Architectural Ambler: Historic Charleston, South Carolina

This month, the Architectural Ambler travels south to explore historic Charleston, S.C.

Tranquil and quaint, and oozing with colorful charm, Southern civility, and a heady floral aroma, the Charleston Old and Historic District is the oldest locally-designated historic district in the country. The nation’s first zoning ordinances protecting historic resources were passed here in 1931; the district was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960, and was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.

Charleston’s historic district spreads across a small peninsula in the Carolina lowlands first settled by English colonists in 1680. The settlement was originally named Charles Towne in honor of then-King Charles II of England, but was renamed after the Revolutionary War.

Development on the peninsula followed a 1680 settlement plan named the Grand Modell, which called for a more-or-less regular grid of streets to cover the peninsula.

At the peninsula’s southern-most tip is the Battery. Once an arsenal, it is now a pleasant, palm-tree-strewn park overlooking Charleston Harbor. South Battery Street runs across the peninsula just north of the Battery, then up the west side of the peninsula along the Ashley River. East Battery Street runs north from the Battery along the east side of the peninsula and the Cooper River, becoming East Bay Street after a few blocks. Behind these streets is the Grand Modell grid.

The most prominent streets in the grid are King and Meeting streets, which run north from the Battery, and Broad Street, which runs perpendicularly to them between the rivers. The intersection of Meeting and Broad streets was originally set aside for a civic square, but later became known as the Four Corners of Law after the institutional buildings constructed on its corners.

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church – the oldest of Charleston’s many churches – was constructed on the southeast corner of this intersection between 1752 and 1761 in a graceful, classic Georgian style. With its textbook Doric temple front, tiered octagonal belfry, and alternation of smooth Doric pilasters and arched windows wrapping around the exterior, it could be standing in London on Trafalgar Square. The palm trees swaying against its white-washed walls belie its quasi-tropical American location.

Across the street from the church, on the northeast corner of the intersection, Charleston City Hall was built between 1800 and 1804 in the Palladian style suggestive of the villas and townhouses designed by Andrea Palladio in Italy in the 16th century. Like the Roman Coliseum, City Hall features Doric columns at the ground story, Ionic at the second, and Corinthian at the third.

South Carolina’s Capitol was constructed on the northwest corner of the intersection of Broad and Meeting streets in 1753, when Charleston was still the capital of the colony, but the site was re-built after the Revolutionary War with the Charleston County Courthouse. This building’s tripartite entrance façade – the central portion of which is marked by a rusticated basement and a giant order of double-storied columns – is also Palladian in inspiration.

The last building to be constructed at this intersection – the city’s U. S. Post Office and Federal Courthouse – was not built until 1896. In contradistinction to the smooth white stucco of its neighbors, it was clad in granite, and rusticated at the ground floor and up the corners. Its Renaissance Revival style was popular for government buildings at the time of its construction. The Italianate belvedere tower adds a picturesque detail to the Charleston skyline, otherwise pierced with church steeples.

East Battery Street, View from the South

East Battery Street, View from the South

A few blocks up Meeting Street is the Old City Market, constructed in 1841 in the Greek Revival style, and suggestive of the ancient temples on the Athenian Acropolis. A market has occupied this spot since the early 1800s. The building has market halls on the ground floor behind the rusticated arcade, and a lofty second-floor meeting space (now a museum of the Daughters of the Confederacy).

Charleston was a center of North Atlantic maritime trade from its founding to the Civil War, when Union ships blockaded its harbor, and Union soldiers torched many of its buildings. Before that, Charleston was one of the largest ports in the country, and the rice and indigo grown on the large river plantations brought in huge profits. Plantation owners grew rich off of large and fertile land holdings and exploited slave labor.

With all that money, Charleston easily became the economic and the cultural center of the South. But institutional buildings were not the only ones to benefit from the city’s riches. Many Charlestonians lavished great expense upon the construction of their homes as well.

City Hall at Broad and Church Streets, South Facade

City Hall at Broad and Church Streets, South Facade

The grandest houses in Charleston were built on South Battery and East Battery streets, overlooking the water to catch its breezes. In the hot, semi-tropical climate of Charleston, building sites located near the water were prized, and buildings were designed for passive cooling. Tall, triple-sash windows, Venetian blinds, high ceilings, and broad, deep porches – called “piazzas” – were de rigueur.

In fact, these piazzas came to define Charleston houses more than any other architectural feature. To harness the ocean breezes for maximum ventilation, Charleston builders strategically constructed Charleston houses to have their short sides facing the street, and their longer, primary facades facing to the side. A house’s long, multi-storied and colonnaded piazza thus faced to the side as well, drawing the ocean breezes straight through to the back of the lot.

As the houses are typically only one room deep (from side-to-side of the lot), while a few rooms long (from front-to-back of the lot), all of the main rooms of the house – called a “single house” for its single-room depth – open onto the multi-storied piazza. In the hot, humid, pre-air-conditioned Charleston summer, the piazza provided Charlestonians with a welcome respite from the hot sun, and helped to filter fresh air into the very depths of the house.

St. Michael's Episcopal Church

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church

Between the single houses are narrow gardens running alongside the piazzas leading to back yards and gardens. In the 18th and 19th centuries, these back yards might have had formal gardens, kitchen gardens, outdoor work spaces, and outbuildings including kitchens, laundry buildings, stables, and housing for slaves.

Because the single house’s primary façade faces to the side of its lot, its street-facing entrance is often very elaborately framed – with columns, a fan light, or deep moldings, for example. Street-facing entrances can be found both in the street-facing exterior walls of single houses, or in the street ends of their piazzas. In the latter case, a visitor must pass through two doors to enter the house – a door separating the piazza from the street, and one separating the interior of the house from the piazza.

Grand single houses lined South Battery and East Battery streets beginning in the early-to-mid-19th century. All were lavishly decorated with an abundance of architectural ornamentation, often on a very large scale. Many of the original owners of these houses owned large rice or indigo plantations on the mainland; the bigger the plantations, the bigger the columns back in Charleston.

Still, not all Charleston houses were built on this scale. Some were smaller, with narrower piazzas. Others – earlier ones built on larger lots – did not even have side piazzas at all. The Adamesque Nathaniel-Russell House of 1808, on Meeting Street two blocks south of the Four Corners of Law, and the Georgian-style Miles Brewton House, built between 1765 and 1769 two blocks away on King Street, are particularly fine examples.

To learn more about Charleston’s history and architecture, visit the website for the Historic Charleston Foundation, or the South Carolina Information Highway. To learn more about

Gray Stucco House on Meeting Street

Gray Stucco House on Meeting Street

Charleston’s historic churches and institutional buildings, visit the National Park Service’s travel itinerary.