The Charleston Inheritance

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Yet one way the slaves undeniably served the purposes of domestic architecture in Charleston was that their hard labor on the low-country plantations created the wealth that built the houses. And in a more immediate sense, their labor within the houses made possible the exquisite rooms and furnishings, for such things require endless maintenance. Houses filled with brass and silver and fine china, with wood floors ever in need of scrubbing or painting, with linens that had to be painstakingly washed and ironed, with crystal chandeliers in need of dismantling and washing every few months to enliven their sparkle, with finely painted surfaces that occasionally had to be sanded and refinished (to name only a few of the tasks that had to be performed), would be uninhabitable without skillful, patient servants, whether the servants are slave or free.

 
 
 

The houses of Charleston, however, speak of other matters than social and economic necessity, for in the end, a house is more than an adaptation to basic needs. Generally speaking, most of the finest houses of Charleston were built within a span of fifty or sixty years beginning about 1760. So far as is known, not one of them was designed by a professional architect in our sense of the word, but they are of a piece, with several qualities in common: dignity, proportion, restraint. The eighteenth-century houses of Charleston, in particular, express a unified sensibility and are one of the most lyrical expressions of that sensibility in America.

The terms that architectural historians use to describe this sensibility, or style, vary. The visitor to Charleston will hear a great deal about the Georgian and the Adamesque styles, which sometimes appear to be synonymous and sometimes mutually exclusive, depending on who uses them. Georgian architecture takes its name from the first three Hanoverian kings of England, George I, II, and III, during whose reigns (beginning in 1714) the English neoclassical style flourished in England as well as in the colonies.

The Miles Brewton house, for example, has one of the finest Georgian facades in Charleston, or America. Its most noticeable characteristics are the handsome brickwork; the double-tiered porticoes and the pediment; and, most of all, the proportions: the balanced placement of the windows; the doorways on both upper and lower porches—the main door with its fanlight and pilasters, the upper one understated and plain. But what makes it so unmistakably Georgian is neither the brickwork nor the proportions but the squarishness, the overall impression of solidity and predictability.

Adamesque is a further development of Georgian, taking its name from the Scottish architect Robert Adam, one of the most successful designers and decorators of the late eighteenth century—or any period. His style is lighter than the Georgian, more attenuated, more brittle. A devoted classicist, Adam was also a worshiper of Roman architecture. But what he admired most in his beloved “Ancients” was their decorative bent. Roman interiors, he once observed, were “all delicacy, gaiety, grace, and beauty.” An example of the Adamesque style in Charleston is the Nathaniel Russell house, also in brick, with its polygonal bay on the garden side, its wrought-iron balconies, and, in particular, its famous “flying” staircase, all curvature and grace and daring.

Whatever name they go by, the Georgian and the Adamesque styles arise from a deep belief in order. This is the counterpart in domestic architecture of Isaac Newton’s perfectly turned universe. Its every line expresses optimism, balance, the sense of proportion, and a self-conscious connection with a rational past. Look again, for example, at the facade of the Miles Brewton house. Here, in an outpost of empire in 1769, a millionaire merchant built a house whose classical portico proclaims its descent from the great Italian villas of the Renaissance as well as the public buildings of Greece and Rome. At the same time, it is perfectly English and in its restraint and elegance pays homage to the English gentleman’s code. This two-story brick facade, symmetrical in every detail, is forthright and masculine. Enclosed by its elaborate wrought-iron fence, it is a domain to itself, and a closely contained one.

No society capable of building such houses as these could long be satisfied to take its orders from a bureaucracy overseas. In the battle for American independence, South Carolina sacrificed more men than any other colony, and Charleston endured bitter years of British occupation. Gen. Sir Henry Clinton, commander of the invading forces, took the Miles Brewton house as headquarters, no doubt because it was the most comfortable in town but perhaps also in hope of stamping out the pride it plainly expressed.