowcountry rice-planting dynasty. Alston modified the appearance of the house in the fashionable Greek Revival style. The house was the Alston city residence for more than eight decades and remains in the family to this day. The Edmondston-Alston House is operated by Middleton Place Foundation.
Another South of Broad treasure is the Calhoun Mansion. Built by George W. Williams in 1876, the Italianate design is atypical for Charleston. Rescued and restored in 1976 after years of neglect, this 24,000-square-foot manison with 35 rooms is the largest private resident in Charleston. It features 14-foot ceilings, ornate plaster and wood moldings, elaborate chandeliers, piazzas on three floors, a stairewell that reaches to a 75-foot domed ceiling, as well as a grand ballroom with a coved glass skylight that is 45 feet high. Lush gardens surround the house.
Completed in 1808, the Nathaniel Russell House is recognized as one of America’s most important neoclassical dwellings. This elegant antebellum townhouse was constructed in 1808 by Rhode Island native, Nathaniel Russell, a successful merchant. Marrying late at the age of 50, Russell spent some of his hard earned fortune creating one of the most prestigious addesses in the city. The spectacular three-story mansion features graceful interiors with elaborate plasterwork ornamentation, geometrically shaped rooms and a magnificent free-flying staircase. Furnished with period antiques and works of art, many of them Charleston origins, the house evokes the gracious lifestyle of the city’s merchant elite. In addition to the marvelous interior, the property features extensive formal gardens. Owned and operated by Historic Charleston Foundation, the house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Heyward-Washington House, built in 1772, was the home of Thomas Heyward, Jr., a patriot of the Revolutionary War and signer of the Declaration of Independence. When George Washington visited Charleston in 1791, the house was rented for his use, which accounts for the name of the house. Furnished with magnificent Charleston-made furniture, the collection includes the priceless Holmes Bookcase, considered the finest example of American-made furniture in existence today. The exquisite formal garden is comprised of plants available to Charlestonians during that period. Located South of Broad, the house was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1978. Today it is owned and operated by the Charleston Museum.
Built prior to the American Revolution by the city’s most famous cabinetmaker, the Thomas Elfe House is a scaled miniature of a Charleston single house. Elfe, who emigrated from London in the mid 18th century, was considered the best master craftsman of his time, and a contemporary of Thomas Chippendale. Elfe’s fine cabinetry graces many of the area’s historic homes. Tucked away in Charleston’s historic French Quarter, this Georgian-style single house features china cabinets and closets that are artfully worked into each chimney alcove. This private home is also a showplace for 18th and 19th century furnishings. Behind this masterfully crafted historic home is yet another treasure, a beautifully tailored Southern garden bordered by historic brick walls and shaded by an ancient live oak tree.
Built in 1803, the Joseph Manigault House is a premier example of neoclassical architecture. Designed by gentlemen architect Gabriel Manigault for his brother Joseph, the house is one of the most distinguished in the city, capturing the lifestyle of a wealthy, rice-planting family. The interior reflects an outstanding collection of American, English and French furnishings of the period. The restored grounds include a small formal garden and a unique Gate Temple, which was once used as a restroom for a gas station. The house, which is owned and operated by the Charleston Museum, was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1973. It is located on Meeting Street near the Charleston Museum.
The Aiken-Rhett House, located in an area of the city called Wraggsboro, was built for Charleston merchant John Robinson in 1820. Robinson lived in the house for about eight years, but when he lost five ships at sea, he was forced to sell it to meet his financial obligations. The house became the property of William Aiken, Sr. in 1827. Aiken, an Irish immigrant who accumulated a large fortune as one of the city’s leading merchants, used the house as rental property. When he died suddenly, his vast holdings were divided between his wife, Henrietta Wyatt, and his only son, William Aiken, Jr. In 1833, the young William Aiken and his new bride, Harriet Lowndes, made the house their primary residence and began an extensive renovation of the property. By all accounts, the couple made it one of the most impressive residences in Charleston. William Aiken, Jr. ultimately became governor of South Carolina, a member of the U. S. House of Representatives, and one of the state’s largest slaveholders. He was elected governor of South Carolina in 1844 and became a member of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1851. As an intact “urban plantation,” the Aiken-Rhett property’s original outbuildings including the kitchen, slave quarters, stables, privies and cattle sheds. Many family objects are still found in the rooms for which they were purchased. The Aiken-Rhett House is owned and operated by Historic Charleston Foundation.
While all the above mentioned historic homes are open to the public for tours, another way to get a peek inside some of Charleston’s private historic homes is through a special home and garden tour. Two are held regularly during the year.
