Preserved Historic Charleston Homes Await Architecture Buffs
Across from the acclaimed Charleston Museum, a group of tourists gather at a stately c1803 brick structure: the Joseph Manigault House, built for its namesake rice planter. Ornately embellished fireplaces, fine period furnishings and graceful winding staircases await the appreciative visitor’s eye.
Such finely preserved house museums receive thousands of guests a year across the downtown peninsula—and elsewhere in the surrounding Lowcountry—as tourists travel back to some of the most iconic moments in America’s history. If walls could talk, these Charleston historic homes would share survival stories from both the American Revolution and the Civil War.
While time has stood still for over 200 years within many of their walls, others proudly boast magnificent restoration to original glory days. Architectural feats impress and amaze alongside stories of the families—both the privileged who called the landmarks home, and the enslaved who ran the households. Historical interpretations are awakening to encompass invaluable contributions made by African natives; in contrast with decades-old glorifications, new interpretative panels and tour guide presentations aim to present slavery’s grim reality. Juxtaposed alongside these homes of grandeur, such harsh facts shed true light on the Lowcountry’s true origins.
WT CHS Tip: Wear light clothing during the summer; many properties are authentic in their lack of air-conditioning. If historical homes are your forte, be sure to save time for countryside historic home tours such as Drayton Hall, Middleton Place, Magnolia Gardens, McLeod Plantation Historical Site, and Boone Hall Plantation.
One of the most-photographed landmarks on the city peninsula is Rainbow Row. Built in the 1700s, the buildings originally housed ground floor market shops with residences above. Many myths surround these colorful Georgian Row houses: one tells of intoxicated sailors needing to identify the dwelling they were to sleep by its color; another similarly spoofs the colors aided illiterates in locating shops of differing color-coded wares.
The iconic dwellings actually owe homage to Dorothy Porcher Legge, a pioneer preservationist who in the 1920s—along with her husband, South Carolina Supreme Court Justice Legge—purchased the then former marketplaces at 99-101 East Bay. In varying states of disrepair and neglect, Legge worked privately to inspire revitalization, ignoring bawdry neighborhood street fights, unsightly gnarled shrimp nets hanging from upper windows to dry, and even her fellow Charlestonians who turned their noses in alarming judgement.
Her determined disposition persuaded others to invest in the area; they followed her lead by sprucing up the exteriors with cheery pastel painted hues. A mini-renaissance caught hold, and today the collection of Colonial Caribbean color schemed row houses delight all who visit. Rainbow Row | 83-107 East Bay Street, Charleston.
The Aiken-Rhett House
The Aiken-Rhett House is one of the few truly preserved—versus restored—Charleston historic houses. Explore the layers of the house as they evolved since the early 1800s, when this was home to South Carolina's governor. It is also one of the few houses where you can still access the slave quarters and carriage house. Aiken-Rhett House | 48 Elizabeth Street, Charleston | 843.723.1159.
WT CHS Tip: You can buy the “Best of Charleston Architecture” ticket package at the Charleston Museum for a good deal on tours of the Aiken-Rhett House, Joseph Manigault House, Heyward-Washington House and Nathaniel Russell House.
Joseph Manigault House
Meeting Street is one of the many grand streets to stroll and admire the rich architectural past of Charleston historic homes. A visually intoxicating walk from the Aiken-Rhett House up Meeting Street brings you to the Joseph Manigault House, where a period garden frames the early 19th-century home. Joseph Manigault’s brother, Gabriel Manigault, designed both this house and Charleston’s City Hall in the Federal style, both standing in contrast to traditional architecture in Charleston. Threatened with demolition several times, locals rallied to save it for the enjoyment, lessons and enjoyment of future generations. Joseph Manigault House | 350 Meeting Street, Charleston | 843.723.2926.
Named for two heroes of the American Revolution, owner and signer of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Heyward Jr., and temporary dweller President George Washington, the 18th-century Heyward-Washington House houses prestigious antiques and relics—an original letter written by the former President, and the Holmes Bookcase, considered one of the finest examples of American-made colonial furniture, considered priceless by "Antique Roadshow." Step into the only 1740s Charleston kitchen open to the public in Charleston and enjoy the formal gardens featuring plants common in the 18th century Lowcountry. Heyward-Washington House | 87 Church Street, Charleston | 843.722.0354.
Nathaniel Russell House
Also located on prominent Meeting Street is one of the most striking Charleston historic homes, the Nathaniel Russell House. The first thing you notice is the neoclassical architecture and geometrically shaped rooms, but the most memorable feature is its freestanding, spiral staircase. Interlocking woodwork—viewable to touring guests through a window at the bottom of the stairs—makes this structural marvel possible. Many visitors say the stunning stairs are worth the trip alone. Nathaniel Russell House | 51 Meeting Street, Charleston | 843.724.8481.
The Edmondston-Alston House
A true testament to time, the Edmondston-Alston House remains preserved in depiction of life in the 19th century. An authentic perspective to elitist living prevails through the many original family furnishings and antiques. In sharp contrast, new interpretative slavery exhibits in the kitchen and laundry rooms present a more transparent reality. Look out on The Battery where centuries ago residents peered upon the harbor, or ponder a more permanent view as a guest of the on-site bed-and-breakfast. Edmondston-Alston House | 21 East Battery Street, Charleston | 843.556.6020.
Two Meeting Street Inn
The “Wedding Cake House,” as locals call it, Two Meeting Street Inn has as romantic a history as any dwelling could. Castle and cake-like architectural details festoon its exterior, delighting carriage tour and pedestrian passersby. History writes of newlyweds Waring Carrington and Martha Williams receiving their new home as a wedding gift from Martha’s father. Lavish even for today’s standards, in the day's regalia it was equally extraordinary. Once home for a new bride and groom, the 1800s marvel is now a frequent honeymoon destination for newlyweds; though not open to the public for tours, the Inn is a beautiful sight for Charleston visitors and locals alike. Two Meeting Street Inn | 2 Meeting Street, Charleston | 843.723.7322.
The Charleston Battery
After touring some of the grandest Charleston historic homes, you’ll find yourself at the end of Meeting Street, a stone's throw to the famed Charleston Battery. Pause in White Point Gardens tree-shaded canopy to soak in breathtaking views of, and breezes from, the harbor. The Cooper and Ashely Rivers converge to reveal Fort Sumter, Castle Pinckney, and Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse beyond. Antebellum homes line East Bay and Murray Boulevard, conveying the true Southern spirit for which Charleston is famous. Plan your day to capture the west facing view of one of the South’s finest sunsets, or take an after dinner starlight stroll along the former bastion’s lengthy, elevated sidewalk.
WT CHS Tip: Though this guide looks at homes on the city's historic peninsula, there are more to explore than a single article can mention. Follow our guide to The Historic Plantations and Estates for a distinct flavor. Most are located only a short drive from the city. Our favorites include the McLeod Plantation Historical Site—“a living tribute to the men and women and their descendants that persevered in their efforts to achieve freedom, equality, and justice”—representing all voices, black and white, enslaved and free.
Please contact each establishment to verify opening hours, reservation policies, health requirements, and any other variations as the month’s progress.