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.

The American Myth of the Continuous-Arm Chair

The now-ubiquitous Windsor chair has its roots in the simple, ancient stick-chairs of Great Britain. The Windsor chair is differentiated from other styles of chairs in that the seat plank serves the foundation for the entire the chair. The legs terminate in mortises below the seat, as do the spindles above the seat. Other historical forms of seating rely on the wood to serve merely as a frame for the seat, which could receive upholstery or woven reeds, bark, or cane.

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Welsh stick chair, proto-Windsor chair.

The stick chair evolved into what we would recognize today as a “Windsor” chair in England in the early 18th century, and the form was soon exported to colonial America, where the chair grew in popularity to become the dominant form of seating. From its humble beginnings, the Windsor chair evolved into a dizzying array of different forms throughout the 18th century – all of them originating in Great Britain before making their way across the Atlantic – with innovation continuing on into the early 19th century.

Though there is a fair amount of variation in the arrangement of legs and stretchers below the seat, chairs are typically classified according to what’s going on above the seat. For a solid primer on the different styles of Windsor chairs in the 18th century, I would suggest this article by Nancy Goyne Evans, the woman who wrote the book on American Windsor chairs (literally).

One of the last styles to be developed during the 18th century is also one of my personal favorites – the continuous-arm. According to Evans, “Regarded today as a classic in Windsor design, the continuous-bow chair was developed in New York City about 1790. The sweeping profile of the bow is based on the French bergère chair, examples of which were produced at this date by local cabinetmakers. This is the only eighteenth-century Windsor pattern based on a non-English prototype, and it is the only Windsor design dating before 1810 introduced to the American market in a place other than Philadelphia.

Given that Evans is such a widely respected authority on Windsor chairs, this statement has apparently carried some weight in the chairmaking community, because it is frequently repeated by chairmakers today. Witness Elia Bizarri’s remarks to Roy Underhill at around minute 1:20 in this video.

In fact, some have even taken it a step farther than simply stating the design originated in America; chairmaker Bob Dillon states on his website that the chair was “uniquely American, never appearing in Europe.”

And finally, some folks are frankly just somewhere out in left field with regard to this topic. Thomas Moser is undoubtedly a legend in the cabinetmaking community, but his website’s statement regarding the continuous-arm chair is more than a little suspect: “In about 1750, Rhode Island cabinetmakers came up with the idea of making the arm and the back of the chair from a single piece of hickory or ash, two types of wood that lend themselves to being steam bent and curved. While undoubtedly beautiful and comfortable, the Continuous Arm Chair took tremendous skill and patience to make, because of the need to form a compound curve with right angle bends.

I don’t believe there’s a shred of documentary evidence that points to a Rhode Island origin for this style, and certainly not as early as 1750. But let’s return Goyne’s statement that the continuous-arm is a uniquely American form. Observe these two chairs originating from the tiny town of Yealmpton, England:

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Looks very much like a continuous-arm to me.These chairs were recently sold at auction, being described as “Iconic Pair of ‘Yealmpton’ Continuous Arm Windsor Chairs”. I must thank the pseudonymous “Jack Plane” over at the fantastic blog Pegs and Tails for bringing this obscure style to my attention. He included a picture of the chairs in a post on English Windsors back on February 24 with the following description: “The chairs in figure 10 are of an egregious style peculiar to the town of Yealmpton in Devon which – whether for reasons of relative geographical isolation… or taste – thankfully didn’t pervade the country at large.

Personally, I find the chairs quite charming, if a bit peculiar. I would assume that Jack’s objection to the pictured chairs stems primarily from the regressive style of the turnings and the somewhat overstated radial splay of the the over-sized spindles. They look almost like the spokes of a wheel compared to the more subtle splay of conventional Windsor chairs. I certainly find no fault with the design of the continuous-arm, which almost looks as though it could be plucked from these chairs and placed onto a New York continuous-arm and hardly a soul would notice.

A quick Google search will confirm that, indeed, this style of chair is well-associated with the history of Yealmpton, which begs the question: which came first? The styles are simply too similar to have evolved independently of one another. The earliest American continuous-arms date from around 1790. In the comments on his blog, Jack states that the “Yealmpton chairs were in production prior to 1780“. If true, it means that the continuous-arm Windsor chair, rather than being the invention of some ingenious American chairmaker, is just another style imported from England, like all the rest.

