The entire Charleston Historic District is a National Historic Landmark making it one of the most celebrated places in the U.S. to explore fine examples of American architecture and decorative arts. A veritable architectural museum without walls, Charleston is home to thousands of historic buildings designed in an array of period styles, including Colonial, Georgian, Regency, Federal, Adamesque, Classical Revival, Greek Revival, Italianate, Gothic Revival, and Queen Anne, as well as a number of others.
The best way for visitors to explore Charleston's architectural history is by foot with a knowledgeable tour guide, although it is also easy to explore the compact historic district on your own. As you plan your itinerary, here are a few helpful things to know about some uniquely Charleston building styles and other interesting things you will see along the way.
Unique to the downtown peninsula, the Charleston single house is the dominant residential building type in the Charleston Historic District. Built during the 18th and 19th centuries and adapted from the English row house plan, traditional single houses are detached, one room wide, two rooms deep and at least two stories tall; however, there are also many larger Charleston single houses that are more than two rooms deep and taller than two stories, but always only one room wide. Tiered piazzas, with doors and large windows opening onto them from the interior, run the length of the house along one of the long sides.
Single houses are sited asymmetrically on the building lot close to the corner lot line near the street and positioned sideways with the gabled one-room side of the house facing the street. Because most downtown Charleston lots are narrow and deep, this site plan provides as large a side yard as possible. The piazza is attached to one side of the house, almost always facing south or west for the prevailing sea breezes, which provide cooling and ventilation, much needed in Charleston when these houses were built, especially during the pre-electricity South Carolina summers.
The street-facing door of a single house is one of the most interesting features. Sometimes called a privacy door (see photo), the door from the street leads to the piazza, not into the house. The true front door to the house is located at the center of the lower level of the piazza. Also pertaining to privacy between these crowded city houses, the other long side of the house, which overlooks the next door neighbor’s yard and Piazza, typically has fewer and smaller windows than the rest of the house.
Single houses throughout historic Charleston were designed in several different architectural styles. Two good examples to view from the street are the Poyas House (pictured above) at 69 Meeting Street and the Andrew Hasell House at 64 Meeting Street. Both of these homes are privately owned homes are closed to the public.
Although not as unique as the Charleston single house, there are many outstanding and architecturally significant double houses in historic Charleston. Featuring four rooms on each floor with a center hallway, the traditional double house faces the street. Some double houses have side or front facing piazzas.
A few good examples to add to your sightseeing itinerary include:
Aiken-RhettHouse Museum - 48 Elizabeth Street (Two blocks from the Charleston Visitor Center): Built-in 1820 in the Federal style with Greek Revival features added after 1831, this double house is one of Charleston's best-preserved architectural treasures. Tours are available and admission is charged.
The Branford-Horry House - 59 Meeting Street (At the corner of Tradd Street): This three-story stucco covered, brick double house (built between 1765 and 1767) in the Georgian style is considered one of Charleston’s finest architectural examples. The two-story Regency style piazzas built over the sidewalk were added between 1831 and 1834. The house, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970, is privately owned and is not open to the public.
While exploring Charleston's architecture, visitors will often hear or read about piazzas. Unlike the piazzas of Italy, which are open city squares, the piazzas of Charleston are the tiered, covered porches or verandas that grace so many of the lovely homes throughout the historic district like the one pictured above.
Most Charleston piazzas are located on one of the long sides of the house, almost always facing either south or west. This placement provides maximum shade from the sun and ventilation from prevailing breezes. A defining architectural element of historic Charleston homes, piazzas often feature decorative columns, balusters, and railings in an array of styles.
After suffering extensive damage during the earthquake of August 31, 1886, many Charleston buildings were rebuilt and reinforced with long iron stabilizing tie rods. The rods were inserted into and through the walls and anchored on the outside of the structure with iron bolts and plates.
The basic plates are usually disc-shaped; however, many home and building owners spruced up the plain appearance of the exterior plates with decorative cast iron plates in various shapes. Some of the most popular decorative shapes include crosses, stars, "S" shaped scrolls and lion heads.
Colors Haint Blue and Charleston Green
Haint Blue is a paint color that ranges from a light bluish green to aqua or sky blue. Originating from the beliefs and traditions of the Gullah / Geechee culture of the South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry, haint blue can be seen on many piazza ceilings, window frames, shutters and doors in Charleston, as well as in other Southern cities and towns.
According to the superstitions, a haint is a malevolent and restless wandering spirit, trapped between life and death. Because the spirits are not able to cross over water, these shades of blue resembling the color of the sea were believed to confuse and block any hovering haints from entering the home. An alternate theory suggests that haint blue resembles the color of the sky, thereby drawing the spirits up and away from any occupants in the home.
The sky theory has evolved into another more practical belief that pesky wasps and spiders may be tricked into avoiding ceilings that are painted in haint blue for nesting. In line with this theory, there is some evidence that the original natural ingredients used to make the color included lime, which acted as an early version of today's insect repellent.
Charleston Green is an almost black shade of dark green frequently used throughout the Charleston historic district for painting doors and shutters. According to Charleston folklore, Union troops supplied black paint to help rebuild Charleston during post-Civil War reconstruction. They didn't the government issued black color for their beloved city, so inventive Charlestonians added a touch of yellow to it. The new color became known as Charleston Green and is still popular today. Although at a first glance most visitors perceive the color as black, a closer look in good light will reveal the hint of inky dark green.