Walking around and looking at all the well-preserved old houses in Charleston is great, but if you want to understand the city on a deeper level, or just impress your travel partner, it helps to know some relevant architectural styles, period details and dates. Is that double house Adamesque or Georgian? What's Haint Blue and why are those piazzas so slanty? Get yer knowledge here, folks.
Charleston Single House
This is the basic unit of architecture in downtown Charleston. These long, narrow homes were built in the 18th and 19th centuries and they are sort of like English row houses. Though they can vary in architectural style (and are often Georgian, Federal or Italianate), a traditional single house is always one room wide, two rooms deep, and a couple of stories tall. They're oriented perpendicular to the street and have lovely, slanting piazzas facing south or west for drainage and catching a breeze. Then there's what's called a privacy door, which looks like it'd be the front door but instead opens to a ground-level porch that guests must cross to reach the actual front door. You'll see these homes everywhere as you walk in the Historic District and also in residential neighborhoods like Cannonborough Elliottborough.
If you guessed that a double house is basically the same thing, but two rooms wide, you are correct. It's also worth knowing that the 'Haint Blue' front doors or ceilings over piazzas in many single and double houses are meant to ward off evil spirits (known to the Gullah as 'haints').
The following is a brief introduction to the Georgian, Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate and Queen Anne architectural styles that can be seen around Charleston.
Georgian-style homes were built mainly between 1714 and 1820, and they're defined by many of the same hallmarks of Renaissance design, including rigid symmetry both inside and outside. Windows and doors in one room need to be matched with windows and doors in an opposite room, even if a door leads to nowhere. Decorative elements include stone arches, stained-glass windows and limestone trim. Drayton Hall is a good example of this style, as is Rainbow Row.
Also referred to as Adams style or Adamesque, this style was popular between 1790 to 1820 and mirrored what was trendy in Europe. The US federal government was taking shape at the time, hence the name. The box-shaped homes were often two or three stories high, two rooms deep and made of brick. But the interiors often emphasized elliptical and circular patterns. Nathaniel Russell House is a notable Federal-style home.
Lots of homes got Greek Revival renovations and trimmings between 1820 and 1861, basically as a way of expressing the belief that America was, in spirit, a godson of Greece, the birthplace of democracy. The dead giveaways of this style are pedimented gables, columns and pilasters of unusual shape, and the color white, meant to look like marble. Porches and porticoes were also common attributes. Hibernian Hall at 105 Meeting St is an example of Greek Revival architecture.
Between 1837 and 1900, this freer architectural style, which recalled Italy's rambling farmhouses, came into favor. The homes were usually built of brick or wood clapboard and, in defiance of more formal styles, gave architects a license to enjoy themselves. The results often involved cupolas, projecting cornices and arching, ornately adorned windows, porches and doorways. Check out the Italianate Calhoun Mansion.
From 1860 to 1916 (during the reign of Queen Anne, of course), people starting having even more fun with their architecture, aiming for the eclectic, the asymmetrical and even the excessive. Often lots of different textures and materials were involved, along with decorated gables and steeply pitched roofs. Turrets, wraparound porches and bay windows all became desirable. Two Meeting Street Inn is a solid specimen.
Sidebar: National Register of Historic Places
There are 190 properties and districts in Charleston County that appear on the National Register of Historic Places, the federal government's official list of places deemed worthy of preservation.
The New World was mostly populated by colonies founded by certain religious sects. Charleston was not among them. The 'Holy City,' as it came to be known for its multitudes of houses of worship, was instead a haven for religious tolerance, welcoming Anglicans, Anabaptists, French Huguenots, Quakers, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Jews, and disciples of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. In fact, it was illegal in the colony to argue about religion. Today more than 400 houses of worship call Charleston home.
The first settlers in Charleston were mainly members of the Anglican Church of England, but it was generally agreed that religious tolerance would allow the colony to grow and prosper more quickly. Religious freedom was therefore guaranteed in the colony's charter, and that served as an open call for all sorts of folks.
Some of the earliest religious refugees to take Charleston up on its invitation were the French Huguenots, who were part of a Protestant movement that was largely rejected in France. The English, however, were happy to receive the Huguenots, particularly because many of them were prosperous merchants and professionals.
In 1680 the ship Richmond arrived, carrying 45 Huguenots, and by 1700 about 450 would be settled in. The French Quarter is named in their honor, and their still-active community (the only one in the world) worships at the French Huguenot Church. Some members have published a book on their history, The Huguenot Church in Charleston.
St Michael's & St Philip's Churches
Part of being the 'Holy City' is that your skyline should be defined by its steeples and spires. That's why in Charleston the law dictates that no building can be higher than the tallest church steeple.
The oldest church in Charleston (that's still standing) is St Michael’s Episcopal Church, which dates back to 1761 and has seen the likes of George Washington and Robert E Lee worship here. Its bells are a big deal, and have been announcing the time and various events, including earthquakes, hurricanes, fires and attacks on the city, for more than 250 years.
The second most prominent church, St Philip's, was erected in 1835, but its Anglican congregation is older than that of St Michael's. Many famous people are buried in the church cemetery, one end point of the Gateway Walk through several church grounds and graveyards, starting at St John's Lutheran Church.
In the heart of Charleston, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim is the oldest continuously used synagogue in the country, and the birthplace of the American Reform Judaism movement.