On a recent visit to Charleston, South Carolina, I bought a 2-day pass, called the Charleston Heritage Passport, at the North Charleston Visitor Center near the airport, and planned to include as many of the sites it offered of interest to me as I could comfortably manage. On the first day I visited Ashley River Road plantations, Drayton Hall and Middleton Place. For the second day I had a list of 5 historic houses in Charleston proper. I found that several of them had rules against photography inside the houses, so concentrated on 2, the Joseph Manigault House which allowed photography, and the Aiken-Rhett House, which, while forbidding photography inside the house, had such interest and atmosphere inside and out, it deserved inclusion. I offer the 4 houses in the order I visited them.
Day Two, the Aiken-Rhett House:
The first house I visited on Day 2 was the Joseph Manigault House, very near the Charleston Visitor Center where the shuttle from North Charleston dropped me off. Afterward, wanting lunch, I waited for the trolley that, in theory, would take me to my target restaurant, Xiao Bao Biscuit, at the top of my list. Trolleys going other directions arrived and left and I decided, finally, to walk.
Lunch was great, as I was sure it would be, and I walked a block to the trolley stop where I thought I’d give it another try. I waited, and waited. I kept telling myself that if I started walking, it would arrive and pass me by, so I waited some more. Finally, after 45 minutes, it was clear that if I didn’t move I’d see nothing else at all that day and walked back to the visitor’s center, about 20 minutes. The trolley that would take me to my next target was sitting at the stop, idling, with no driver in evidence. I got on, then I and several others got off to escape the fumes. Eventually a driver materialized and we were on our way.
I rode almost to the end of the peninsula that contains historic Charleston, found the Nathaniel Russell House and waited for the tour to begin. After walking us around the garden, the guide took us into the house. I asked for confirmation that picture-taking was allowed and it wasn’t. Feeling pressed for time, I left and continued on to the Edmondston-Alston House, where I was given the same reply. Having saved the best for last, I found myself far from the Aiken-Rhett House and set off again on foot. If a trolley came along, fine. After a number of blocks, one went sailing past me and I ran. It was about 2 blocks to the next stop and, lucky me, it was near the market with a line waiting to get on. I made it and climbed in to find standing room only. Then a miracle, a young man rose and motioned me to his seat. Charleston redeemed.
I arrived at the Aiken-Rhett House on Elizabeth Street in the late afternoon and found the door locked. With my afternoon spent waiting for trolleys that hadn’t come, I’d also apparently misunderstood the hours tours were given. I rang the doorbell and, after some moments, a young woman opened the door. She graciously spoke to the person in charge on my behalf and they relented, giving me and another late-comer the tour. It was a kind thing to do and I was grateful, despite the presence of another silent and disapproving docent bringing up the rear.
The last of the 4 houses on my personal tour, the Aiken-Rhett house had experienced the least intervention, and was the most evocative for that reason. Located at 48 Elizabeth Street in a pleasant neighborhood, a long park dividing Ann Street across the intersection, the house was built about 1820, sold in 1827 to William Aiken Sr, and purchased by The Charleston Museum in 1975 after ownership for 142 years by the Aiken family and their descendants. In 1995 the property was sold to Historic Charleston Foundation, whose approach is one of preservation and conservation, rather than restoration, and why, I believe, it provides the fascinating glimpse into the history of many generations of a family, as well as the city.
A tour of the house takes one through the history of the property, which has endured through good times and difficult ones, when parts of the house were closed and unmaintained, and elegant rooms converted to more mundane uses. Ghosts of bed awnings remain on ceilings, original wall finishes and furniture whisper tales of prosperity and of failing fortunes, while one can almost hear the voices of earlier partygoers on the wide piazza that wraps around the original front of the house, facing Judith Street.
Behind a high wall running along Elizabeth Street was a hidden world, where outbuildings contained the kitchen and laundry on one side and the stable on the other, and above both, living quarters for slaves. It’s a quiet place today, in contrast to what must certainly have once been a place of contained activity, with at least 14 individuals named in a document found after the Civil War, serving the family in a variety of occupations.
Rear of the house (above), kitchen, workshops
and barn with 2nd floor slaves' quarters (below).
While I cannot recommend Charleston’s trolley system, except maybe for those with a great deal of time on their hands, I wholeheartedly recommend visits to the 4 houses I visited, and in particular, Drayton Hall and the Aiken-Rhett House, both fascinating for those with an interest in unembellished history.
For some fascinating information about the house and the history of
its occupants, visit the Aiken-Rhett House website by clicking here.
To read more about PortMoresby’s visit to Charleston SC, click here.
For more of PortMoresby’s contributions, click here.