A Tour of the Aiken-Rhett House

Live oaks draped in Spanish moss. Sprawling mansions with double porches. Centuries-old masonry cloaked in creeping fig. Criminally deficient parking. All of this awaits you in beautiful and historic Charleston, South Carolina.

My wife and I (as well as our 4-month-old son) visited this weekend to attend the Lie-Nielsen Hand Tool Event and to take part in a tour of the Aiken-Rhett House. Unfortunately, I misread the dates on the tour arranged by Lie-Nielsen, and realized too late that the tour actually took place on Thursday, April 7, not on Saturday, April 9. Oops. After spending about an hour at the Lie-Nielsen Hand Tool Event (which was as much as I dared inflict upon my poor wife), we decided to take the house tour by ourselves. Though I was disappointed that the tour would not be led by a prominent local furniture conservator, the independent headphone tour proved well worth 12 bucks.

You can read a more comprehensive background of the house at the Historic Charleston website, but I’ll give you the short version here: The house was built ca. 1820 by wealthy Charleston merchant John Robinson. He fell on hard times and was forced to sell the house to William Aiken, Sr., who passed the home on to his son William Aiken, Jr. The younger Aiken would go on to become one of the governor of South Carolina and one of Charleston’s wealthiest residents. After he died in 1887 and his wife in 1892, the home passed on to their daughter, who passed it on to her sons, who lived in the home until the mid-1900s. In 1975, the home was sold to the Charleston Museum.

Remarkably, the home passed through the hands of only three generations of the same family between 1833 and 1975. Very few alterations have been made to the house since the mid-1800s. The current owner -the Historic Charleston Foundation – has taken a preservation, as opposed to a restoration, approach to the home’s maintenance. As a result, the tour gives you an incredible, time-weathered feel for the original grandeur of a historically significant Greek revival mansion. I have toured many old homes, and I can say that the only time I have walked away similarly impressed was after my visit to Longwood Plantation in Natchez, MS. In short, I highly recommend the tour if you ever happen to find yourself in the vicinity of Charleston.

The pictures of the home are probably more interesting than any more of my drivel, so I’ll just post a few of my photos with a brief description.

*Side note: if you’re viewing on a device larger than a smart phone, I must offer an apology for the quality of the pictures. In an attempt to economize my time, I tried some new bulk photo compression software, and it really made a mess of my photos. I didn’t notice how bad the quality was until after I had already deleted the originals. Mea culpa. I almost hesitated to even write this post, but the pictures look fine on a smartphone, and I figure that’s how half of you will be reading it, anyway…

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Front facade – the iconic two-story wraparound porch, so familiar in Charleston.
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A cute, simple child’s Windsor chair in the kitchen. Notice the awesome andirons in the background also.
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A peak inside the joinery of a kitchen table. Double-pegged mortise and tenons, with a cut nail driven through the top and into the leg to secure the top.
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Full view of the kitchen table.
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This diminutive chest has seen better days. From the slaves’ quarters.
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Detail of a cupboard from the slaves’ quarters. Heart pine, ship-lapped door boards, mitered cock-beading, and a nice cornice. The furniture of the kitchen and slaves quarters would find far more widespread appreciation today than anything in the main house. Funny how time changes things.
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Carriage house and courtyard
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The woodwork in the carriage house. The horses enjoyed a home with finer woodwork than people today.
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I love the simple, functional beauty of a wagon wheel.
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Gorgeous black finish on these finely-shaped balusters.
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Fine plaster work on the parlor ceiling.
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The parlor still retains much of its original early 1800s furniture.
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Wide frames-and-panels surrounding the windows. One of the joys of a stone building.
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Ghostly grandeur
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Odd little baluster profile that is quite common in Charleston. Rather than the more conventional square section at the top (to match the bottom), the top of the baluster is turned down to a ~1″ tenon, which fits into a round mortise underneath the porch rail. Certainly more economical of labor, but I’m not a big fan of the look.
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I have never been a huge fan of Greek Revival furniture, but seeing this dining table and its chairs at home in the mansion for which it was purchased provided a different perspective. They look quite at home in this room.
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Fantastically detailed staircase. These are the servants’ stairs, believe it or not.
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Detail of the balusters and newel post. 
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Gorgeous vanity with crotch mahogany-veneered drawer fronts.
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3 thoughts on “A Tour of the Aiken-Rhett House

  1. The pics are fine. I’m fascinated by those tapered hexagons on the balusters and the octagon on that newel post. It seems like that would be difficult to do with hand tools.

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    1. Hard to tell from the photos, but the balusters are octagons as well. It would certainly be difficult to achieve such crisp and symmetrical results with hand tools, in the sense that it would require a skilled and practiced artisan – but Charleston was home to some of the finest joiners and cabinetmakers in America in colonial and antebellum times. The craftsman who is responsible for the balusters certainly got a lot of practice – the staircase is three stories high!

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