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by Taylor Shelby
Charleston, South Carolina
August 8, 2005
The home was built in 1808 for Nathaniel and Sarah Hopton Russell, a vastly wealthy merchant family. As part of the uppermost elite of the city, the Russells were required to do a lot of entertaining in the house, so it is geared for that purpose. There is an air of opulence to the home that is almost overpowering. It is easy to imagine how impressed the visitors in 19th-century Charleston would have been, because the visitors to 21st-century Charleston probably have the same reaction.
This house is beautiful, a fine example of what successful restoration can do for a historic property. After cleaning almost 20 coats of paint off the molding, fireplaces, and intricate woodwork, their vibrancy was once again seen. They then used exact reproductions of the original paint colors (and liberal amounts of gold leaf) to make the molding in the home some of the finest I have ever seen. The detail and contrast are incredible. The formal rooms are truly stunning and would have been a place that any of the merchant elite would have been proud to entertain in.
The showpiece of the home is the remarkable three-storey flying staircase. It starts on the first floor and meanders its way up to the third, giving those standing on the ground floor an uninterrupted view all the way up. It is gorgeous and almost worth the price of admission alone. And you get to use it!! In contrast, you also get to use the back staircase that was used by the slaves. It is cramped and precarious, and perfectly illustrates the double society that existed in while American slavery was the norm.
Here is where my big problem was: there was no explanation. In every room, there was a brief mention of what it was used for, but nothing about the antiques we were seeing or the paintings on the walls (with the exception of two). The entire tour of the house lasted exactly 16 minutes. That’s it! I felt very rushed. I don’t really feel like I got anything out of the tour, except to look at some pretty carvings and some antiques that I can’t identify. Yes, the house is gorgeous and the restoration is wonderful, but for $10, I want a little more than that.
Here’s the website if you want to see some pictures:
From journal House Museums of Charleston
January 23, 2005
The free-flying staircase is the centerpiece of this home and provided a processional route to the upper floors. Built on the cantilever principle, each step is supported by that beneath it and by the support of each landing. It is one of the grandest staircases to survive in Charleston. Next to the staircase, is a spectacular life-size painting of Mrs. Russell.
There are beautiful rooms in the house in different shapes. The oval drawing room is the most elaborate, with a rich plaster cornice in the Gothic taste. There is an elliptical room that served as the dining room and now is temporarily furnished as a library. The bedroom (bedchamber) is small and housed a "potty chair," which was an upholstered chair with a hole in the middle.
The kitchen was in a separate building out back that also housed stables and slave quarters. The garden is a late 20th-century design and was very colorful, with many different varieties of flowers, shrubs, and trees. You can sit outside on one of the benches and enjoy the peacefulness. I sure did! Additionally, the exterior of the house has some lovely wrought-iron work, including balconies on the second floor.
A guide takes you through the house. I thought the guide was great, offering so much information on the house and the family. She was very receptive to answering questions, which I took advantage of. My favorite room was the withdrawing room, I suppose because I really liked the color of the walls.
The house transferred hands many times following the death of Mr. Russell, including Governor Allston in 1857 and the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy in 1870. It is now owned by the Historic Charleston Foundation and through donations and grants will be conserved and restored throughout the years for many to enjoy and appreciate. I recommend purchasing the booklet on the family at the museum shop for $3. I have looked it over many times since I toured the house to get "decorating ideas".
The house is open for tours Monday through Saturday from 10am to 5pm and Sunday 2 to 5pm.
From journal Charleston: The Big Little City of the South
by Mary Dickinson
May 10, 2004
To validate our house tour passports or purchase a tour ticket, we had to walk through the garden to the back of the house to the gift shop. In 1808, when the house was built, it was a separate building with a kitchen on the first floor and slave quarters on the second floor, but has since been joined, by an addition, to the main house.
From the garden, we could see an oval wall on the south side of that brick house, with huge double hung windows enclosed in white iron balconies, that gave a taste of the grandeur inside. The balcony continued along the second story to the front of the house and over the Federal style double doors.
The entrance hall was probably used as an office by Nathaniel Russell, who was a prominent merchant,. Originally from Rhode Island, he wanted the luxury of Charleston and, and although a Yankee, he had no qualms about owning 18 slaves to keep the place in prime condition and accommodate the household. A second set of doors, with a rosette design in the windows, led to the hall with the famous free floating elliptical spiral staircase that went all the way to the third floor.
The oval dining room was off that hallway. Its shape was accented with a polished mahogany oval table placed in the center of the room on an Oriental carpet. The table was set in fine china, crystal and silver. The huge double hung windows were evenly spaced on the curved outside wall. The room was papered in a flat blue-green color and finished with a two-inch wide gold trim.
On the second floor, a fancy oval music room was located directly above the dining room. The four double hung windows on the outside wall had balconies. Faux windows on the inside wall gave the feeling of being in an oval garden house. An upstairs drawing room had double hung windows leading to a balcony on the street side. Robin's egg blue on the walls, with a Grecian design carving painted white on the mantel over the fireplace, was in the elegant Adams style from England, so popular at that time. We were then led to an upstairs bedroom furnished with a bolster bed (most of the furniture was made in Charleston) dressed in a green fabric with a Chinese design. The floors had to be covered and uncovered by the slaves with the changing of the seasons.
From journal Charleston is Charming
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
July 10, 2001
From journal A whirlwind Labor Day weekend in Charleston