The Russell House, which stands amid some of Charleston’s most spectacular homes a few blocks from the southern tip of the city’s peninsula, is an impeccable representation of what life would have been like for an elite family in the early part of the 19th century. The Aiken-Rhett House, on the other hand, has been intentionally left in a state that depicts the way it has changed and evolved over the past two centuries.
On a recent weekend trip to Charleston, my husband and I toured each, only partly because I couldn’t resist the discounted ticket for visiting both.
We started with the Russell House, a Federal townhome that looked particularly fetching in the slanting late afternoon sunlight. Rhode Island transplant Nathaniel Russell, a wealthy merchant, completed the opulent residence in 1808.
At various points, the house was the home of one of Russell’s granddaughters and her 12 children, a girls’ academy and a school and motherhouse for an order of nuns. It also survived a tornado in 1811, the bombardment of the city during the Civil War, a devastating 1886 earthquake and Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Not that you’d guess it by looking around.
The foundation went to great lengths to restore the house to its original appearance, according to Winslow Hastie, the group’s director of preservation and museums. Just before the house opened to the public in the 1950s, its show-stopper, a free-standing spiral staircase, got a bit of reinforcement. A little square was cut away from the underside of it to let people see the underlying structure.
And preservationists took a page from “CSI,” matching up tiny paint and wallpaper samples and having them reproduced to stunning results, such as the shockingly turquoise oval dining room. In the second-floor drawing room, the elaborate cornices around the ceiling needed some TLC. There was also faux wood graining to re-create, as well as reapplying the finish that makes the plinths that form the base of the columns around the windows and fireplace look like lapis lazuli.
To some, that level of restoration makes the decision to preserve the Aiken-Rhett House as is — warts and all — baffling. “There are people who come to the property and don’t get it,” Hastie told me later in a telephone interview. They think that the less-than-pristine state of things represents neglect, when in fact there’s a huge amount of effort put into, say, making sure that the faded original wallpaper doesn’t come off the walls. The idea is to preserve everything in the house without restoring it, to respect the “incredible layering of time and character,” Hastie explained.
The 1820 home came into the hands of the family it was named after in 1827. William Aiken Jr., a South Carolina governor and U.S. congressman, and his wife, Harriet, renovated it in the 1830s and 1850s, transforming it into one of Charleston’s grandest residences. Their descendants lived there into the 1970s.
Unlike the Russell House, which is filled with period items that the museum has collected to approximate what the original owners might have had, the Aiken-Rhett house is decorated with actual family possessions.
I liked its lived-in feeling. I could feel the weight of the years around me as much as the boards that squeaked under my feet. As we explored the house with an audio guide, I noticed what Hastie said people in the preservation business call “the ghost marks of things.” In one bedroom, a shadow on the ceiling defines where a ring of bed draperies had been secured. In the ballroom, a round upholstered seat had frayed with time, its stuffing popping out in places. How many people had sat there?
“It is kind of haunting in a way,” Hastie said.
Bring on the friendly ghosts.
48 Elizabeth St., Charleston, S.C.
Nathaniel Russell House
51 Meeting St.
Both houses open Monday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday 2 to 5 p.m. Tickets $10 or $16 for both; children 6-16 $5 or $10 for both.