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5 Historic House Tours (Museums) in Charleston SC (2024)

With over 2,500 historical buildings in the Charleston area—73 pre-Revolutionary War buildings, 136 more from the late 1700s and 600 additional predating the 1840s—its no wonder Charleston is synonymous with its storied Architecture and Historical homes and buildings.


Thanks in large part to active preservation and conservation organizations and individuals through the years who sought to preserve this beautiful historic city, tourists and locals alike can enjoy this beauty and charm at every turn by simply walking the streets of Charleston.


There are also several historic homes that have been preserved as historic house museums in Charleston SC, dating from 1772 to 1825, open for tours offering an understanding of design, furnishings and lifestyle of the wealthy owners from this time period, as well as the enslaved who made it all possible.


Here we explore the 5 historic house museums to visit while in Charleston—as a tourist or a local.



 

Why Visit House Museums?

House museums offer a unique way to connect with the past and appreciate the architectural beauty of different eras. They serve as physical narratives, offering insights into the lives of those who once resided within their walls.


As you step through the threshold, you are transported back in time, walking the same floors and touching the same artifacts as people from centuries past. This connection to the past offers an unparalleled historical perspective, making abstract events tangibly real and personal.


Moreover, house museums in Charleston, SC, stand as architectural gems, each bearing distinctive features that echo the prevailing styles of their respective periods. From grand antebellum mansions to more modest colonial homes, these structures flaunt intricate woodwork, hand-crafted details, and classic proportions that command admiration. Each house museum showcases the architectural beauty and uniqueness of its era, providing a visual feast for those appreciative of historical architecture.

 

House Tours | Historic House Museums in Charleston SC

Whether you're a history buff, an architecture enthusiast, or someone simply looking for a unique experience, house museums in Charleston, SC, promise a captivating journey.



Nathaniel Russell House

51 Meeting Street

Restored to its 1808 grandeur and original splendor, the Nathaniel Russell House Museum is a national historic landmark and offers a glimpse into the lives of the elite of the Colonial and early Federal period, the craftsmen who built the homes and the enslaved who made their way of life possible. Forensic analysis and cutting-edge conservation technology have been used in the restoration process and is also currently being used in the kitchen house.


The house is most famous for its "free-flying" staircase, an engineering marvel that gracefully sweeps up three stories without any visible means of support. The self-supporting elliptical staircase spirals up the central foyer, forming an elegant spine to the house and offering a rare spectacle to all who visit.


The Nathaniel Russell House Museum also boasts meticulously restored interiors featuring elaborate plasterwork ceilings, geometrically shaped rooms, and an impressive collection of fine and decorative art. The museum's extensive garden, beautifully landscaped and recreated based on a 19th-century design, is another highlight that leaves visitors in awe.


The Kitchen House (a separate structure attached to the home that included kitchen, laundry and living quarters for the enslaved) is currently undergoing archeological digs uncovering a plethora of information about the enslaved that lived and worked there. So informative and interesting. Note, it is thought as many as eighteen enslaved peoples would have worked and lived on this in-town property at a time.


This was one of the first house museums from this era in America to tell the story of both the wealthy owners and the enslaved. House tour Hours and tickets>


Watch this short video for a look into the kitchen house restoration work.






Heyward-Washington House

87 Church Street

Another must-visit historic house museum in Charleston SC is the Heyward-Washington House, a testament to Charleston's rich history located within the old city district. Built in 1772, for Thomas Hayward, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, this town home served as George Washington's temporary residence during his week-long stay in Charleston in May 1791, earning the house its moniker.


In 1794 the house was sold to Jonn F Grimke, a Revolutionary War officer and notably the father of the famous abolitionists and suffragettes, Sarah and Angeline Grimke. {If you've read The Invention of Wings by @suemonkkidd ...I envision this is the home much of the story it's told through}.

The Heyward-Washington House showcases a blend of Georgian and Adam style architecture, featuring a symmetrical façade and carefully designed interior that reflects the period's aesthetics. The house's unique features include intricate woodwork, ornamental plaster ceilings, and Charleston-made furniture, providing a glimpse into the craftsmanship and elegance of the late 18th Century.


A favorite part of this tour is the 1740s kitchen building, it is the oldest and only restored kitchen building open to the public in Charleston. There is also a restored formal garden featuring plants commonly used during this time in the South Carolina Lowcountry.


Audio Tour and guided tours available. Hours and tickets>


Aiken-Rhett House

48 Elizabeth Street

Built in the 1820s, once the home of William Aiken, a powerful South Carolina Governor, this house has been preserved rather than restored. This means, from the time the house was acquired by the Historic Charleston Foundation in 1995, they adopted a “preserved-as-found" preservation approach, meaning the structure and contents are left in an “as-found” state, including furniture, architecture and finishes that have not been altered since the mid 19th century.” You will see layers of time—peeling paint, renovations made in the 1980s and everything in between. You will still see the bones of the main house as it once was, but this is a different experience.


