Historical Houses Tour, Charleston

Historical Houses Tour (Self Guided), Charleston

Charleston is steeped in history. Walking the colorful, narrow cobblestone streets of one of America's oldest towns, with its stunningly preserved colonial homes, you can see its story play out before your eyes practically everywhere you turn. Indeed, Charleston is among the most celebrated places in the U.S. to explore fine examples of American architecture and its progression through time.

A veritable architectural museum without walls, the city is home to over 2,800 historic buildings designed in an array of period styles, such as Colonial, Georgian, Regency, Federal, Adamesque, Classical Revival, Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, Italianate, Queen Anne, Victorian and Art Deco, all playing witness to its eventful past.

If you wish to marvel at the extravagance and opulence of the pre-Civil War era in the South, here are some of the best-known edifices not to be missed:

Nathaniel Russell House – constructed at the turn of the 19th century, this historic home is known for its spiraling staircase, detailed furnishings and landscaped gardens;

Heyward-Washington House – a Georgian-style dwelling of Thomas Heyward, Jr., who signed the Declaration of Independence;

John Rutledge House – a luxurious Bed-and-Breakfast with 12-foot high ceilings and Italian marble gas fireplaces, among other amenities, whose ethereal beauty emanates the elegance of a bygone era;

Aiken-Rhett House – one of the most famous Federal-style buildings in Charleston and a unique educational place to learn about the ways of the city's life in the early 1800s;

The best way for visitors to explore Charleston's architectural history is by foot with a knowledgeable tour guide. Although you can now easily do it on your own, thanks to the GPSmyCity mobile app. To see how, take this self-guided walk.
How it works: Download the app "GPSmyCity: Walks in 1K+ Cities" from iTunes App Store or Google Play Store to your mobile phone or tablet. The app turns your mobile device into a personal tour guide and its built-in GPS navigation functions guide you from one tour stop to next. The app works offline, so no data plan is needed when traveling abroad.

Download The GPSmyCity App

Historical Houses Tour Map

Guide Name: Historical Houses Tour
Guide Location: USA » Charleston (See other walking tours in Charleston)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 10
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 4.3 Km or 2.7 Miles
Author: alice
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Edmondston-Alston House
  • Calhoun Mansion
  • Miles Brewton House
  • Nathaniel Russell House
  • Heyward-Washington House
  • John Rutledge House (Bed and Breakfast)
  • Edward Rutledge House (Governor's Inn)
  • William Blacklock House
  • Joseph Manigault House
  • Aiken-Rhett House
Edmondston-Alston House

1) Edmondston-Alston House (must see)

The three-story Edmondston-Alston House is one of Charleston's grandest and oldest historic buildings. Originally of English Regency style, this property was built between 1820 and 1828 by the shipping merchant Charles Edmondston.

A Scottish immigrant Edmondston purchased the low sandy lot in 1817, which was made fit for residential construction as soon as the Battery seawall was constructed, in 1820. He wasted no time building his showplace, boasting a panoramic view of Charleston Harbor and Battery promenade.

This house, made of brick and stucco-faced, is surrounded by a wrought-iron railing fence on top of a three-foot brick wall.

The front staircase leads to the two drawing rooms on the second floor, with the smaller rooms behind them once serving as withdrawing spaces – one for ladies and one for the gents. Also notable are the 14-foot-high ceilings with large window and door openings (for good airflow during the summer) and a library room. Additionally, the property contained a kitchen and servants' quarters, horse stables, and carriage facilities.

Edmondston had to sell the property, because of bankruptcy, in 1837. A year later, Charles Alston, a successful rice planter and producer, bought it.

He remodeled the house in Greek Revival style and added a third story. The Alstons used to receive their visitors on the first floor, while their social functions were held on the second floor. Alston placed his family coat-of-arms on the parapet on top of the east front of the house, the only known example in Charleston.

