Architecture of Charleston: 7 Signature Styles and 12 Historic Buildings

The city of Charleston in Carolina has a riveting visual appeal, being crowned as America’s first historic district by the Board of Architectural Review. People travel here across continents for savory food and shopping smorgasbords, in search of Southern vintage culture. Founded in 1670 as “Charles Town”, Charleston has witnessed centuries of evolution in architecture, now making it the fifth largest city in the USA.

7 Types of Architecture in Charleston

Elegant, authentic and picturesque houses have been a part of Charleston’s history. Copper lanterns, earthquake posts, magnificent doors and intricate hitching posts flank the streets, creating 7 distinct architectural styles. Here are the various types of architecture in Charleston: -

1. Georgian

Roughly finished limestone trim, granite pedestals, decorative molding and massive stone arches are a part of Georgian architecture in Charleston. This elite style features symmetrical themes and cornice entries.

2. Greek Revival

Charleston is a quintessential model of Greek revival, with stunning buildings full of Ionic columns, modilian style cornices, domes and arched windows.

3. Federal

A subset of Italian Renaissance style, Federal architecture refers to Charleston’s buildings with a central floor plan, elliptical fanlights, palladian windows and oval shaped rooms. Delicate details make this style one of the most fascinating.

4. Charleston Single House

Charleston single house is not a particular style and may be built out of any material. Piazzas, duplex porches and spacious rooms are characteristic. This style dates back to the 1730s but can be found in every single Charleston street.

5. Art Deco

Combining modern styles with refined materials, Art Deco buildings are influenced by geometric domes and cubism. Smooth-facing stone, terracotta, glass, steel and aluminium are some of the sleek contemporary materials used.

6. Italianate

Adopted from traditional Italian villas, Italianate architecture in Charleston flourished between 1870 and 1900. Stucco, masonry and stone are often used to build spectacular cupolas, slim arched windows, overhanging eaves and cornice are found in this Romantic style.

7. Gothic Revival

Perhaps one of the most prevalent types of architecture in Charleston, Gothic Revival showcases castle-like towers, pointed arched windows, vertical facades, pitched roofs and parapets.

Other prominent styles: Victorian, Queen Anne, Antebellum, Adamesque, Romanic.

Facts and Myths About Charleston Architecture

Charleston architecture is exclusively found in and around Peninsular Charleston, unlike other Southern styles. This has earned the city the nickname “Holy City”, known for its massive collection of pre-civil, candy-colored war houses and cobblestone streets. But no matter the architectural style, all homes in Charleston feature a consistent interior layout where front doors open to a foyer leading to staircases, bedrooms to the left, a living lobby on the right and a kitchen. Rooms are separated by arched doorways.

It is often said that the architecture of Charleston’s homes had extremely narrow facades on the street-facing fronts to avoid higher taxation. Another myth says early residents cultivated sugar plantations. However, both have been disproved.

12 Iconic Buildings Representing Architecture of Charleston

Charleston is a treasure chest of over 2,800 well-preserved historic buildings. Discover the city’s charming and rustic character with these 10 majestic buildings, exuding Southern affluence: -

1. Heyward-Washington House

Built in 1772, Heyward-Washington House in Charleston was Thomas Heyward Junior’s home, who signed the Declaration of Independence. This triple-storied Charleston double house was rented to George Washington in 1791. The house was opened to the public as the town’s first museum where today you can see a 1740s style kitchen, courtyards with mature 18th century plants and period furniture.

The building has five windows across the front, centered front door showcasing crown molding and chimneys, all of which are signatures of Georgian fusion styles.
Address: 87, Church Street, Charleston, South Carolina 29403
Monday - Saturday: 10am - 5pm
Sunday: 12pm - 5pm
Tickets: USD 25 - USD 40

2. The Huguenot Church

Known as one of the finest manifestations of Gothic Revival architecture in Charleston, Huguenot Church features finials, ornamented hood moldings having label stops, pinnacles, pointed windows, scalloping. The combined elements create a breathtaking castle-like building that overlooks the district of French Quarter. Huguenot Church was built in the 1680s by French refugees but was converted to a church in 1844.

Even today this Protestant church follows French style prayer services from the 18th century but in English.
Address: 136, Church Street, Charleston, South Carolina 29401
Architect: Edward Brickell White

3. Exchange and Provost

Colonial and Victorian styles were popular among architecture in Charleston during the pre-revolution war period between 1600s and 1700s. Today, Exchange and Provost, earlier known as Old Exchange Building, is an epitome of Colonial architecture with low foundations and 3 levels. Multi-pane windows, pillars, symmetrical facades and columns are found within the building. 

There’s also a grand entry hall embellished with murals and chandeliers. After being established in 1767. Exchange and Provost housed several civic functions like a custom house, post office, meeting space, market and even a jail during the American Revolutionary War. The Constitution of 1788 was reunified at this historic location.
Address: 122 East Bay Street, Charleston, South Carolina 29401
Timings: Monday - Saturday: 10am - 5pmSunday: 12pm - 5pm

4. Aiken Rhett House

Federal architecture made its way into Charleston between 1700 and 1830, after the revolutionary war. Aiken Rhett House stands to commemorate authentic style, marked by spiral staircases, many chimneys, narrow windows with shutters and balconies. Inspired by British culture and ancient Roman temples, the house remained as the Aiken family residence until it was sold as a museum in 1975, 142 years after being built.

Arched Palladian windows, fanlights above the semicircle entrance also provide hints of Greek Revival architecture.
Address: 48 Elizabeth Street, Charleston, South Carolina 29403
Architect: William Aiken Junior, 1831
Timings: 10am - 4:15pm, Thursday - Sunday. Closed from Monday - Wednesday.