The Spring Festival of Houses and Gardens, sponsored by the Historic Charleston Foundation, features rarely seen interiors of approximately 150 private homes and gardens in 11 of Charleston’s colonial and antebellum neighborhoods. The Annual Fall Candlelight Tour of Homes and Gardens, hosted by the Preservation Society of Charleston, features beautifully appointed gardens and architecturally significant homes, churches and public buildings from the early Georgian Period to the 20th century.
The agricultural economy and much of life in the South revolved around plantations. Alleyways of live oaks led to the magnificent estate houses and Old World gardens that helped define the gracious living, hospitality and elegance of plantation life for some in the antebellum South. Today, several Charleston area plantations offer a glimpse of this gone by era.
Located in Mount Pleasant, the 738-acre Boone Hall was originally part of a massive plantation, which occupied 17,000 acres. The site was originally granted to Major John Boone, who was heavily engaged in colonial politics, near the end of the 17th century. The plantation remained in the Boone family until 1817, when it was sold to brothers John and Henry Horlbeck. Boone Hall remained in the Horlbeck family for over a century. Then in 1935, the Honorable and Mrs. Thomas A. Stone of the Canadian Diplomatic Corps purchased Boone Hall.
Huge moss-draped Spanish oaks line the half-mile entrance leading to the home. Shortly after purchasing Boone Hall, the Stones replaced the plantation’s simple wooden house with a handsome new house built in the Colonial Revival style with bricks from the long-abandoned Horlbeck brickyard. The 10,000-square-foot house has three stories and a full basement. Unlike original plantation houses, the new one has a full-sized kitchen inside the house, along with seven bathrooms. The first floor includes the kitchen, library, dining room, loggia, and game room. The second floor has seven bedrooms, and the third floor has two rooms, a bathroom, and a full-sized attic. Today, Boone Hall is owned by the McRae family, which purchased the property in 1955 and opened it to the public. Many of Boone Hall’s buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Once known for cotton and pecans, Boone Hall continues as a working plantation, producing strawberries, tomatoes and pumpkins, as well as many other fruits and vegetables.
Completed in 1742 by Royal Judge John Drayton, Drayton Hall stands majestically along the Ashley River. The plantation house is one of the oldest and finest examples of Georgian-Palladian architecture in America. Through seven generations of Drayton ownership, this National Historic Landmark has remained in nearly original condition and is the only Ashley River plantation house to survive the American Revolution, Civil War, the earthquake of 1886, hurricanes like Hugo, and maybe more surprisingly, today’s urban sprawl. With its unique state of preservation and rich, handcrafted details, Drayton Hall stands as an amazing time capsule telling the story of a plantation and community spanning over 250 years.
With its extraordinary architecture, scenic landscaped walks, and serene river views, this 125-acre plantation evokes a sense of timelessness and continuity, adding to the excitement of discovering a true gem in historic architecture.
The Drayton family built Magnolia Plantation and Its Gardens in 1676. Over three decades later, it stands as the centerpiece of Ashley River history, having played important roles in the early days of settlement, the Revolutionary War, and the Civil War. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, stately Magnolia Plantation has what is considered by many experts, “the most beautiful gardens in the world,” offering the maximum color possible during every season.
The Drayton family home is the third to grace the site in more than three centuries of Drayton family occupation. The current main house–the core of which was built prior to the Revolutionary War near Summerville, S.C. and floated down the Ashley River to Magnolia after the Civil War−gives a glimpse of plantation life in the 19th century and beyond. Ten rooms are open to the public. All are furnished with early-American antiques, porcelain, quilts, and other Drayton family heirlooms.
Also along the banks of the Ashley River is Middleton Place, a carefully preserved 18th-century plantation that survived the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and an earthquake. It was the home of Henry Middleton, President of the First Continental Congress; his son Arthur, a signer of the Declaration of Independence; his grandson Henry, Governor of South Carolina and an American Ambassador to Russia; and his great-grandson, William, a signer of the Ordinance of Secession.
The South Flanker, today’s House Museum, was originally built in 1755 as gentlemen’s guest quarters and together with the North Flanker−a library and conservatory−completed Henry Middleton’s overall grand design. The South Flanker is the only surviving portion of the three-building residential complex that once stood overlooking the Ashley River. The flankers, along with the main house, were burned by Union troops in February 1865, just two months before the end of the Civil War. The South Flanker was the least damaged of the three buildings and was restored to provide family living quarters. Repairs began in 1869 and included a new roof, Dutch gable ends and an entry hall leading from the Greensward. By 1870 the Middletons returned to live again at Middleton Place and the South Flanker continued to serve subsequent generations until becoming a House Museum in 1975. Today, Middleton Place, a National Historic Landmark, features America’s oldest landscaped gardens.