Charleston Architecture In Historic Buildings

| © Sean Pavone - Alamy Stock Photo
Alexia Wulff

Charleston, a National Historic Landmark, has over 2,800 historic buildings – from homes to cobblestone streets, the well-preserved architecture in Charleston plays witness to the town’s rich history, founded in 1670 as Charles Town on the west bank of the Ashley River before moving to its current location in 1680. It is the oldest city in South Carolina and is exemplary of its progression through time with eight different architectural styles: Colonial, Georgian, Federal, Classic Revival, Gothic Revival, Italianate, Victorian, and Art Deco. Discover Charleston’s quaint and charming character with these eight historic buildings. Did you know – Culture Trip now does bookable, small-group trips? Pick from authentic, immersive Epic Trips, compact and action-packed Mini Trips and sparkling, expansive Sailing Trips.

Colonial: Old Exchange Building

The oldest town in South Carolina, Charleston offers lots of scenic historical sights

During pre-Revolutionary War times, the Colonial style was a popular form of architecture found in Charleston from the 1600s to mid-1700s – features include a low foundation with two to three levels, multi-pane windows, symmetrical façades, pillars and columns, and an entry hall. One of the town’s oldest buildings, the Old Exchange Building – now called Exchange and Provost – represents Colonial-style architecture at its finest. Built between 1767 and 1771, the Old Exchange has played host to a number of civic functions, including a post office, custom house, market, meeting place, and jail during the American Revolutionary War – it was even the meeting place where the state ratified the Constitution in 1788. Today, it operates as a museum by the South Carolina State Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Georgian: Heyward-Washington House

After Colonial architecture came Georgian architecture: square and symmetrical façades with five windows across the front, chimneys, and a centered front door with crown moulding. This style quickly swept the South – Georgian-style plantations began to pop up around town – and many homes followed suit. The Heyward-Washington House, built in 1772, was home to Thomas Heyward, Jr., who signed the Declaration of Independence; it was rented to George Washington during his stay in May 1791, the reasoning behind its name, ‘Heyward-Washington House.’ It opened in 1930 as the town’s first historic house museum, featuring a 1740’s kitchen open to the public, formal gardens with late 18th-century plants, and a collection of historic locally made furniture such as the Holmes Bookcase.

Federal: Aiken-Rhett House

After the Revolutionary War, Federal architecture began to make its way through Charleston from the late 1700s to 1830s. Marked by several chimneys, staircases, balconies, shutters, narrow windows framing the front door, arched Palladian-style windows, and fanlights (usually above the front door with a semicircle window), this style was inspired by Britain and the temples of ancient Rome. Built c. 1820, The Aiken-Rhett House, or Gov. William Aiken House, is one of the most famous Federal-style buildings in Charleston; however, it does have Greek Revival features that were added after 1831 by William Aiken, Jr. It remained in the family for 142 years until it was sold and opened as a museum in 1975.

Classical Revival: Fireproof Building

Classical Revival, also known as Neo-Classical, emerged during a time when the US was establishing itself as a new nation. Before the Civil War, Charleston prospered and expanded, with many plantation owners building elaborate homes to show off their wealth – Classical Revival, with its large columns, high arches, and triangular roofs, is meant to emanate ‘social prominence.’ Although The Fireproof Building, now the non-profit South Carolina Historical Society, was built with minimal ornamentation, it is one of Charleston’s best examples of Classical Revival. Built in 1827, the Fireproof Building held public safety records and, thus, was the most fire-protected building of its time. It was designed by Robert Mills, the first American-born architect, who worked with other important early American architects like Thomas Jefferson, and was responsible for the Washington Monument.

Gothic Revival: The Huguenot Church

Gothic Revival, or Neo-Gothic, emerged as a popular style until the early 1900s, inspired by medieval Gothic architecture – finials, decorative designs, scalloping, hood mouldings with label stops (ornamentation at the end of the moulding), pointed windows, and pinnacles, with a ‘castle-like’ appearance. This type of architecture was popular in churches – located in the French Quarter, Charleston’s Huguenot Church is the oldest church in South Carolina built in the Gothic Revival style. Built in 1844, its congregation has origins that can be traced back to the 1680s, most of which were French refugees; the church still follows 18th-century French-style church services today, but in English.

Italianate: Patrick O’Donnell House

The Italianate style appeared around the same time as Gothic Revival, during the 19th century and up until the early 20th century (during the Reconstruction Era). Features include low or flat roofs, cupolas (domes), symmetrical and rectangular shapes, balconies, eaves (ledges), double doors, tall and narrow windows, and multiple stories. The Patrick O’Donnell House is the best example of the Italianate style in Charleston, built c. 1856. From 1907 to 1937, it was home to novelist and poet Josephine Pinckney, where she formed the Charleston Poetry Society and the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals; today, it remains a private home.

Victorian ‘Second Empire’: Wentworth Mansion

Born during the Industrial Revolution, the Victorian Second Empire style used new materials and technologies to create buildings with ornate decorations, fine details, steep roofs, and colorfully painted exteriors, incorporating certain features from the Italianate and Gothic styles. The Wentworth Mansion, now a downtown Charleston inn, exudes Victorian-style elements with its brick façade, rooftop cupola, and mansard roof. Built in 1886 by Francis Silas Rodgers, the 24,000-square-foot, four-story home now operates as a luxury hotel, restored with its original rooms intact – guests can dine inside the carriage house-turned-restaurant or receive spa treatments in the former mansion stable.

Art Deco: The Riviera Theatre

During the roaring 1920s, Art Deco was a popular architectural style in the US – with the Jazz Age, buildings were designed to emphasize this ‘period of carefree prosperity,’ inspired by cultures from all over the world, including ancient Mayan and Aztec societies. Features include narrow windows, modern designs, geometric shapes, and vibrant colors. The Riviera Theatre, an Art Deco Charleston institution, opened on January 15, 1939, and was the home of first-run pictures until it closed in 1977. The Theatre was threatened with demolition in the 1980s but was saved by a group called The Friends of the Riviera – it was sold to the Charleston Place Hotel and is now used as a conference room and ballroom.

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