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January 23, 2005
It was a self-guided audio tour where a man talks about each room and its old furnishings. With the audio tour, I felt like I was taken back in time. It includes music and sounds that were a part of daily life in the early 1800s. However, because the audiotape was so detailed, I actually broke down laughing in the beginning of this tour. "Now turn around and walk back through the door. Be careful of your step. Now turn right, and you will see the original fireplace. Look up..." I’m not sure why it struck me as so funny, but I felt like I was blindfolded and someone was guiding me along the way. I couldn’t stop laughing.
Most impressive in the house were the huge mirrors and life-size portraits. Built in 1818, Governor Aiken and his wife also furnished and decorated it with many crystal and bronze chandeliers and classical sculptures and paintings they purchased in Europe. You will see many of these objects in the rooms they were purchased for.
The home has a beautiful front balcony, with lovely gardens below. Especially interesting were the original outbuildings that contained the kitchen, slaves’ quarters, stable, coach house, privies (outhouses), and cattle shed. I enjoyed looking at the old vehicles. I could vision how the slaves lived, with fireplaces in their rooms and using the cookware on display (although I couldn't imagine what life for them was really like). I learned something interesting that I hadn’t thought about before: these old homes didn’t have many closets... hangers weren’t invented yet!
This house remained in the family until 1975, when the Historic Charleston Foundation purchased it. They are focused on conservation, rather than restoration, of this townhouse, which showcases urban life in antebellum Charleston.
They are open Monday through Saturday from 10am to 5pm and Sunday from 2 to 5pm.
From journal Charleston: The Big Little City of the South
by Taylor Shelby
Charleston, South Carolina
January 16, 2005
What makes it so wonderful is the preserved patina of the entire place. All of the other house museums have been restored back to their original splendor, but this one has been preserved in the shape Historic Charleston Foundation acquired it.
Walking into the Aiken Rhett House is like visiting the house of an eccentric great aunt who just passed away and seeing the house as she lived in it. There is only a little bit of furniture, the wallpaper is peeling, and the floors are dusty and wonderful.
The home also contains the original kitchens, stables, and slave housing, and you can actually go in a look around. It is like nothing I have ever seen. As far as I know, no other public houses have anything like this. You can actually walk into the rooms that the slaves lived in. It will truly give you an excellent understanding of what life was like for enslaved African Americans.
It is complimented by a wonderful audio tour that comes with the price of admission, allowing you to go at your own pace and assuring you a great tour every time.
Open 10am to 5pm Monday to Saturday and 2 to 5pm Sunday. Admission is $10, and you can get a discounted joint admission with the Nathaniel Russel house.
From journal House Museums of Charleston
by Mary Dickinson
May 14, 2004
Double wide, double hung windows in the sitting room pull up and become doors leading to the piazza on the first and second floors. Nothing has been done to improve the house since 1858 so the windows have missing paint. Wallpaper is falling off the walls. It’s a historian's dream but it gives the place a haunted appearance.
Gov. William Aiken, Jr. was the richest man in South Carolina before the Civil War. In the fashion of the time, he and his wife toured Europe and brought back crystal and brass chandeliers, sculptures and paintings that are still in place throughout the house. Looking up at the very high ceilings in the empty bedrooms we could see the place where mosquito nets had at one time hung over the beds. Mrs Rhett used the former ballroom for her bedroom and had used a mosquito net. The dining room was empty except for a huge highly polished dining table and a painting on the wall. The Aikens bought the house and expanded and redecorated in the 1830s to the 1850s.
The warming kitchen in the cellar hasn't been altered since the house slaves brought the prepared food from there, up the back stairs, to the dining room. In the outbuildings, the kitchens and laundry, with slave quarters on the second floor, haven't changed in over 150 years. The elaborate horse stables and carriage house still include two old carriages, probably the one used by the governor when he escorted the Confederate President Jefferson Davis around Charleston when he visited the city. Only the outside privy has been altered. A white porcelain-flushing toilet had been installed.
We entered the house from Elizabeth Street. That marble entry hall has two sets of stairs leading to the first floor. They curve around a third set going to the stone basement. We validated our house tour passport at the gift shop in the basement and were given earphones and a cassette player and then we were on our own. Docents were here and there throughout the house. One assured me ghosts have been detected. There's no doubt in my mind.
From journal Charleston is Charming
July 27, 2001
From journal Southern Charm in Charleston
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
July 10, 2001
The door was opened by an older gentleman who graciously invited us inside, almost as if they had been expecting us. We were shown down the steps, between the gracious dual sweeps of stairs on either side that headed upwards. There we entered the depths of the building, into a wonderful stone grotto area that echoed our footsteps. It was cool and had the potential of being spooky, but instead was inviting and refreshing. We were directed to the gift shop, hidden there in the bowels of the building, where we were asked if we were going to also visit the Nathaniel Russell House when we said that we had planned to we were offered a discounted pass to both houses. That was a nice treat. We were then given cassette players with the taped tour and headphones and asked to test them. They all worked fine, and we verified that we knew how to work them.
Off we went, wandering about the home. It was great that we could fast forward the tape if we wanted to – but I don’t think any of us did, for we wanted to hear it all! I know that we all used the rewind feature – not because the tour went too fast, but because we were distracted with the beauties we were looking at and missed part of the information the tape was giving us. We did often stop the tape to discuss what we had heard and were looking at. This was the most casual, and because of that, informational tours we took during our visit. We loved wandering about the courtyard seeing the outbuildings and hear about their uses. This is one of the few buildings in town that feels like a plantation – where you not only visit the home, but are also very aware of the slaves that supported the lifestyle.
I guess you can tell that I loved this site, and the ability to make our own tour at our own pace. I have not talked about the furnishings for they are wonderful, but not extremely distinguished from the other historic homes we have visited – and you can get the basic information from the website. I am just hoping to give you a feel for what a unique treat visiting this home is. I do hope you will enjoy it for yourself!
From journal A whirlwind Labor Day weekend in Charleston