|As a port city, Charleston served as a major hub for the import and export of goods. Consequently, a growing merchant class soon matched the already powerful and wealthy planters in size and influence. These merchants traded in everything from rice to indigo. They supported the city's commercial economy with their trade in raw matierals. The members of the merchant class, along with their planter-class counterparts, spent much of their fortunes on property. This included both land that produced saleable products and land used to build homes.|
|The wealthy built large residences equal to their economic might. Planters built city homes to live in during the summer months; the unbearably hot and humid life on the plantation required them to leave. Merchants built equally large homes often close to their businesses at the port. Unlike the planters they would reside there for most of year. These homes, known both as big houses or double houses, were built to accommodate family, hired servants, slaves and guests. Road frontage quickly became a key element to building a home, as larger amounts of it meant greater wealth. The more street-front space a house occupied horizontally, the wealthier the inhabitant. Often the double house took up two, three or even four times the amount of street front than a regular home in Charleston. The most affluent part of town, and consequently, where the largest homes are found is on the peninsular region known as the Battery. Bound on both sides by rivers, it stands at the tip of the Atlantic Ocean. The Battery remains today Charleston's most affluent, sought-after community.|
|Many of the homes originally built in the Battery are located south of Broad Street. Those built in the early to mid 1800s have the highest value. These older double houses are three to four stories high, contain a small set of gardens and sometimes include a large area of yard space. Historically, the properties included outdoor kitchens and a two-story carriage houses, where the bottom served as the family's carriage storage area and the top contained the home of the family's slaves or indentured servants. Decimated financially by the Civil War, many of the South's wealthiest families could not afford the expense of keeping up the home. Some of the wealthiest Charlestonians however were able to weather the Civil War and Reconstruction periods. They kept their large homes in the family, although undoubtedly at great expense to the family fortune. Others divided the homes among family members, sold it to to pay off debts, or tore it down and sold the frontage property to another family for construction of a new home.|
Today some of these houses still exist, although most not completely intact. Many of the old carriage houses are now private homes. Some, like the John C. Calhoun home, have only recently left family ownership. Others are owned by restoration societies, or serve the community as privately-owned bed and breakfast establishments. Because of the Mississippi Delta's more rural nature, the double house's architectural is not a significant part of the landscape, although larges homes do exist there.
In Mississippi there are many plantation houses that rival those of the Charleston culture in size, but these homes are not a result of urbanization; rather, they are a product of a state of permanent rurality. In Mississippi a self-contained rural existence fostered the creation of big houses that lack the architectural inter-relatedness of Charlestonian houses. The big house in Mississippi is not bound by the same architectural and cultural rules as those of Charleston, although a certain similarity does exist in that they both are the products of a wealthy class.
Other similarities exist as well. The Charleston double house is a produce of the city's urban elite. Cultural interacation among African Americans occur outside this environment and within other areas of the city that are traditionally more concentrated with other African Americans. The large Mississippi homes provide the planation with all the necessary parts of life except that of interaction among African Americans. In Mississippi this takes place outside of the home as well. It occurrs in the sharecropping and tenant houses, free from the watchful eye of the white superiors. Thus, both extremes, the rural and the urban produce the same effect in terms of African American interaction. That is, it always takes place almost exclusively outside of the big house environment.
The Charleston Historical Society maintains a list of preserved houses on its registery many of which serve as the main attraction for the city's tourists.
Built in 1825 by wharf owner and rice merchant Charles Edmondston, the pink house is named the Edmonston-Alston House and is the Battery's first home.
The second photo, the Nathanial Russell House stands in tribute to the Russells, another well-known merchant family who lived in the Battery park district.
Lastly, the Aiken-Rhett House is a prime example of what preservationists call an 'urban plantation.' Constructed in 1818 by merchant John Robinson, Governor William Aiken Jr. added to the home in in the 1830s and 1850s and it remains today in its 1858 form.
Keep Learning about Charleston Architecture:
Take a tour of Charleston's most famous city houses: click here
Learn more about the city's African-American culture at the College of Charleston: click here
Keep up to date on Charleston's newest building preservation ventures: click here
View more of the city's most famous homes, both in the battery and beyond: click here