- 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
Charleston is and always will be a small town, the citadel of a “hereditary Nobility,” as its founders willed it to be. In its early days Charleston was a walled city, and in some sense it has continued as such, though the walls long ago vanished. The boundary markers of historic Charleston today are, in addition to its implacable sense of self, the Ashley and the Cooper rivers, which meet at the tip of the Charleston peninsula, and Broad Street, the third side of the triangle. Within this district, along the streets with their ancient names (such as Meeting, Tradd, Church, King, Legare), stands a high proportion of the important houses of Charleston—important because they are unique and beautiful, a national heritage. Many of them are older than the United States itself.
The best way to begin seeing the houses of Charleston is the simplest. Drive from the airport or the interstate down the peninsula to the very heart of things. Compared with the outskirts of most cities, the northern reaches of Charleston are orderly and presentable. You pass the hamburger stands and motels that you might expect, but here the drab artifacts of daily life are more than compensated for by the vivid sky, the small, neatly laced-up palmetto trees, the oleanders, and the tall crepe myrtles. Something is nearly always in flower, pink or white blossoms against the rich, variegated greens.
The distance downtown is short, and quite soon you run out of freeway and find yourself ejected into a seedy neighborhood on Meeting Street, the main thoroughfare, which runs north and south and probably derives its name from the meetinghouse, or church, farther on down. You pass the Charleston Museum, full of lovely things, and the oldest museum in America. You catch a glimpse, farther south, of the Confederate Museum in a seemly old Charleston building, and then, as Meeting crosses Broad, all at once you find yourself in another world. Like Dorothy when the tornado deposits her in the land of Oz, you may not know exactly where you have landed, but clearly this is not Kansas.
You are in a district so well kept, so freshly painted, so unequivocably of another century as to make you feel like an intruder in a private domain. A number of public buildings catch your eye: St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, with its Roman portico, its immaculate white steeple, and its air of authority both temporal and spiritual; the post office; the city hall; the county courthouse; and, farther down, another church with a neoclassical portico, this one for the Presbyterians. But what defines the cityscape as you proceed down Meeting Street are the houses, two or three stories tall, set so close to the sidewalks that you could put your hand through the windows, set so close to one another that they might be row houses with common walls. Then you see that, in fact, they stand apart from one another, separated by long, narrow gardens shut off at the street end by wrought-iron gates.
The doors to these houses, fitted out with highly polished brass and flush with the street, you might imagine would lead to entrance halls or even parlors. But as you walk past, you notice that many of these doors are not what they seem. If you knocked at one of them and were admitted, you would find yourself not inside the house but on the side porch (the piazza, as they call it here, with soft z ’s and no hint of the Italianate t ). You would go from the outside to another kind of outside. For newcomers to Charleston admitted to what they expect to be the inner sanctum, this is a pleasant shock, a kind of flirtatious, beguiling trait for a house to possess. And it is a trait peculiar to the houses of this city.
The district south of Broad is a kind of outdoor drawing room, carefully managed.
The streets, though a few are still paved with colonial cobblestones, are as pristine as the paint job on St. Min chael’s Church. Except for the occasional eighteenth-century carriage mount, or boot scraper, or hitching post, ordinary street furniture is curiously absent. There are, thank heaven, a few discreet fire hydrants, painted in agreeable colors. You will search in vain, however, for the pay phones, newsstands, coffee shops, and souvenir stands that both humanize and disfigure most cities, particularly those that live by the tourist trade. You cannot help sensing the presence of a female hand here. The ladies of the various preservation committees have completed their civilizing mission. Though Charleston is still a city with traffic in the streets and real people living in the houses, the district south of Broad is a kind of outdoor drawing room, carefully managed. The tidiness is all part of the charm, however, and may be taken as the essential quality of modern Charleston, if any such thing as “modern” Charleston exists.
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.
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.
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.
Like other great houses of America, the houses of Charleston stood for something—a web of values and beliefs, uncounted hours of care and labor, a culture with an impossibly high melting point. Catastrophes of every kind hit this small city. Fires, particularly in colonial times, would swallow up half the buildings in one gulp, and one of the worst conflagrations occurred in 1861, while the city was at war with the United States. Earthquakes have come with terrible regularity, the worst perhaps in 1812 and 1886, and hurricanes and floods have not spared Charleston either. But after the fires the city was always rebuilt, and after the earthquakes the citizenry patched their houses and pulled the frames together with giant bolts, whose blunt ends ornament many a side wall and facade today. After the hurricanes people mopped up the mud and repaired the damages and went on. Perhaps the worst disaster, psychologically as well as physically, was the Civil War, during which the city was besieged and battered with heavy artillery. However, Gen. William T. Sherman did not have time to raze Charleston, and thus the city was spared the devastation wrought on the South Carolina capital at Columbia.
No society that could build such houses could long be satisfied to take orders from overseas.
No visitor admiring Charleston’s fragile-looking little houses today—the lacy balustrades, the tea tables, and the drawing rooms—should forget that some part of the city’s soul is made of steel. Though its thoroughfares may be as exquisite as its architecture, Charleston retains its primeval toughness. “The civil defense people talk of a plan for evacuating Charleston, in case of nuclear attack,” a lady of Tradd Street observed recently. “But I wouldn’t have any idea of leaving Charleston. The hurricanes and earthquakes and the British and even the Northern invaders couldn’t put an end to us, and neither will any atom bomb.” One hopes she is right.