Throughout its dramatic history, Charleston, SC has graced the East Coast, luring travelers in search of warm breezes, lush gardens, and Southern charm mixed with vibrant culture and a welcoming community.
Charleston was founded in 1670 as a seaport, prospering by exporting rice, indigo, furs, and cotton. The commercial life along the waterfront attracted settlers from all over, seeking wealth and a life of luxury in this ideal city by the sea. Soon the original British settlers were joined by Irish, French Huguenots, Germans, Dutch, Scotch, and African immigrants, and Charleston gained a very diverse and colorful culture. By the mid-1700s, Charles Town was the fourth largest city in Colonial America and the third largest port, although it outshone all others in its beauty and wealth. Visitors were impressed, claiming that the city had as much opulence and beauty as any in Europe, but with the most polite and genteel people they had ever encountered. The city continued to grow into one of the wealthiest seaports in the country and a favored destination for sophisticated travelers.
Though the city has endured devastating earthquakes, fires, hurricanes, and bombardment during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, Charlestonians have always picked themselves up and rebuilt. After the Civil War funds were tight, so residents retrieved the fallen bricks from the streets and began to reconstruct their houses piece by piece using the original materials. For this reason and because of city ordinances, much of Charleston’s architecture has been preserved over the years. As you can see from the photographs on our walking tour, many of the buildings haven’t changed a bit, and some streets still have cobblestones. From church steeples dotting the low skyline to the elegant mansions on East Battery, Charleston’s buildings have prevailed and stand today as a testament to the strong desire of the residents to preserve this historic record. Streets uninterrupted by modern intrusions present an authentic view of the city’s heritage.
Charleston’s historic streets offer a tempting range of delights, from sampling local cuisine in one of the many fine restaurants to browsing in boutiques and art galleries. The city’s thriving art community manifests itself in an abundance of original work and prints in a variety of styles and mediums. Many galleries are situated in the French Quarter, and if you’re lucky enough to be in the city during one of their Art Walks, you’ll have the chance to wander among them, feasting on free food as well as great art.
Besides the grand beauty of the homes and gardens and the enticing antique shops and art galleries, Charleston is alive with festivals and cultural events. Each spring, Spoleto Festival USA brings theater, dance, opera, and music from all over the world to this two-week celebration of the arts, while the City’s Piccolo Spoleto spotlights local and regional talent simultaneously. Throughout the year, Charlestonians celebrate their many cultures, from the MOJA Arts Festival and the Scottish Games at Boone Hall, to the Festival Hispano and the Lowcountry Cajun Festival. Wildlife enthusiasts flock to the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, athletes come to conquer the Cooper River Bridge Run, Tall Ships Charleston brings nautical buffs to the area, and the Lowcountry Blues Bash showcases great blues music in a variety of venues. The country’s oldest theater, the Dock Street, performs plays and musicals year-round.
Beyond the peninsula, visitors can discover surrounding towns, magnificent plantations and gardens, and fascinating historic sites all the way from Edisto to Awendaw. A short drive from downtown will take you to Boone Hall, Middleton Place, Cypress Gardens, Magnolia Plantation, Charles Towne Landing State Park, or Drayton Hall. Take a boat out to Fort Sumter to explore the birthplace of the Civil War, or visit Patriot’s Point, the world’s largest naval and maritime museum. Or if you just want to relax, the Lowcountry has some of the most beautiful beaches around. Escape to the peaceful dunes of Sullivan’s Island, Isle of Palms, or Folly Beach, located just minutes from downtown.
A Visit to Charleston, South Carolina
While many of Charleston's grandest antebellum homes remain, most of the outbuildings that sustained these early urban households are gone--demolished, destroyed by hurricanes, floods, even earthquakes, or converted into apartments and guest rooms. Because its work spaces survive untouched since the 1850s, the Aiken-Rhett House offers a rare understanding of an aristocratic lifestyle dependent on the labor of the enslaved Africans who comprised half the city's population prior to the Civil War.
A Massachusetts minister visiting Charleston in 1818 wrote that house slaves were so numerous "the Charlestonians are obliged to exercise their wits to devise sufficient variety to keep them employed." Given Governor Aiken's social prominence and frequent entertaining, there was no lack of work for his domestic slaves, who numbered as many as nineteen by 1860. They lived and worked in a block-long lot enclosed by a high brick wall and accessible only from the front gate or rear entrance of the house. Many had specialized skills; it took cooks, butlers, seamstresses, laundresses, gardeners, stable hands, and carriage drivers to manage such a household.
When Aiken renovated his house in the late 1830s, he also made changes to the work space behind it. A workyard paved with brick extended from the back of the big house to the ends of the two larger outbuildings. Archaeological excavation of the workyard in 1985 uncovered an extensive network of brick-lined drains built circa 1840, reflecting the growing concern in the nineteenth century for improving sanitation, particularly in such a confined environment. Aiken also sealed the carriage house entrances to the street, doubled the size of the kitchen house and slave quarters, and added other structures. Unlike the Greek Revival style used in the mansion, he chose Gothic Revival arches, more common on arsenals and prisons, to adorn the outbuildings.
Their configuration is typical of support structures for the homes of Charleston's elite in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Closest to the house is a two-story kitchen house, where food was cooked over an open hearth (later on a state-of-the-art nineteenth-century stove), brought to the warming kitchen on the ground floor of the big house, then carried by servants up a back staircase to the dining room directly above. The kitchen house also held laundry and common rooms on the first floor and dormitory-style slave quarters above. Individual fireplaces, tinted plastered walls, and door bolts in these quarters suggest the preferred status of urban house servants. Mirroring the kitchen house in classic symmetry is a carriage shed and stable, with a hayloft, groom's quarters, and additional slave rooms on the second floor. Two carriages used by the Aikens remain; the horse stalls show signs of alteration to accommodate an automobile.
A chicken coop and the foundation of a cow shed, matching brick structures with gothic arches, are behind the two larger outbuildings. Livestock would have been butchered on site to feed the family and guests during their extensive stays in Charleston. Workyards typically had kitchen gardens, although no archaeological investigation has yet been done to confirm the presence of one here. Set diagonally in the back corner of the lot are two brick privies, also with gothic arches; one is original, the other reconstructed after it was destroyed during Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Taken together, the Aiken-Rhett House and its outbuildings offer a comprehensive and largely unaltered picture of life in the antebellum South, from the perspective of both master and slave on an urban plantation.