Many visitors to Charleston come to see the historic buildings that date back to the early days of the city’s founding. While the plantations along the Ashley River are popular, you can also get a look inside some of the lavish homes downtown.
While many are private residences, some are now house museums in Charleston, run by the Charleston Museum, Historic Charleston Foundation, or through independent trusts. Others are open during the seasonal tours of homes.
A Note On Plantations: These homes have a dark history that shouldn’t be ignored. Only you can decide whether this is something you’re interested in doing. Read this post for more perspectives on both sides of the debate.
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Tours and Tickets
Each of these homes has its own ticketing process, but you can also purchase combination tickets. For example, the Heyward-Washington and Joseph Manigault houses have combined tickets with the Charleston Museum.
You can also get entry during promotions for Charleston’s Museum Mile like Mile Month. The TourPass Charleston also provides entry into many of these homes at one price. And tours like Charleston’s Alleys and Hidden Passages give a glimpse into the streets behind the famous mansions.
Historic Charleston House Museums
The Aiken-Rhett House was built in 1820 in what is now the Mazyck-Wraggborough neighborhood of Charleston for merchant John Robinson. It was later acquired by William Aiken Sr., a railroad magnate, who passed it on to his son William Aiken, Jr., who was later the South Carolina governor.
Aiken Jr. and his wife expanded the home in the 1830s and it continued to pass down through his family for over 140 years. Around 1975, it was sold to the Charleston Museum and it subsequently opened as a museum. The Historic Charleston Foundation now oversees it.
The Aikens owned slaves and their stories are told on the tours. Among the outbuildings are a kitchen, the original slave quarters, and a carriage block. A number of the original furnishings also survive.
Tickets are $12 for adults and can be purchased in combination with tickets to the Nathaniel Russell House. Tours are self-guided and offered daily from 10 am to 5 pm. The Aiken-Rhett House is located at 48 Elizabeth Street, a short walk from the visitor’s center.
The Calhoun Mansion was built in 1873 for businessman George W. Williams in the Victorian style. It was constructed with over 30 rooms and a large ballroom.
After Williams’ death, it was inherited by his son-in-law Patrick Calhoun, the grandson of statesman John C. Calhoun. In 1914, it operated as a hotel and in 1932, portions of the property were subdivided. In 1976, it was purchased and restored.
In 2004, it began operating as a museum. It’s also been used in films like North and South and The Notebook. It is decorated in the Gilded Age style and contains artifacts from the period.
Tickets are $17 for adults while children under 11 are free. Tours are held from 11 am to 5 pm every half hour, lasting around 30 minutes. The Calhoun Mansion is located at 16 Meeting Street near The Battery.
Visit the home on the High Society of Charleston tour, which ends at the Calhoun Mansion.
The Edmonston-Alston House was built in 1825 for Scottish immigrant Charles Edmondston on the ruins of a fort alongside a sea wall. The modified single house was purchased by rice planter Charles Alston in 1838 and the third story was added.
A number of the Alston family details still remain, including the family crest on the rooftop railing and the dining room table. There are brief mentions of the enslaved people that lived here but the focus is on the high society family.
On the brink of the Civil War, General P.G.T. Beauregard watched from the house as shots were fired from Fort Sumter. The home later passed to Alston’s daughter Susan, who then gave it to cousin Henry Augustus Middleton Smith in 1922. It became a museum in 1973, operated by Middleton Place Plantation.
Tickets are $12 for adults and $8 for students and children and combination tickets are available with Middleton Place. Tours are held on Sunday and Monday from 1 to 4:30 pm and Tuesday to Saturday from 10 am to 4:30 pm and last 30 minutes. The Edmonston-Alston House is located at 21 East Battery.
The Heyward-Washington House was built in 1772 for Thomas Heyward, Jr., one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. George Washington was even hosted here during his 1791 tour. Heyward and his family lived here until 1794 and his descendant, DuBose Heyward, wrote the novel Porgy that George Gershwin developed into Porgy and Bess.
He sold it to the Grimke family in 1794 and it became home to soldier John and his family, including daughters, and future suffragettes and abolitionists, Sarah and Angeline. The home was purchased by the Charleston Museum in 1929 and opened in 1930 as the city’s first historic house museum.
Among the pieces of Charleston-made furnishings in the house is the Holmes Bookcase, a fine example of colonial furniture. There’s also a 1740s kitchen building and formal gardens.
Tickets are $12 and combination tickets are available with the Charleston Museum and the Joseph Manigault House. Tours are offered Monday to Saturday from 10 am to 5 pm and Sunday from 12 to 5 pm. The Heyward-Washington House is located at 87 Church Street, a block from the Nathaniel Russell House.
Visit this home on the Lost Stories of Black Charleston Walking Tour, but entry is not included.
Joseph Manigault House
The Joseph Manigault House was built in 1803 in the Adams style and designed by brother Gabriel Manigault. Joseph was a wealthy rice planter and French Huguenot who came to America to escape religious persecution. He inherited many plantations and hundreds of slaves from his grandfather, securing his wealth.
It contains intact outbuildings like the kitchen and slave quarters, stable, and privy as well as fine furniture from Europe and beyond. The dramatic staircase is another incredible feature.
After Manigault’s death, the home was sold in 1852 to George N. Reynolds Jr. before passing to John S. Riggs in 1864. By 1920, the home was slated for demolition, but a group of locals formed the Preservation Society of Charleston to save it. The Charleston Museum purchased it in 1933.
Tickets are $12 and combination tickets are available with the Charleston Museum and the Heyward-Washington House. Tours are offered Monday to Saturday from 10 am to 5 pm and Sunday from 12 to 5 pm. The Joseph Manigault House is located 350 Meeting Street alongside the Charleston Museum.
Visit on the Historic City and Southern Mansion Combo Tour.
Nathaniel Russell House
The Nathaniel Russell House was built in 1808 for slave trader and merchant Nathaniel Russell in Neoclassical design. The townhouse was home to Russell, his wife, two daughters, and likely eighteen slaves to run the household.
Russell wanted only the finest home and had a number of architectural details installed like elaborate plasterwork, heart pine floors, formal gardens, and a grand three-story cantilevered staircase.
In 1857, it was purchased by Robert Allston, governor of South Carolina, and he lived there until his death. From 1870 to 1905, it operated as a boarding school before again becoming a private residence. In 1955, the Historic Charleston Foundation was created to save the property. It remains one of the best house museums in Charleston.
Tickets are $12 for adults and can be purchased in combination with tickets to the Aiken-Rhett House. Tours are offered daily from 10 am to 5 pm and are led by docents. The Nathaniel Russell House is located at 51 Meeting Street, around the corner from Rainbow Row.
Visit the home on the Badass Broads of Charleston tour, which ends at the house.