Unique Architecture of Charleston, South Carolina
Charleston, South Carolina is an iconic American city with a long history and rich culture, offering a revealing glimpse into many aspects of our country’s past, present, and future. The unique architectures of the city encapsulates this theme, with many different approaches to homes, businesses, and public spaces prevalent in this area. Common historic styles represented in Charleston include the Colonial, Georgian, Federal, Italianate, Greek Revival, Victorian, and Art Deco styles. Regardless of whether you’re visiting or living in the city, there’s a treasure trove of buildings to see and tour.
One of Charleston’s oldest examples of architecture is the Colonial style which dates back to the time before the Revolutionary War, with most of the Colonial-style buildings constructed in the 1600s and 1700s. Charleston’s Colonial homes are representative of its beautiful southern style, typically built from brick in a simple box shape with a symmetrical façades. There are over a dozen wonderfully restored Colonial homes and businesses available for tours scattered throughout the city. A famous example of this style in Charleston is the Old Exchange building, currently called Exchange and Provost and serving as a museum run by the South Carolina State Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Built between 1767 and 1771, this historic building has served a number of functions throughout its life, including as the meeting place where the state ratified the Constitution in 1778. Colonial-style buildings are typically narrow, with a low foundation, two to three stories, multi-pane windows, columns, one or more large fireplaces, and an entry hall. Buildings are commonly brick with a layer of ornamental stucco, which helped reduce water absorption from rain and the city’s high humidity.
Georgian architecture followed close on the heels of Colonial architecture, overlapping with it some in areas, with most buildings constructed between 1714 and 1820. Georgian homes in Charleston are similar to the Colonial style with its taste for symmetry and simple elegance. Features of Georgian architecture include an odd number of windows across the front of the house (typically five), symmetrical and square façades, a centered front door with decorative crown molding, and multiple chimneys. Two famous examples in Charleston are the Heyward-Washington House on Church Street and Drayton Hall. The Heyward-Washington House, built in 1772, opened as the first historic house museum in the city in 1930. Rainbow Row, located along East Bay Street, is also a prime example of Georgian-style townhouse construction.
Around the same time as the growth of Georgian architecture, the Federal style of home design was gaining steam in Charleston, with most buildings built between 1790 and 1830. Despite early America’s fierce spirit of independence, most architecture on the East Coast continued to be inspired by Europe, in this particular case by progressive British architecture and ancient Roman temples, reflecting a gradual shift away from the rigid symmetry of earlier styles. Features include a fanlight over the front door, a front door framed by narrow side windows, multiple chimneys, shutters, and arched palladian windows (palladian windows have a wide center section and two narrower side sections), and sometimes even curved rooms or rooms with more than four sides. Two famous Charleson examples include the Nathaniel Russell House, built in 1808, and the Aiken-Rhett House, built in 1820. The Aiken-Rhett House also has a few Greek Revival features added around and after 1831 by William Aiken, Jr.
Greek or Classical Revival
Greek or Classical Revival architecture flourished in Charleston from 1820 through 1861. Built prior to the U.S. Civil War, often by plantation-owners to show off their wealth, Greek Revival buildings in Charleston are grand in both scale and prominence. After the bitter War of 1812, the influence of British architecture in America fell dramatically and builders began to look to other sources for inspiration. Many designers turned their creative eyes toward Greece, considered the birthplace of democracy, for ideas which gave rise to the Greek Revival style. A famous example in Charleston is the Fireproof Building, built in 1827 to the highest standard of public safety at the time (hence the name) and now fittingly home to the non-profit South Carolina Historical Society. Typical features include a pediment supported by large, heavy columns, high arches, and triangular roofs.
The Italianate style comes a bit later to Charleston though it still overlaps some with Greek Revival, with most examples dating to between 1837 and 1900. Italianate architecture reflects an interesting evolution of interest in other European styles, rejecting earlier periods of rigid formal design for a look that captures the feel of Italy’s rambling farmhouses, with their square towers and casual details. Features of the style also include low-pitched or even flat roofs, rectangular, symmetrical shapes, extensive balconies, overhanging ledges or eaves, double doors, narrow and tall windows, rounded arches on the balconies and windows, and being typically three or four stories. Two famous examples in the city are the Patrick O’Donnell House, built 1856, and the Colonel John Algernon Sydney Ashe House, built 1853.
Eventually, American architects returned once again to England for inspiration and began to replicate the Queen Anne style made famous by architect Richard Norman Shaw. Also known as the Victorian Second Empire style, these designs flourished in Charleston from 1860 to 1916. Features of the Victorian style include steep, complex roofs with cross gables, asymmetrical floor plans, elaborate wood bracket work, turrets or towers, and colorful exteriors. A famous example is the Wentworth Mansion, built in 1886 by Francis Silas Rodgers, and currently serving as a luxury inn in downtown Charleston. Another example is the Wilson-Sottile House, built in 1891 on College Street by wealthy Charleston merchant Sam Wilson and currently part of the College of Charleston.
The passage of time did not leave Charleston stuck in the past, as Art Deco flourished in the roaring 1920s and came into its own in the 1930s, and its upbeat, unique style is like a snapshot of the Jazz Age. Features of the style include bold geometric shapes, a streamlined look, geometric and abstract ornamentation, modern designs, narrow windows, and vibrant colors. A famous Charleston example is the Riviera Theatre, opened in 1939, and currently used as a conference room and ballroom for the Charleston Place Hotel.
No matter what type of home sparks your interest, Charleston offers a wonderful array of different architectural styles to choose from. While some neighborhood associations have restrictions regarding changes that can be made to existing exteriors, others offer more flexibility when it comes to customizing the look of your home. With over 60,000 housing units in the city, there are plenty of wonderful options to consider in beautiful Charleston.
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