(For the curious: I tried to do a bit of research on the topic myself, but frankly I’m at a loss as to where to even begin. The history of English antiques is very much a foreign topic to me. So instead I asked Jack himself – a former antiques dealer – if he knew of any primary sources supported the pre-1780 origin of the style. He said that his reference books were packed away at the moment, but that he intends to follow up on the topic himself. So keep an eye on his blog if you’re interested in a firmer conclusion to this saga.)

Even if further evidence demonstrates that the style did originate in the Old Country, that doesn’t mean that American chairmakers should feel any less pride in our chairmaking heritage. After all, unlike the rather unsophisticated, stump-legged chairs from the southern coast of England, the New York continuous-arm is an enduring icon: a refined symbol of good taste, comfort, and durability.

So, If You’re Going to Be in Charleston this Weekend…

…You should probably go ahead and book tickets to the special tour of the Aiken-Rhett house, arranged by Lie-Nielsen. I’ll be there! Think of how exciting it will be to finally meet a real, live blogger! And also, there will apparently be lots of decrepit furniture and a shabby old historically significant house and whatnot (if you’re into that sort of thing).

Chris Schwarz wrote about this event back in 2014, which you can read here. The details about the event (and the Lie-Nielsen Hand Tool Event which runs concurrently) can be found at the Lie-Nielsen website. And you can read more about the Aiken-Rhett house at their website, here.

Aiken-Rhett House Museum Tour

Date & Time: April 7th, 2016 (2:00pm to 3:00pm)

Location: 48 Elizabeth St. Charleston, SC 29414

Cost: $12 per person

Tour Details:

We’ve arranged a special tour of the Aiken-Rhett House Museum, a landmark historic home located at the corner of Judith and Elizabeth streets in Charleston.The Aiken-Rhett House was built in 1820, and remained in the hands of family and decedents for 142 years. Its rooms retain objects and decorations original to the home and its early occupants. Visitors will tour the home and its outbuildings, and experience the history contained therein.

We will meet at the Aiken-Rhett House Museum at 1:30pm on Thursday, April 7th. The tour starts at 2pm and lasts about one hour. If you are interested in joining, please call us at 1-800-327-2520 or email us at: toolworks@lie-nielsen.com to reserve your spot. Cost of admission to the museum is $12 per person. After the tour, at 4pm, we’ll head over to the American College of the Building Arts for a presentation by local furniture conservationist Russell Buskirk, followed by dinner and beers at the Craftsman Tap House at 6:30pm.

I know it’s a long shot, but if you’re planning to attend, let me know and I’ll be on the lookout for you. Living in the Deep South affords precious few opportunities to get a closeup perspective on early American furniture, so I plan to soak in as much of the experience as I can. Hope to see you there!

 

A Tale of Two Tripod Tea Tables

(And a lot of alluring alliteration?)

I mentioned yesterday that I ran into something interesting at the antique store on Sunday. Of course, it may only be of interest to me, but I hope not, because I spent a couple of hours writing about it.

Rural southern antique stores tend to yield some peculiar offerings. (I’m sure it’s the same everywhere; I can only speak to my own experience). But every now and then you come across something worthwhile, which keeps the experience fun. If nothing else, it’s an opportunity to pull out drawers and peek inside of carcases in ways that museums and your neighbors might disapprove. The store that I visited on Sunday had a couple of mahogany tea tables that were worthy of a closer look.

(Actually, only one of them was worth a closer look, but I thought it might be helpful to compare an interesting one with a non-interesting one, side-by-side)

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What is your first impression when you see the tables in the photo above? (Feel free to comment, because I’m curious what jumps out at other furniture-makers).

The tables are similar in their basic form: tripod tables, with legs joined to a central column, comparable in height, diameter, and footprint. But the differences are instantly apparent. The table on the left has a more pleasing finish: it looks smooth and matte, allowing the color and grain of the wood to take center stage. The table on the right has a glaring finish that obscures the wood and distracts the eye from the form. The table on the left has an attractively-shaped top, with a raised edge accented by six decorative C-scrolls. The table on the right has plain, round top with no raised edges.

That is where the credits to the table on the left come to an end. Looking below the top, we see that the right table has shapely, almost muscular legs. They look active and alive compared to the drooping, blocky legs on the table to the left.

More on the legs later. For now, let’s have a look at the columns (apologies, though, for the quality of these photos).