A large draw is the intact original slave quarters with original paint, floors and fixtures that visitors are able to walk through during the self-guided tour. Like the other house museums mentioned above, much research has provided a tour that gives a better understanding of the lives of the enslaved with a peek at the day realities of the enslaved africans and other enslaved that would have lived and worked here and continued to live and work here as free peoples after the Civil War.


Audio Tour to tour at your own pace and some guided tours available. Hours and tickets>



Edmondston-Alston House

21 East Battery

Built in 1825, this is the only of the house museums in Charleston SClocated on The High Battery in Charleston. Also notable, it is still occupied by descendants of the Alston family. It is gorgeously furnished much as it would have been in the 1800s, with most of its contents original to the house.


It offers a magnificent view of Charleston Harbor from its second story piazza. It is even said that the second-floor piazza was where General Robert E. Lee watched the bombing of Fort Sumter in 1861, an event that ignited the Civil War.


Tours are only offered as 30 minute guided tours. No photography or videography allowed inside the home. (The Edmondston-Alston House Museum is managed by The Middleton Place Foundation and discount combo tickets can be purchased for both). Hours and tickets>



Joseph Manigault House

350 Meeting Street

The Joseph Manigault House, built in 1803, was designed by Gabriel Manigault, a noteworthy American architect, for his brother Joseph. Joseph Manigault was a wealthy rice planter and a pillar of Charleston's elite society, his considerable fortune reflective of the economic prosperity of the early 19th-century Southern planters. Joseph inherited over 200 slaves from his grandfather along with several rice plantations.


The in-town house is an example of Adam-style architecture, also known as Federal style, featuring a symmetrical façade and intricate interior design that exudes the charm and grace of the early 19th century.


The house stands out for its "flying staircase," an elegant, sweeping design that is one of only two of its kind in the city. Although not as fully furnished and restored as the Nathaniel-Russell House or Heyward-Washington House, the interiors include a display of period furnishings.


Tours are guided, no self-guided tours and run in tight 30 minute increments. Hours and Tickets>


 

Historic Houses in Charleston: An Education about the Enslaved

Charleston's historic homes do not only exhibit the grandeur and magnificence of the past; they also narrate the untold stories of the enslaved people who played a significant role in building Charleston's society. The bricks they laid, the rice they planted, and the families they served — these homes stand as poignant reminders of their profound influence and contribution, often overlooked in our history books.


While each of the historic house museums in Charleston include at least some information highlighting the roles of the enslaved, many of these homes are now committed to presenting a more comprehensive and truthful recounting of history.


By exploring these house museums, visitors can gain a more holistic perspective on Charleston's history, replete with its triumphs and tribulations, its grandeur and its grim realities. These tours are not only a fascinating journey into the past but also a valuable educational experience about the enslaved people's significant role in building Charleston SC — an essential part of the narrative that deserves recognition and remembrance. Here are the three of the five that dive a little deeper into this history.


1. Aiken-Rhett House

The Aiken-Rhett House, built in 1820, is celebrated for its "preserved as found" state rather than a fully restored appearance. This allows visitors to witness the stark contrast between the opulent main house and the preserved outbuildings, which includes a kitchen and the original slave quarters. The contrast underscores the harsh realities of enslaved life in an otherwise prosperous Charleston.


The Aiken-Rhett House provides an unfiltered lens into the lives of the enslaved, where visitor education is a central focus. The self-guided audio tour unflinchingly delves into the personal histories of the people who were enslaved here, offering a narrative that highlights their individuality, resilience, and humanity. Artefacts and personal belongings discovered on site, along with documented histories, provide insight into their skills, roles, and daily routines.


This stark representation paints a vivid picture of the disparate lives within the same household—a stark juxtaposition of affluence and servitude. The Aiken-Rhett House, thus, does not merely recount the history; it steadfastly acknowledges and educates about the lives of the enslaved, fostering a deeper understanding of Charleston's complex past.


2. Nathaniel Russell House

The Nathaniel Russell House, on the other hand, is renowned for its neoclassical style and the magnificent free-flying staircase. At the Nathaniel Russell House, education about the enslaved plays a vital role in the visitor experience. The house was build by and maintained by an enslaved workforce, and their stories are revealed with sensitivity and respect, acknowledging their integral role in the household.


A highlight is the interactive kitchen house exhibit excavation dedicated to the lives of the enslaved individuals, offering a poignant and sobering exploration into the realities they faced. The exhibit uses personal narratives, artefacts, and historical records to illuminate their stories, ensuring that the enslaved are remembered not as faceless entities, but as individuals with families, hopes, and dreams. This commitment to education and remembrance enriches the understanding of Charleston's history, as it underscores the human toll of the area's prosperity.


3. Hayward-Washington House

The Hayward-Washington House, another quintessential house museum in Charleston, SC, offers a deep dive into the world of the enslaved. This Georgian-style townhouse, which served as George Washington's temporary abode during his southern tour in 1791, provides an authentic glimpse into the lives of the enslaved who labored here.


At this historic site, visitors can tour the original kitchen house and stable, spaces where the enslaved lived and worked. The interpretation focuses on the lives of the enslaved who served the house's distinguished guests, providing a valuable education about their ingenuity, resilience, and contribution to Charleston's history. The Hayward-Washington House's tour deliberately acknowledges and pays tribute to these individuals, ensuring that their stories and experiences are integral to the narrative of this iconic Charleston landmark.



