A fact that could be news to many people—even many Southerners—is that Charleston, South Carolina, was at one point in the 1700’s the wealthiest city in the American colonies. A strong rival with Boston and Philadelphia for the epicenter of trade and culture, Charleston eventually became the South’s leading port city and held greater wealth than its northern counterparts. The reasons for this were complex but centered around the lucrative trade South Carolina planters did in rice, tobacco, indigo, and cotton; however, the results of this wealth were profound. Cultural societies such as the secretive Saint Cecilia Society which began as a music-promoting group that hosted concerts but turned into a leading social institution of the gentry were one consequence of this affluence, but no result was as apparent or lasting as the architecture of the city itself. This architecture has left an impact on daily life and the lore of the city alike: Charleston’s nickname is “the Holy City” due not to overly-pious citizens but to its abundance of churches, many with tall steeples dotting the skyline. What is more, it’s not uncommon to meet someone who lives in a home built around 1750. That level of tangible, physical history is so rare nationwide but is really the core basis for what Charleston is even today.
Yet all the same, there is a danger with cities this old with so much impressive architecture from colonial times through the Civil War to overlook equally worthwhile twentieth century accomplishments. Architecture is meant to be functional, to serve a purpose beyond aesthetics, and that mandate of function has been met splendidly in historic Charleston, despite tremendous demands placed on such architecture. Three major schools—the Citadel, the College of Charleston, and the Medical University of South Carolina are entwined in the mesh of the historic district, and buildings such as the Marlene and Nathan Addlestone Library and the Roper Hospital, despite their modern design and large size, manage more or less to live in harmony with much older surroundings. Education has always been important—crucial, we can even say with surety—to Charleston: aside from the universities already mentioned, the Porter-Gaud School has since just after the Civil War offered outstanding high school-level (and later, K-12) private education. The pride of place for education in the broader fabric of the community is only matched by another lofty institution—that of justice. Schools, their libraries, and the courts and their associated architecture including law firms—many in the hands of grandchildren or great-grandchildren of their founders—form a bulwark of tradition and sense of structure for Charleston. Architecture is the outward façade of that legacy to the naked eye.
Beyond institutional architecture, residential architecture also sought to impress and codify concepts of power and accomplishment, especially in a city as wealthy as Charleston. The merchant class at the onset of Charleston’s rise to affluence were mainly involved in import/export trade, so their physical offices were not always elaborate, ornate, or even that large. It was thus with their homes that they impressed their fellow citizens and attempted to convey a sense that they, despite living in the thick of the city, were as sophisticated as the landed gentry of the plantations to the west. Planters also would invest in homes in Charleston in some instances and certainly in any case were frequent visitors to the city to conduct business and see friends. In the book Twilight on the South Carolina Rice Fields, a collection of letters of the Heyward family during the time of the Civil War (edited by Peter Coclanis), it is clear from their constant letter-writing that members of this influential family were often engaging in travel and had been in such patterns long before the war brought about changes in their lives. They were not unique: regional travel (as well as travel overseas) was common for those with the means to do so and from the colonial period onward to the Civil War; given the production-oriented nature of South Carolina and its agricultural economic base, travel to Charleston was necessary and Charleston also served as a primary port for trade.
Houses such as the Nathaniel Russell House (now a museum operated by Historic Charleston), the Mile Brewtown House, and the Thomas Rose House all showcase what ample wealth could accomplish in the time period between the end of the colonial era and the birth of a young nation, when Charleston’s role in trade was flourishing. The Russell House (1808) displays a combination of northern influence (as Russell was from New England), an emphasis on the Brothers Adam style of interior finishing and decoration, and is widely-considered one of the finest extant examples of a Neoclassical residence from this period in America. This house didn’t come cheap, either, costing Russell $80,000 in the money of his day, which of course would be an enormous fortune of almost unfathomable size in current dollars. As Charleston’s native high society became both more sure-footed and more pragmatic in addressing the heat and humidity of their climate, the Charleston single house style—one of Charleston’s greatest contributions to American architecture—came about. This style is defined by its layout of rooms, with a street-fronting narrow façade boasting a gabled end but with an elongated side tracing often the length of the lot back from the street. This form allowed for positioning on narrow lots plus the use of open piazzas (porches) that provided for good air flow, as such was most welcome prior to air conditioning. The aesthetic styles of the Charleston single house were varied, but the Federal style was quite common as were Victorian and Neoclassical variants. Tall ceilings—sometimes up to fourteen feet in height or even greater—were another common feature of the Charleston single house approach. And yes, there are Charleston double houses too, though these designs do not depart that much from like-minded concepts elsewhere in the South as do the unique single house designs.
Churches, such as St. Matthew’s Lutheran and St. Philip’s Church, also display a timeless sense of grand scale and ornate detail. Architect John Henry Devereux who designed many leading buildings in Charleston including the Gothic-revival St. Matthews, and architects Joseph Hyde and Edward Brickell White who designed St. Philip’s, were all very concerned with an emphasis on height, robust strength, and imposing size for their churches—St. Matthew’s indeed remained one of the tallest buildings in the state for decades due to its towering spire. These churches and many others were integrated into a mainly residential and commercial area north of Broad Street (the area south of Broad down to the Battery is almost fully residential). One of the most-interesting aspects of Charleston’s architectural evolution has been how this commercial district has remained a retail core: Like everywhere in America, shopping malls appeared from the 1950’s onward and shops left Main Street, but Charleston’s shops hung on in decent-enough numbers, and over time those which left have drifted back to the shopping area around King and Meeting Streets. Even as people moved into the suburbs, Charleston had several unique advantages allowing downtown retail to remain and thrive: For one, the colleges, which provided the city students less likely to drive for shopping and for another the increasing draw of tourism plus the lovely homes downtown which begged to be inhabited. The fine design aesthetics—Neoclassical, Federal, and Georgian styles vying for the eye’s attention—found in the façades of King and Meeting Streets’ stately buildings also helped shops remain or come back, as the grand architecture here was its own sign and advertisement all in one and could not be beat by anything a generic mall could offer.
Another aspect of downtown Charleston that favors a walkable retail experience is the retention of a number of older, classic store signs and the nearly-constant presence of a high degree of architectural detail. The use of wrought iron is another feature of Charleston’s architecture that spans and unites various decades and entire periods of construction while also reminding one of the wealth the city has always had, and in commercial buildings, the key function of the businesses these buildings house to keep the city affluent. Balconies with iron railings, often of functional intent but rarely spanning more than a single bay and often not connected with other balconies on the same level, are common in Charleston. You will find a great deal of brick and iron, as well as ornate stone-work, in Charleston—all materials that have throughout time been quite costly. While the Neoclassical, Federal, and Brothers Adams influences are seen in buildings from the 1790’s to 1840’s, and these influences can be traced back to trends in New England and Europe, you will also see many ways in which Charlestonian architects and their patrons have put unique native touches on the architecture, as if to say “not only can we afford the best, we also have the sophistication to do it our own way instead of in imitation of someone else”.
Such a statement would be very accurate: architects like John Henry Devereux, who began his career as a humble plasterer but became a leading architect in the region, set a path for later architects and designers who have made Charleston known as a hub of design and class in the South. When those large buildings necessary for hospitals and the colleges were constructed, they kept in mind the smaller yet stately scale of Charleston’s extant architecture—a point of importance that cannot be over-stressed, as it has facilitated Charleston’s remaining a beautiful, cohesive city instead of just a city with a lot of beautiful buildings.