Throughout decades, the house had been maintained so well that little restoration was needed. As a result, some 90-95% of its original décor and fixtures are authentic.

The guided tour – a unique chance to peer into this and other homes lining the Battery – is worth it, especially given that the price is reasonable for the perspective it offers on what life was once in Charleston.

Opening Hours (for Guided Tours):
Tuesday-Saturday: 10 am to 4:30 pm; Sunday, Monday: 1 pm to 4:30 pm
Calhoun Mansion

2) Calhoun Mansion (must see)

If you are looking for something a bit more unusual, Calhoun Mansion is a good option. Fully restored to its original architectural splendor, the house is also filled with an eclectic array of ancient items, making this property a setting for movies, such as “The Notebook”!

The 24,000 square feet striking Italianate-designed building boasts 30+ opulent main rooms with 23 fireplaces and a ballroom with a 45-foot high ceiling. It was built in 1876 for George W. Williams, a prominent businessman, and was inherited by his son-in-law, Patrick Calhoun, a grandson of John C. Calhoun; hence the common name of Calhoun Mansion.

In 2004, lawyer and preservationist Howard Stahl purchased the property, currently used to display his extensive, eclectic, and – quite frankly – eccentric collection of artifacts and antiques from the Gilded Age. Although unfortunately, none of the original furnishings remain, the recreated woodwork and paneling are magnificent. No photos inside are allowed, but the 35-minute tour of the place is very informative, and the grounds feature some rather charming garden spaces with statuary and fountains.

Opening Hours:
Daily: from 11am to 4:30pm (December through February); from 11am to 5pm (March to November)
Miles Brewton House

3) Miles Brewton House

A short distance from the Nathaniel Russell House, this circa-1760s double house (a reference to the arrangement of four main rooms per floor, separated by a central stair hall) built for Miles Brewton, a wealthy slave trader and planter, is perhaps the best example of Georgian-Palladian architecture in the world. The sinister, medieval-looking spikes running along the top of the gates and fence were added much later, in the 1820s, after rumors of a slave uprising spread through town.

The imposing house, now a private residence, was the site of not one but two headquarters of occupying armies, that of British general Henry Clinton in the Revolution and the federal garrison after the end of the Civil War. Located on two acres, its extensive collection of dependencies makes it one of the most complete Georgian townhouse complexes in America.

On the north side of the house is what is referred to locally as a "plantation lane", along which the property's outbuildings are located. These include period slave quarters, a kitchen, and a pavilion, all joined by an arcade. The large garden space directly behind the house retains its basic 18th-century layout.
Nathaniel Russell House

4) Nathaniel Russell House (must see)

This magnificent three-story, Federal-style, rectangular townhouse was built in 1808 for Nathaniel Russell, a shipping merchant from Rhode Island. The prestigious 9,600-square-foot property displays Russell's prominence as one of the community's wealthiest citizens. Constructed of Carolina gray brick, the three-bay entrance front of the building emphasizes its height rather than width.

Arguably the 'grande dame' of local house museums, it has many intricate details to see and learn. The most important architectural feature is the elliptical "floating staircase," which ascends three floors and is showcased by a golden walled stair hall. The Adamesque ornamentation of the fireplaces' mantles and cornices here is also among the most detailed in the city.

There are three main rooms on each floor of different geometric designs: a rectangular room in the front, an oval room in the center, and a square room in the rear. The second-floor oval drawing room is the most highly decorated one – this is where the women retired to after dinner. Papered in an apricot, it features elaborate plaster moldings covered with 24-karat gold leaf. Though most of the art and furniture displayed inside is not original, it is of the right historical period, with many items originally from Charleston.

To the south of the house is a formal English garden with gravel paths, boxwood hedges, and plants favored in the 19th century. In the rear is the two-story slave quarters that once housed the 18 slaves who used to live and work on the premises.

Nowadays recognized as one of America's most significant Neoclassical structures, this entire property was designated a National Landmark in 1960 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.

