- 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
This house is part of public life but hides from it, with its family “stage” hidden behind a door and behind a locked, lacy iron gate and with its functional parts (the kitchen, the outhouse, the storehouses, and the servants’ quarters) compactly concealed in the walled courtyard out back. In one sense it is a democratic house plan because a Single House can be poor or grand, depending on its owner’s fortune, and thus it cuts across class lines. In another sense it is incurably elitist, showing as little of itself to the world as possible and sequestering its inmates as though in a harem.
Charleston’s distinctive contribution to American architecture is the Single House, but there are other fine houses. Some of the most famous are Double Houses—that is, either nearly square houses, with a room in each corner and a central hall, or side hall or twin-parlor houses with grand staircases visible from the front door. Yet there are features common to almost all the notable Charleston dwellings: they all are city houses, affording quick access to public places—the churches, the wharves, the markets—of the town, and they are marked with all kinds of adaptations to city life. The windowless wall, for example, so typical for one side of the Single House, was probably a safety measure. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Charleston was regularly devastated by fires, and if the house next door happens to be ablaze, a wall with no windows, or in some cases only one small window, is much less likely to catch fire.
Furthermore, in spite of their presentday elegance, many of the houses of Charleston were built not only as homes but also as places of business. The downstairs parlor was as often as not a reception room where the master of the house spent his mornings with other tradesmen or sea captains or commercial acquaintances, planning enterprises or counting up profits and losses.
The crushingly humid subtropical climate of the Carolina low country has influenced taste in other ways as well. For one thing it undoubtedly led to the almost universal acceptance of the piazza by Charleston builders. The word comes not, as one might expect, directly from Italy but, like so much else in Charleston, from England. In 1750 Samuel Johnson defined a piazza as “a walk under a roof supported by pillars.” A century earlier the great architect lnigo Jones had built a piazza, or covered walkway, at Covent Garden in London. The word meant “square,” but the English applied it to the walkway and gave it their own pronunciation. In Charleston the piazza, whether it had one or two tiers, provided some shade for its side of the house as well as a secluded and no doubt highly entertaining view of Charleston street life. It also—and surely this was part of its appeal—gave the builder a chance to add some columns and capitals and fancy woodwork to the exterior of his house. The piazza, whether on the front or the side of the house, is to most observers an enchanting feature—breezy and romantic, however functional its purpose.
Sitting out of doors was hardly the chief activity of a Charleston family. A house begets work and must have workers to do it. From the days of its founding, Carolina based its economy on the slave trade and its well-being on slave labor. Charlestonians made large fortunes on the transatlantic slave trade and on the domestic trade as well. Slaves worked the plantations, and they serviced the town houses; the slave population of Charleston was always highly visible. For every white man, woman, and child living in the elegant town houses, there might have been several blacks. One authority estimates that a wealthy Carolina family in colonial times might have been outnumbered ten to one by its servants, at least in the country; in town the ratio was probably two to one. Even existing in a condition of servitude, no population this large can be without its influence. A man building a house for his family and a contingent of servants builds a different house from that for his family alone. In addition, servants in bondage had to be contained. They could not be allowed too much freedom; their owners needed to know where they were. This may account in part for the walled gardens of Charleston, the discreetly locked gates.
Not one of Charleston’s fine houses was designed by a professional architect, as far as we know.
But surely, too, so large a work force contributed substantially to the wellbeing of the city. The tour guides in the museum houses these days occasionally tell their audience that the woodwork or the plastered ceilings or the handsomely carved banisters or the furnishings were created by slave artisans. “Up to 90 percent of what you see is the creation of black hands,” one tour guide recently proclaimed—a theory without any factual basis whatever. Certainly Charleston had its slave carpenters and carvers and smiths, but they occupied the lowest rungs of artisanship. While some slaves became highly skilled as cabinetmakers, most were laborers and apprentices whose employers seldom gave them the chance to design anything. Skilled whites were anxious never to have to compete with skilled slaves. City ordinances, moreover, controlled the number of slave apprentices a craftsman might employ.