 

Though superficially similar, the turning on the right is far more competent and cohesive than the one on the left. On the column to the right, the variation in diameters is more dramatic and the separation of the various elements more assured. The column on the left features redundant repetitions of the elements above and below the urn; it lacks the punctuating bead on the upper portion of the taper; and the transition from the tapered section atop the urn to the wider part that supports the tabletop is slow and uncertain.

Now, back to the top for a closer inspection.

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The plasticky film of polyurethane notwithstanding, the top of this table is a nice piece of wood. I didn’t measure it, but I would estimate it to be ~26″ wide from a single plank of solid mahogany. I will criticize the rim, however. Not every tea table can have a laboriously-carved pie crust top, but this table would definitely have benefited from a turned, raised edge.

The other table has a nicely carved edge, but all is not as it seems…

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Notice in the picture below, the tell-tale clue of veneer separation:

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And of course, if you examine the edge, you’ll see the sandwich of applied carvings, mahogany veneer, solid wood, followed by another layer of delaminating veneer. The shaping of the edge below the applied moldings is pretty half-hearted as well.

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Alright now, let’s flip these things upside-down and take a look underneath:

If you haven’t figured it out by now, the story starts to unfold with these two photos. On the photo at left, look at how the leg is beginning to separate from the column. You can peek in (well, I could) and see the dowels that join the legs to the columns. Dowel joints were a mainstay of early-20th century Colonial Revival furniture – and that’s exactly what this table is.

Dowel joints are an inferior way to join two pieces of wood under almost any circumstances, but they are a particularly poor choice for a pedestal table, which, by design, keeps the lower portion of the joints under constant tension. A more typical apron table will only have tensioned joints when the legs are kicked or bent. The inadequacy of the joints is clearly demonstrated by the fact that it is already failing, probably less than 100 years into its existence.

The table on the right has legs joined by sliding dovetails bearing  the distinct irregularities of hand-cut joints. Note the complete disregard for the appearance of the underside – saw marks and gouge marks are left untouched so that more precious time can be spent refining the appearance of the visible elements. These are all signatures of genuine 18th-century craftsmanship. This table is, I believe, a genuine 18th c. tea table that was unceremoniously slathered in high-gloss polyurethane by some poor misguided soul. The original finish may be destroyed, but the legs, properly joined to the column with sliding dovetails, is still tight and solid ~250 years after it was built.

Now, more on the legs.

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I didn’t mention it above, but what really jumped out at me about the legs on the 20th c. table was the fact that they were completely inappropriate to be paired with the “pie crust” tabletop. This style of legs, with the beaded, concave upper surface, the unshaped sides, and the metallic foot, is Neoclassical, and would be at home in the early 19th c. on a “drum table“. The top is more typical of Chippendale furniture from the third quarter of the 18th c. So you have a mishmash of two styles separated by half a century that would never be found on an authentic period piece. It doesn’t matter how well-done the work is; if you combine a Neoclassical legs with a Chippendale top and a column that would not have been stylish in either period, you end up with an awkward and ungainly chimera.

On the other hand, the legs on the 18th c. table fit right in with the rest of the piece. They are curvaceous but not ostentatious, and very proficiently shaped.

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The transition from the legs to the column is far more competent than the other table as well (of course it helps that the style of the legs is appropriate to that of the column). Above the knees, the legs sweep upward, drawing your eye to the turned elements of the column.

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Finally, one more enhancement that the 18th c. table has over the 20th c. chimera: This one has the tilt-top that is typical of this period – a space-saving design that allows the table to be pushed up against a wall (or in a corner, depending on how the legs are oriented) when not in use. It’s more labor-intensive than a stationary top, but not so much as the more elaborate tilting- and rotating-tops that were also desirable during the period. A wooden pin fits into the battens, while a brass catch keeps the table from tilting during use.

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Now, where was the table built? I honestly have no idea, but my best guess is that it was imported from England. Still, it’s an attractive but relatively simple table that I would be pleased to own (after a thorough re-finishing job) or reproduce.

So what was the price?

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$275. I’m not an expert, but I don’t consider that a bad price for a genuine 18th-century piece (I could be wrong here, could be worth 5o bucks at auction, for all I know). But given the work that would be required to make it presentable again, I had to pass. I think the other table was in the neighborhood of $125, but I wouldn’t care to own it at any price.