Visiting the Aiken-Rhett House
The thing about Charleston, South Carolina is that there’s no shortage of gorgeous historic mansions to visit. The biggest problem is choosing which one since they all cost $10 and more to visit and you can add up quite the bill if you choose to tour more than one. While I had interest in the Edmonston-Alston house (it commands stunning views of the harbor due to its waterfront promenade location), as well as the Nathaniel Russell House (it has a “free-flying” 3-story spiral staircase), I ultimately settled on the Aiken-Rhett house since numerous guidebook authors consider it to be their favorite of all the houses in Charleston and it was built a staggering almost 200 years ago.
The first thing you’ll notice about the Aiken-Rhett house is that it’s a bit removed from the historic district (it’s about a 30 minute walk from the Edmonston-Alston house, for example). I learned on the tour that during the 19th century, the area it’s in was actually considered more of the “suburbs.” Due to not being right in the middle of the historic district, it is easy to see where more modern Charleston has “moved in” (there’s a school a couple of blocks away).
One of the many reasons why people find visiting the Aiken-Rhett house so fascinating is that instead of restoring it, it’s been preserved, meaning its interiors have survived virtually unaltered since the 1850s. It’s considered to be the city’s most intact antebellum urban complex. Visitors walk on the same floorboards that its original owners did more than 150 years ago. And due to its more removed location from downtown Charleston, it of course did not suffer the damage that many other properties did during the American Civil War.
The house itself is beautiful-it has a distinctive yellow exterior color making it quite recognizable from the street, along with of course its immense size. While I had never heard the term before, the house was actually considered to be a “city plantation.” At one time, it’s believed that 14 slaves lived and worked at the Aiken-Rhett house, which is a very large number for a property in the city. One reason that makes visiting the house unique is that the original outbuildings are still there. One is the kitchen and laundry, the other a carriage and stable house, both containing sleeping quarters that were located directly above. I was there on a pleasant spring day, but I can’t fathom having to live in these windowless rooms during the height of brutally hot and humid Charleston summers.
While some people find visiting historic houses boring, I love to do so and especially enjoy hearing about their former occupants. The name of the house is actually attributed to its second owner (William Aiken, Jr) and his daughter (Henrietta Aiken Rhett). William Aiken was many things during his life including a successful businessman and politician (he was once governor of South Carolina). He also was not the hardcore secessionist (those in favor of leaving the Union during the American Civil War) that most of his neighbors were. But during the war, he was imprisoned by both the Union and Confederate Armies since both sides considered him to be a traitor. I found this part of him to be similar to Robert E. Lee (commander of the Confederate Army)-not wanting to betray your country but also not wanting to betray your heritage. The other neat thing is that the property remained in the Aiken-Rhett family for 142 years until it became a museum. How often does that happen?
My favorite part about the house was its piazza, a Charleston term for a double porch. It offers lovely views of the area below and would have been a nice way to catch a breeze. It was also so easy to envision ladies in hoop skirts, and men drinking mint juleps sitting out here as they once would have done.
Visiting the Aiken-Rhett house is like stepping back into the past, a past that doesn’t resemble a Hollywood set because what you’re looking at is the real thing, no artificiality about it. You won’t be disappointed.
Tips for visiting!
-Your price for admission includes an audio tour which I felt was excellent. You are given a thorough background into both the house and its occupants.
-Children might be a bit bored. I’d say those 14 and older would get the most out of it.
-Photography sans flash is allowed so snap away.
-You do need to leave your bags in lockers that are on site, so anything you don’t need to bring with you, keep at home.