Be sure to get here early, especially for weekend tours. Online tickets do not give a time, and the tours are filled onsite on a first-come-first-served basis. The nearby old graveyard is worth checking out before or after the house visit. For an extra fee, you can also gain admission to the sister Aiken-Rhett House, farther uptown.

Opening Hours:
Daily from 10am to 5pm (docent-led tours begin at 10 am, and the last tour is at 4 pm)
Heyward-Washington House

5) Heyward-Washington House (must see)

How can you avoid touring a house once owned by a signer of the Declaration of Independence and where George Washington once stayed? Now owned by the Charleston Museum, this National Historic Landmark is furnished in the fashion of the late 18th century and accomodates a collection of Charleston-made furniture, including a chair that belonged to Revolutionary War hero, General Francis Marion (the 'Swamp Fox') and the priceless 1770 Chippendale-style Holmes Bookcase, considered by BBC Antiques Roadshow experts as the "finest example of American-made furniture."

Other interesting features on the property include the carriage shed, the only 1740s kitchen building open to the public in the city, and formal gardens featuring plants commonly used in the South Carolina Lowcountry in the late 18th century.

Why You Should Visit:
Knowledgeable guides will point you in all the right directions, allowing you too see the amazing craftsmanship of furniture makers and the ball room on the second floor – a surprise to many and a real picture of the the country's early days. Not to mention that to actually stand in the same room George Washington stayed in is remarkable!

Do some research and check out the Charleston Heritage Passport. It will get you into 5 houses, 2 museums, and 2 plantations. You can pick it up at the Visitors Center on John St.

Opening Hours:
Mon-Sat: 10am–5pm (last tour: 4:30pm); Sun: 12–5pm (last tour: 4:30 pm)
John Rutledge House (Bed and Breakfast)

6) John Rutledge House (Bed and Breakfast)

On the north side of Broad Street in historic Charleston, the magnificent John Rutledge House Inn is very close to the old South of Broad neighborhood not only in geography but also in feel. Known as "America's most historic inn", the house boasts a fine old pedigree indeed; built for Constitution signer John Rutledge in the 1760s, it's one of only fifteen homes belonging to the original signers to survive. George Washington breakfasted here with Mrs. Rutledge in 1791.

Today, the tall three-story structure is one of the most popular bed-and-breakfasts in Charleston, having earned a AAA Four-Diamond rating. History is everywhere in this building, but it is also beautifully restored with every modern convenience and elegant, but very comfortable furniture. There are 19 guest rooms, ranging from standard hotel rooms to large suites, which are divided among the main house and the two carriage houses at the rear of the property. The period interior is stunning: Italian marble fireplaces, original plaster moldings, and masterful ironwork abound in the public spaces. The ballroom (open to the public) is used for afternoon tea as well as breakfast.
Edward Rutledge House (Governor's Inn)

7) Edward Rutledge House (Governor's Inn)

On the south side of Broad Street is the Edward Rutledge House, now known as the Governor's House Inn; a National Historic Landmark that is oriented as many Charleston houses are, with a two-story porch facing to the right side. The facade facing Broad Street has a gable at the center of the roof, which is fully pedimented and has modillions lining its outline. An entrance is located in the center of the main five bays, topped by a transom window and gabled pediment, and flanked by sidelight windows. The interior, which has undergone much alteration due to varied uses, still retains some of its original features; the 11 guest rooms all come in classic style with high ceilings, four-poster beds, and period furnishings.

The house is most notable as the home of Edward Rutledge (the younger brother of John Rutledge), a signer of the United States Declaration of Independence. Rutledge, a South Carolina native, was trained in England in the law, and had by the time of the American Revolution established a law practice in Charleston. He served in the First and Second Continental Congresses, and spent time during the American Revolutionary War as a prisoner of war, having been captured in the 1780 Siege of Charleston. He served as Governor of South Carolina from 1798 to his death in 1800.
William Blacklock House

8) William Blacklock House

The William Blacklock House is a historic home formerly belonging to a wealthy merchant, William Blacklock. Although likely built in 1800, Blacklock was first listed as living in the house in 1802 according to a city directory (based on the prior year's information).

