Nathaniel Russell was a Rhode Island merchant who moved to Charleston and made it big in the shipping industry. He married Sarah Hopton, from one of Charleston’s richest families, and build himself an over-the-top house. What’s now the Nathaniel Russell House museum, owned by the Historic Charleston Foundation, was built for $80,000 over the course of five years, at a time when the average price of a house in Charleston was $262. It was completed in 1808.
The wrought iron balcony, above the door facing the street, has NR woven into the design. Seems a tad vulgar for early 19th century Charleston.
Tourist entry was around the back, through the beautiful garden ….
and past what we’d later learn was the slave quarters (photo below). Russell had 18 enslaved workers at this house. Unlike the Aiken-Rhett house, also owned by Historic Charleston, the Russell house tour doesn’t go into much detail about slavery. According to a blog post on their website, it wasn’t until 2017 that they actually started looking into the lives of those enslaved on the property. So a display room — formerly the kitchen — with a few objects related to slavery on exhibit, is about the extent of it for the moment.
Did we want to go on a guided tour, or wander on our own using their audio tour? we were asked by the receptionist. We’d learned to use the Historic Charleston audio tour recorder during our Aiken-Rhett House visit and now we had skilz. Mad Audio Guide Skilz. So definitely the audio tour.
She also warned us that the house was crowded, and she was right. More on that later.
The most famous architectural feature in the house is its free-flying, three story staircase. We were only allowed on the first and second floors.
The first and second floors have three main rooms each: an oval room, a square room and a rectangular room. The oval rooms are the dining room on the first floor and what’s now presented as a music room on the second. The art and furniture are not Russell pieces but all are of the Russell period. Many are Charlestonian.
The rectangle rooms are the entrance on the first floor and a sitting room upstairs.
The square rooms are a master bedroom on the second floor, and a small parlor on the first floor. There’s no photo of the small parlor because it was too full of people to get a good shot.
The house stayed in the family for two generations, before it went through a series of owners, including the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy, who used it as a boarding school. When developers threatened it in the 1950s, the Charleston Foundation raised $65,000, and bought and restored it.
I think the ticket seller was trying to steer us to the guided tour (instead of audio — there’s no cost difference) when she mentioned the crowds. Because not only were we shoulder to shoulder with the other visitors, we were kept out of rooms while tour groups were in them. It made for a long and trying visit and for that reason — and because the house just didn’t speak to me — I’m not in any rush to go back. It was Kathie’s favorite Charleston activity by far, however, so don’t let me discourage you from a visit.