An October 2004 trip
to Charleston by Taylor Shelby
Quote: This is a review of the House Museums in downtown Charleston. This does not include any of the plantations on the Ashley River or in Mt. Pleasant.
There are six house museums in downtown Charleston that are open to visitors. One of them I haven't reviewed (The Calhoun Mansion) because I haven't actually gotten around to seeing it yet, but I have been to the other five. These are all magnificent homes that are run by various historical organizations in the city (Charleston Museum, Historic Charleston Foundation, etc.). Most of them are restored back to their original glory and crammed full of beautiful antiques and paintings.
My personal favorite is the Aiken-Rhett House, because it isn't restored. There are still paintings and some furniture, but it is not in mint condition. I felt a real connection to the people who lived in that house. History truly came alive while I was there. They also have the original outbuildings, which is unusual.
If it is a beautiful day, don't miss the Edmonston-Alston House. It overlooks the harbor, and the tour included the second-floor piazza. I could have spent my entire day enjoying the view and the breeze. Paradise.
The Charleston Museum owns the Manigault house and the Heyward-Washington House, and I especially recommend buying a joint ticket for those if you are also visiting the museum. You basically get into one of the sites free if you do that.
If you are going to Middleton Place as well, buy a joint ticket to the Edmonston-Alston House, which is run by the Middleton Place Foundation.
All of the joint tickets can be purchased at any site owned by the same foundation.
The house was built in 1825 and has managed to make it through hurricanes (there are some crazy pictures of the damage done my hurricane Hugo in the house), earthquakes, bombardments, and fires.
It's most notable feature is the huge piazza. On nice days, the view from the second floor piazza is one of the most beautiful sights in Charleston. There is a lovely breeze from the harbor, and you can clearly see Fort Sumter. It is very easy to imagine yourself sitting on the piazza in 1835, drinking mint juleps and gossiping with friends.
The home is full of various antiques of the families, but the most impressive room is the library. It has hundreds of antique books and some really interesting furniture. For some reason, this house, more than any other in Charleston, really gives the visitor a good feel for life in the Ante Bellum South. I'm not sure if it is the furnishing of the house or the accessibility of the rooms, but it feels like you are stepping back in time.
To me, the most interesting thing about the house is that it is still a private residence. The family lives in the top floor, and the first and second floors are open to tours. I can only guess that they are very generous people for opening their home like that, and I am most appreciative.
The house is open Tuesday to Saturday 10am to 4:30pm and Sunday and Monday 1:30pm to 4:30pm.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on January 14, 2005
21 East Battery Street
Charleston, South Carolina 29401
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.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on January 16, 2005
48 Elizabeth St
Charleston, South Carolina 29403
+1 843 723 1159
The house is beautiful and well-stocked with antiques (including a 1680 spinnet, two beautiful canopied beds, and lots of Thomas Elfe originals), but unless you have a particular interest in furniture, I don't know that I would recommend it. The home is small (compared to the other museums), and the tour is short. There is a lovely formal garden in the back and a recreated Colonial kitchen in the original kitchen building, but I'm not sure it is worth the $8 admission price. If you are planning to visit the Charleston Museum and Manigault house, you should see the Heyward-Washington House, because there is a great ticket deal.
The entrance fee for visitors under age 13 is $4, and children under 2 get in for free. The house is open Monday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm and Sunday from 1 to 5pm. Visit www.charlestonmuseum.org for more information.
Member Rating 2 out of 5 on January 17, 2005
87 Church St
Charleston, South Carolina 29401
+1 843 722 2996
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:
Member Rating 2 out of 5 on August 8, 2005
Nathaniel Russell House
51 Meeting St
Charleston, South Carolina 29401
+1 843 723 1623
Charleston, South Carolina