5. Wentworth Mansion

Reminiscing of Victorian Second Empire style of architecture in Charleston, Wentworth Mansion is ranked among the 100 most beautiful mansions in the world. Now a 5-star downtown luxury hotel, Wentworth Mansion was built in 1886 by Francis Silas Rodgers with brick facades, mansard roofs and rooftop cupola. 

Fine details, stately decor, Italianate fireplaces, ornate steep roofs and colorful exteriors grace this 24,000 square feet mansion. With original rooms intact and restored, Wentworth Mansion now offers lavish accommodations, a restaurant inside the original carriage house and spa treatments at the former horse stable.
Address: 149, Wentworth Street, Charleston, South Carolina 29401
Booking Prices: Starting at USD 515.
Amenities: Restaurant, spa, kid’s club, wine bar.

6. Fireproof Building

Owned by the non-profit South Carolina Historical Society, Fireproof Building is the only notable building featuring minimal ornamentation in Charleston since it was built in 1827. However, the building’s Greek Revival and Neo-Classical architectural styles solely define its unmatched elegance. High arches, triangular roofs and bulky columns were built to emanate elite social prominence. Since the building held public safety records, it was the first ever fireproof-building of America in its time.
Address: 100 Meeting Street, Washington Square, Charleston, South Carolina 29401
Architect: Robert Mills
Listings: National Register of Historic Places, National Historic Landmark, National Historic Landmark District Contributing Property.

7. Patrick O’Donnell House

Featuring low, flat roofs, domes, symmetrical and rectangular fusion themes, narrow windows, tall double doors and eaves, all over multiple spacious stories, Patrick O'Donnell House is a must-visit to experience rare Italianate architecture in Charleston. It is a classic example of a Baronial side hall plan having adjacent rooms, piazzas and winding stairs. There’s also a carriage house.

Though not much is known about its establishment except that construction was completed in 1856 by a Galway Irishman, the house was home to novelist and poet Josephine Pinckney till 1937. Today, it is the private home of James Pallotta who purchased the property for USD 7.2 million.
Address: 21 King Street, Charleston, South Carolina 29401
Listing: National Historic Landmark
Residents: Patrick O’Donnell, William Gibbies, James Pallotta

8. The Riviera Theater

With the upcoming of Mayan and Aztec architecture in Charleston during the Jazz age in the roaring 1920s, The Riviera Theater stands as one of the most famous Art Deco buildings in the United States. Geometric shapes, narrow latticed windows, vibrant colorful themes and modernist designs adorn this theater, where first of home-run pictures were screened in 1939. When a group called the Friends of Riviera threatened to demolish it, Charleston Place Hotel came to the rescue and bought the property. It is now used as a ballroom and conference center.
Address: 221 King Street, Charleston, South Carolina 29401
Architect: Albert Sottile, President of Pastime Amusement Company
First Show: “Secrets of a Nurse”, May 15, 1939

9. Nathaniel Russell House

Built by a wealthy merchant and slave trader in 1808, Nathaniel Russell House is recognized as one of the most important Neoclassical buildings in America. Sitting in the heart of downtown Charleston rubbing elbows with The Battery, this dwelling flaunts Federal style symmetrical rectangular facade, four bays, paneled balustrades, a triple-storied central block and entrance with unadorned windows.

Carolina gray bricks, white marble lintels, white keystones and red bricks were some of the materials used to erect this contemporary museum.
Address: 51 Meeting Street, Charleston, South Carolina 29401
Architect: Nathaniel Russell
Timings: 10am - 5pm, Thursday - Sunday. Closed from Monday - Wednesday

10. Fort Sumter

Charleston has had its fair share of revolutionary wars and revolts in history. Fort Sumter is a historical monument built at the entrance to the city on an artificial island. Protecting Charleston from naval invasion since 1829, Fort Sumter offers interiors accommodating and defending up to 650 people. 

Two tiers of gunroom and officer quarters line the fort’s walls. 3 barracks and a parade ground are also present at this bastion. Built over 30 years, this unfinished pentagonal stone masonry fort is a legacy of Charleston’s military architecture.
Address: Fort Sumter National Park, Charleston, South Carolina 29412
Timings: Open 24 hours

11. Drayton Hall

Perched on the sylvan shores of Ashley River, Drayton Hall is the nation’s earliest Palladian architecture building as well as the oldest plantation house in the country. It has never been restored and offers great insight into Charleston's history. Drayton Hall’s main house, gardens, gallery and landscape are open to the public today.

The hall’s square top Palladian windows, recessed porticos, single storey rooms and massive columns were influenced by ancient Roman temples. All of these gracefully combine to form symmetrical facades.
Address: 3380 Ashley River Road, Charleston, South Carolina 29414
Timings: 9am - 2:30pm, Wednesday - Sunday. Closed on Monday and Tuesday.
Tickets: USD 22, USD 10 (Children below 10)

12. St. Michael’s Episcopal Church

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church is another exemplary Georgian influence on the architecture of Charleston. It is the oldest surviving church edifice and religious structure of the city built in the 1750s. Surrounded by verdant palm groves, the church displays clocks and bells from colonial times, windows in the front, crown molding and delicate paintings on the front door and brick walls with stucco. Easter Morning style windows also adorn the church towards the north.
Address: 71 Broad Street, Charleston, South Carolina 29401
Timings: 9am - 4pm, Sunday - Friday. Closed on Saturdays.
Architect: Samuel Cardy, 1751 - 1761
Listing: National Historical Landmark
Which particular style among the variety of architecture in Charleston appeals to you the most? Have you visited any of these historic landmarks in Charleston before? We would love to hear your experience, suggestions and queries in the comments below.

This post was published by Koushiki Kundu

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