- Historic Sites
The Charleston Inheritance
In the quiet luxury of the historic district, a unique form of house plan—which goes back two hundred years—is a beguiling surprise for a visitor
April 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 3
The city did not begin its life as a museum of tea tables and mantelpieces. Rather, it started out as a frenetic, dangerous, dirty seventeenth-century seaport, an English toehold in the new land. Charleston was settled in 1670 on a charter from Charles II of England, the “merry monarch” and father of his people or, at least, as the joke went, of a great many of them. He gave his mandate for the new colony to eight grandees of his court: the earls of Craven and of Clarendon, the duke of Albemarle, Sir George Carteret, Sir John Colleton, Lord John Berkeley, his brother Sir William, and Anthony Ashley Cooper, later the earl of Shaftesbury.
Though their patronymics are strewn around the Carolina landscape, none of these “lords proprietors” ever set foot in Charleston. Nevertheless, their wishes shaped it. The lords proprietors wanted a city planned in advance, laid out according to a checkerboard plan. Charleston was a city from its birth, not some fort or trading post that grew randomly into a town. Their lordships reasoned that a city can protect itself against invaders; it also provides a place for businessmen to congregate and deal with one another. Moreover, the first Charlestonians, laying out their neat streets and setting their houses on small lots, must have felt that civilized men needed to be close, that they needed neighbors and noise in the streets, needed to observe and be observed, needed the bustle of society.
The city plan had underpinnings, for the proprietors had thought of the economy as well. Lord Ashley commissioned his secretary, the philosopher John Locke, to draw up a constitution for the colony. It offered religious freedom and a clean shot at getting rich quick, both powerful attractions for the better sort of colonist. The powers of the slaveholder over his chattels was defined as absolute. The rent on an acre of land was only a penny’s worth of silver; a holding of twelve thousand acres created the owner a baron, twenty-four thousand acres made him a cacique , and forty-eight thousand a landgrave. The headright system also played a part in the acquisition of land. According to the number of “heads,” or slaves, he owned, a man was entitled to land: in the early days, 150 acres for himself and 150 for each manservant. Since news of this sort travels fast, the English who came both from England and from the English colonies in Barbados, St. Kitts, and Bermuda were joined by French Huguenots (Protestants)—fleeing religious persecution by their kings and queens—by the Dutch, by Sephardic Jews from Holland, and by the Scots.
In their taste and manners the early Charlestonians were European, but in their eye for the main chance and their eagerness to display their newly minted wealth in the form of domestic architecture, they were indeed Americans. They built the first American boomtown and managed to keep it going for considerably longer than most. Though the lineal descendants of these first families still revere their forefathers as aristocrats and blue bloods, the old gentlemen were fortunately not too high-minded to make a quick deal or scrutinize a bill of lading. In Charleston in the early days, nobility came not from blood but from business acumen or money. Like everything else, it was for sale.
By the mid-eighteenth century the South Carolina planters, among the richest men in the colonies, had created a city. Horse-drawn wagons, drays, and carriages toiled up and down the streets, vendors shouted, and slaves were sold at the block. Executions and lesser punishments, such as whippings, took place in public, and the casual visitor could pass his mornings watching a pirate be hanged or a criminal branded. Or, failing to find justice being meted out, he might have counted the masts in port and the barrels of rice on the wharves. This was a city where men came to make their fortunes and enjoy the fruits thereof. They were housebuilders by their very nature. They wanted lovely houses, staffed with servants to see to the needs of ladies and gentlemen, very different houses from the gaunt and godly timberframe dwellings of Puritan Salem. Although the planters were, of course, at liberty to build the finest country manors they could afford, the plantations served the city, and every planter maintained a town house as well. Not one house from the earliest days survives, but Charlestonians have historically brought a special genius to the building of their houses. Surely even in the seventeenth century they were honine their skills.
Since a house proclaims what relationships the owner intends to have with his neighbors, building one is always a political act. Perhaps the clearest expression of the American democratic ideal is the house in the middle of a small plot of land, with a front porch where the family sits, as if on a stage, in full view of the world and full hearing of whatever commotion arises in the houses next door and across the street. An expression of quite another political ideal is the quintessential Charleston house, the Single House, of which Charleston has almost three thousand. The house is one room wide and three rooms deep, with its narrow end toward the street and usually (but not always) with a one-or two-story piazza on the side. It is almost a row house, sitting a few scant feet from its neighbors but turning a blank wall toward them, a house separated from the street by only a wall, yet because that front door opens confusingly onto the porch, it finds a way both to give and to deny access.