A two-story brick structure set on a high brick basement is one of the nation's finest examples of Adamesque architecture, sharing similarities with the work of Gabriel Manigault, though no attribution has ever been confirmed. Blacklock was a member of the committee responsible for the construction of a bank (now City Hall) which was designed by Manigault in the same year.

The building underwent a major restoration in 1937, and was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1973. A year later it was acquired by the College of Charleston, now housing its Office of Alumni Relations, located on the southern edge of the campus. The property additionally includes two outbuildings, each of which have Gothic Revival features.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Joseph Manigault House

9) Joseph Manigault House (must see)

Owned and operated by the Charleston Museum, the unique Manigault House is one of the city's most popular historic houses. Built in 1803 and designed by Gabriel Manigault to be the home of his brother, it is nationally significant as a well-executed and preserved example of Adam-style architecture. A semicircular stairwell projects from one sidewall, and a bowed porch from the other, giving the house the shape of a parallelogram. The gatehouse near the entrance makes for a great conversation piece – another example of a wealthy homeowner (in this case, a rice planter) one-upping his neighbors.

As a whole, the structure and its gatehouse have been initially dubbed an architectural folly. A bigger folly, however, almost occurred in 1920 when it was threatened with demolition to make way for a gas station. Fortunately, a preservation group was organized to stop that from happening. The group would become the Preservation Society of Charleston.

The 45-minute tour of the interior is enlightening as it explains why the house was built the way it was; as a plus, you'll get to see the delicately refined woodwork in the fireplace mantels, door and window moulding, and cornices, reflective of the style promoted by Robert Adam, which differentiated the scale of these elements in domestic and civic architecture.

Why You Should Visit:
This is where you go if you are an architecture fan, not an artifact lover. The fine detail in this house will delight and amaze!

Opening Hours:
Mon-Sat: 10am–5pm (last tour: 4:30pm); Sun: 12–5pm (last tour: 4:30 pm)
Aiken-Rhett House

10) Aiken-Rhett House (must see)

Built in 1820 and said to be the best-preserved complex of antebellum domestic structures left in Charleston, this was the home of South Carolina governor William Aiken Jr., which he inherited from his father, William Aiken, the owner of South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company. The property was vastly expanded in the 1830s and again in the 1850s to include the Greek Revival, Lake Victorian and Federal-style house, a kitchen, the original slave quarters, carriage block and back lot.

The house and its surviving interior offer a compelling portrait of urban life in antebellum Charleston as well as of a Southern politician, slaveholder and industrialist. With the original furniture, wallpaper and woodwork still in place, the only restored room, the art gallery, showcases paintings and sculpture that the Aikens acquired on their European Grand Tour.

While many dependency buildings in Charleston – and most of the South, for that matter – have been demolished or adapted, the Aiken-Rhett slave quarters, with their original paint, floors and fixtures, survive virtually untouched since the 1850s, allowing visitors the unique opportunity to better comprehend the every-day realities of the enslaved Africans who lived on-site, maintained the household and catered to the needs of the family and their guests. If you only have time to visit a few of Charleston's great houses, the Aiken-Rhett should be on your short list.

Why You Should Visit:
The house is preserved but not restored, allowing visitors to get a real sense of an indentured person's life, the residents' world of privilege, and the passage of time. The audio guide is more concise than most live tour guides but gives enough information about the context and details of daily life in Gov. Aiken's house.

It may get rather hot inside, so try to go earlier in the day (they have fans set up throughout the home and you can borrow a hand-held fan at the ticket desk as well).

Opening Hours (self-guided tours):
Daily: 10am–5pm (last tour: 4pm)

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