To many, Charleston is the quintessential Southern city that’s noted for its cobblestone lanes, antebellum homes behind wrought-iron gates, manicured gardens open for public tours every spring, magnificent waterfront views and fine Southern cuisine. Founded in 1670, it has survived epidemics, pirates, wars, hurricanes and earthquakes to become one of America’s top tourist destinations.
Charleston’s Historic District includes more than 1,000 homes, buildings and places of worship, and more than 600 of them were built before 1840. It’s well worth taking the time to tour the few that are open to the public. The circa-1825 Edmonston-Alston House was one of the first dwellings built on Charleston’s High Battery. Its opulent furnishings include an excellent collection of 19th-century furniture, silver and art. The Aiken-Rhett House was home to Governor William Aiken from 1833 until 1887. After Aiken inherited this Federal home in 1833, he spent three years in Europe purchasing furnishings, many of which are still on display. The gracious 19th-century lifestyle of the city’s elite comes to life at the Nathaniel Russell House. Built in 1803 for Russell, a prosperous merchant, its period furnishings include many outstanding examples of early Charleston furniture. Charleston Museum’s Joseph Manigault House was also built in 1803, for the wealthy rice planter whose name it bears. Opulent appointments in this Federal house include American, English and French furniture, and decorative arts. The Charleston Museum displays a comprehensive overview of the city’s fascinating history through exhibits as varied as costumed mannequins and dugout canoes.
A few miles from the heart of the city, two plantations along the Ashley River are open for public tours. Built in 1755, Middleton Place was home to four generations of the same family beginning with Henry Middleton, president of the First Continental Congress, and then his son, Arthur, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The house that visitors can tour today was originally the guest house, but the family moved into it after their home was burned down by Union troops during the waning days of the Civil War. It displays fine family furnishings from the 1740s through the 1880s. Of special interest are the portraits by Thomas Sully and Benjamin West, and first-edition books by Audubon. This National Historic Landmark is best known as the site of America’s oldest landscaped gardens. Formal gardens modeled after 17th-century European gardens are ablaze with color year round. There’s also a one-fourth acre demonstration rice field maintained by Carolina Gold, a company that has been growing rice in the South since the 1680s. Drayton Hall is regarded as one of the finest examples of Colonial architecture. Built in 1738, this Georgian Palladian mansion has been preserved in its original condition without electricity or plumbing. It is the only home along the Ashley River to survive both the Revolutionary and Civil wars intact. Tours of the unfurnished house are given by professional guides, who provide details about its architectural features and the region’s history.
Other noteworthy attractions include Avery Research Center for African-American History & Culture, Dock Street Theatre, Morris Island Lighthouse, the American Military Museum, Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum, Shern Creek Maritime Museum, Citadel Museum, Confederate Museum and Fort Sumter National Monument.
This city was designed to be the capital in the late 18th century. It’s laid out in a checkerboard pattern with broad boulevards. In 1865, General William Sherman’s Union troops set the city on fire and burned 84 blocks. Out of 1,386 buildings that were destroyed, the State House was spared.
Four house museums are managed by the Historic Columbia Foundation. The circa-1818 Hampton-Preston House has been home to two prominent South Carolina families, a headquarters for Union general J.A. Logan during the Civil War, the Governor’s Mansion during the Reconstruction Period, and a fashionable school for young ladies. Today it is restored to the antebellum period, when it was occupied by the Hampton and Preston families. Its lavish decor includes fine furniture and decorative arts. The Robert Mills Historic Home and Park was the home of the first architect for the Federal government and the designer of the Washington Monument. Unfortunately, Hall died in 1823 and never got to live in the magnificent home he designed. It became the property of the Presbyterian Church, which used it as a seminary. In 1961 it was threatened with demolition, but preservationists made a heroic effort to save it. Today, visitors can admire outstanding architectural features, 19th-century furnishings and manicured gardens. The Mann-Simons Cottage represents how free blacks lived and worked during Columbia’s antebellum era. Celia Mann, who was born a slave in Charleston in 1799, somehow obtained her freedom and walked to Columbia where she bought this one-room house in 1830. She worked as a midwife. Additions were made to the home throughout the years, and it was occupied by her descendants until 1970. The main floor has exhibits reflecting the family’s history.
The South Carolina State Museum is located in the world’s first electric textile mill, which was built in 1894. Informative exhibits on the state’s natural, cultural and economic history are displayed on three floors. The Columbia Museum of Art showcases Renaissance paintings from the collection of Samuel H. Kress as well as 19th- and 20th-century southeastern art. Located on the campus of University of South Carolina, holdings at the McKissick Museum include the Bernard M. Baruch Silver Gallery, noted for antique European silver; the J. Henry Howard gemstone collection, and the Catawba Native-American pottery collection.
Founded in 1515 by Spanish explorers, this town on Port Royal Island is the state’s second-oldest city, after Charleston. It now has a population of 14,000 who enjoy sharing the tree-lined streets in their historic downtown with visitors. The John Mark Verdier Museum was once known as the Lafayette Building because it is believed that the Marquis de Lafayette spoke from its piazza in 1825. Built by Verdier, a prosperous merchant, this Federal-style home is furnished as it would have been from its completion in 1805. The Beaufort Museum was acquired by the Historic Beaufort Foundation from the city in 2001. It’s located in the Arsenal, which was constructed in 1798 under a federal mandate to build a powder magazine and laboratory for the making of shots and explosives. Today, exhibits provide a glimpse into the region’s Native American settlements, antebellum development, Civil War activities and 20th-century industries.
By Susan Eberman