Aiken-Rhett House

I have a thing for ruin porn – photographs of abandoned, decaying structures.  It makes no sense that I find ruins beautiful, since it breaks my heart when a building is unloved and ignored. But muted, peeling paint and worn floorboards make my heart sing.

So the perfect compromise for me is the “preservation, not restoration” movement, where structures are loved and cared-for, but otherwise untouched.

The Historic Charleston Foundation owns two houses: the Aiken-Rhett House and the Nathaniel Russell House. The Aiken-Rhett House has been preserved “as found” when it was acquired from the Aiken-Rhett family in the 1960s. The Russell House has been restored to its full 1808 glory. Which meant that I fell in love with the Aiken House while Kathie, a 18th century decorative arts expert, was enthralled by the Russell.

We started at the Aiken House, which was a couple of block from the hotel. “Do you want to use your own phone, or do you want to use one of our recorders?” the Aiken receptionist asked us. For the audio tour, that is. We used theirs, because figuring out how to get the tour on our phones was more work than a couple of old ladies were willing to go through.

The house was built in 1820 by merchant John Robinson but is named after its third owner, William Aiken Jr., a wealthy planter who became a congressman and a governor of South Carolina. He inherited the house from his father, expanded it and, after his marriage, turned it into his family home.

The Rhett of Aiken-Rhett came in when his only child, Henrietta, married Andrew Burnet Rhett.  Aiken was a Unionist who did not support southern secession (though he financially supported the Confederacy when it did happen), and he wasn’t happy when his only child decided to marry into an ardent secessionist family. When she married in 1862, Henrietta wore a dress made by her bridesmaid, Julia Rutledge, out of curtain material Julia had acquired before the war. Shades of Margaret Mitchell.

Starting with Henrietta, rooms in the house that weren’t needed were simply closed. You can tell by the two photos above. It looks like the blue drawing room was used to the bitter end, while the yellow room was abandoned early on.

I don’t know why, but Charlestonians call a veranda a “piazza.” The Grand Tour and a Room with a View and all that, I suppose.

Behind the main house are the dependencies, with slave quarters on the second floor.  Records show that William Aiken owned 878 slaves in 1850.  In the photo below, the stables are on the right and the kitchen and laundry are in the buildings on the left.

The audio tour includes the stories of the enslaved people, by name, including the Richardsons, the Greggs and the Cruchfields.  Dorcus Richardson worked for an orphanage for African-American children after the war and her signature on bank accounts shows that she was literate.  The Gregg children were also literate, perhaps taught by their aunt Dorcus.

It’s often assumed that the walls of slave quarters were always white washed. But paint analysis at Aiken shows that these rooms were brightly colored.

Jacob Gilliard, an enslaved butler and coachman for the Aikens, was still living there in 1896. In fact, servants continued to live in the rooms on the second floor of the dependencies until at least 1961. There is wiring that shows that there was once electricity to the rooms but no evidence of indoor plumbing.

Henrietta’s sons, I’On and Andrew, resisted modernization.  So much of the house remained as it was from the beginning. The last occupant was I’On’s widow, Frances, who donated the house to the Charleston Museum, which opened it to the public in 1975. Ownership switched to the Historic Charleston Foundation in 1995.

You can download, for free, the tour of the Aiken-Rhett House, including the audio, from their website.

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6 Responses to Aiken-Rhett House

  1. I feel the same way as you do about those old, abandoned houses. Sad, because, I always assume, there was no one left in the family to inherit. Well, that’s not always the case, is it? Mother sold our old homeplace, gardens and park acreage, in fell swoop instead of leaving it for my sister and me to inherit. She had her reasons. Still, preservation, along with just enough restoration, is the way to go for historic houses so that they can tell their stories.

  2. Susan Barsy says:

    Wonderful post. As a graduate student, I read some post-CW letters between Gov Aiken and Hamilton Fish of New York (Grant’s secretary of state), some having to do with the sad destruction of Aiken’s extensive collection of old wines during the war, which I believe he had had moved to the countryside in order to protect them. There, the bottles, the gentlemen mourned, were discovered and smashed to the ground by Union forces–not even drunk. (Every class having its own idea of tragedy.)
    I never had an image of Aiken’s surroundings, but now I do.
    Many thanks
    Susan

    • Thank you.

      What an interesting story — for one, that Aiken and Fish were in friendly correspondence. And that the wine was destroyed, not confiscated for some general’s table.

      • Susan Barsy says:

        Before the war, Aiken had maintained great state in Washington; he entertained, and would have known Fish as a senator in that period. After the war, Aiken’s circumstances were much reduced, as all Charleston was devastated and destitute. One of Fish’s younger relatives or friends was encamped there with the Union army, and wrote Fish of Aiken and of the generally stringent living conditions. (People were living on rice.) Aiken needed patronage, and to northerners of a particular type, he was a sympathetic figure. I believe he also wrote Fish of how all his old silver had been stolen.

        One of the major stories of the postwar period was how the defeated Southern ruling class worked their way back to respectability and power. . . For better or worse, people who knew Aiken personally apparently found it hard to see him as a villain.

      • That Aiken was an anti-sucessionist probably made him more sympathetic to northerners. Reconstruction is fascinating.

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