 

Plantations in Charleston: A Candid Glimpse into Slavery and Their Historic Properties

Charleston's plantations offer a compelling and poignant lens through which to examine the realities of slavery and the historic significance of these remarkable properties. Each site tells its unique story, bearing witness to the past and inviting visitors to engage in deep reflection and understanding.

  1. Magnolia Plantation: Established in 1676, Magnolia Plantation is home to one of the oldest public gardens in America. The plantation offers tours focusing on the African American experience, shedding light on the lives of the enslaved people who lived and worked here.

  2. Boone Hall Plantation: Historically known for its brick-making and cotton-growing prowess, Boone Hall is renowned for its Avenue of Oaks and original slave cabins. The guided tour offers a powerful narrative of the enslaved Africans who built and worked on the plantation.

  3. Drayton Hall: Drayton Hall stands as a testament to colonial American architecture. Its African American cemetery, one of the oldest documented African American cemeteries in the nation still in use, offers a somber reminder of the enslaved people who lived there.

  4. McLeod Plantation: McLeod Plantation's guided tour takes visitors on a journey through time, revealing the history of the Gullah Geechee people. The plantation is preserved, not restored, maintaining the integrity of its historical narrative.

  5. Middleton Place: Middleton Place is another Charleston gem that illustrates the complexities of Southern history. Known for its meticulously manicured gardens, the plantation also provides a comprehensive look at plantation life in the 18th and 19th centuries through its house museum and The Eliza's House exhibit, which offers a moving tribute to the enslaved people who were integral to the plantation's operation, ensuring their stories and contributions are not forgotten.



 

Tips for Visiting House Museums in Charleston SC

When planning your Charleston house museum tour, timing is key. The best time of the year to visit is arguably in the Spring (March to May), when the city's numerous gardens are in full bloom and the weather is just perfect for a leisurely stroll. But of course, the charm of Charleston transcends seasons, and each time of the year brings its unique pleasures.


In terms of tour options, most house museums offer guided tours, where a knowledgeable docent will lead you through the intricacies of the home and its history. Some museums also offer self-guided tours, perfect for those who prefer to explore at their own pace.


Lastly, ticket purchasing should ideally be done in advance, especially during peak seasons. Tickets can typically be purchased online through the individual museum's website. Keep an eye out for combination tickets, as they offer a cost-effective way to visit multiple sites. If you're a history buff or a fan of architecture, a visit to Charleston's house museums is a must, promising a vibrant, engaging, and authentic experience.

 

Bonus: Tour 10+ Additional Historic Houses in Charleston SC

Annual Festival of Houses & Gardens: A Gala of Architectural Grandeur

Immerse yourself in the unrivaled charm of Charleston at the annual Festival of Houses & Gardens. Here, you have the unique opportunity to explore some of the city's most stunning historic homes and gardens. Held from mid-March to mid-April, this festival is an absolute must for lovers of architecture, history, and horticulture. The festival, spanning approximately a month, showcases Charleston's distinctive architectural styles and its residents' penchant for gardening. The homes, ranging from grand mansions to modest dwellings, each tell a unique tale of the city's past. Visitors get the chance to stroll through lush, manicured gardens, take in the sweet scent of blooming flowers, and marvel at the intricate details of the historic homes. With every step, the rich history, culture, and beauty of Charleston come alive. There are typically 7-9 historic homes included during this special tour. Historic Charleston Foundation Festival of Houses & Gardens


Preservation Society's House and Gardens Tour: An Unforgettable Journey into History

Experience Charleston, SC in a truly unique way through the Preservation Society's House and Gardens Tour. This tour is renowned for its exclusive access to some of the most exquisite private homes and gardens in the city, which are typically closed off to the public. As a part of the Fall Tours of Homes, History & Architecture, the tour runs from late September to late October, offering an enriched experience of Charleston's heritage. Each location on the tour is specially selected by the Preservation Society, ensuring a diverse showcase of architectural styles, period furnishings, and beautiful landscaping that reflect Charleston's rich history. With insightful guides leading the way, tour-goers are privy to interesting historical facts, architectural nuances, and stories of past inhabitants. Note: there are a several tour itineraries to choose from and some locations will include the gardens only. Preservation Society's House and Garden Tour

 

Final Thoughts on Exploring Charleston's Historical Gems

Charleston's house museums are more than just a look back into history—they're a captivating journey that captures the heart and soul of a bygone era. Each house is a gem, with its unique narratives and picturesque architecture that echo the tales of the city's past. As you trace the footsteps of Charleston's ancestors, you engage in an experience far removed from ordinary sightseeing. So, pack your curiosity and embark on this immersive journey. Whether you're a history enthusiast, an architecture admirer, or simply a traveler with an appetite for authentic experiences, Charleston's house museums await to unfold their tales. The vibrant, engaging, and authentic exploration of these historical gems is sure to leave you enriched and inspired.

 

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