The urban equal to Drayton Hall is Charleston’s Aiken-Rhett House. I only know about it because I went to the state-of-the art Visitor Center one block north of Marion Square and asked Wesley to name the 3 best Charleston attractions that the average tourist doesn’t find. Aiken-Rhett was #1. Wesley said it was overlooked because it wasn’t in the historic part of town. It was, in, fact, just a one-block walk from the Visitor Center at 48 Elizabeth Street.
What makes Aiken-Rhett so stupendous is that you don’t have to imagine what it was like to live in the 19th century while you’re there. As Where magazine reports, “The Aiken-Rhett House stands alone as one of the most intact buildings showcasing urban life in antebellum Charleston.” Even the original outbuildings, including the kitchen and stable, look like they were in use last week. Just inside the door of the coach house is an Aiken carriage that seemingly awaits passengers.
Built in 1820 for John and Susan Robinson, Aiken Rhett was a fairly typical, high maintenance double house. Merchant John, however, lost the cargo on a couple of seagoing ships and had to sell after only 5 years. William Aiken Sr., future South Carolina Governor and wealthy cotton and railroad entrepreneur, bought it. William and Harriet, his wife, made extensive changes, like adding an entire two-story wing, before moving into the house in 1835. They decorated as if money was water and even changed the house’s overall style to the currently popular Greek Revival. William was a staunch Unionist and must have been upset when his only surviving child, daughter Henrietta, fell in love with the son of a dedicated secessionist, Robert Barnwell Brett. When Henrietta married Andrew during the Civil War in 1862, her bridesmaid Julia wore a gown made from curtain material she bought before hostilities ensued. I wonder if Margaret Mitchell knew about this and used the situation in Gone With the Wind. Dead at 45, Andrew left Henrietta with five children ranging in age from 22 months to 10 years to raise. Three generations of Aikens soon lived on Elizabeth Street. Harriet died, age 80, in 1892 and Henrietta became Aiken-Rhett’s sole owner.
The saga continues tomorrow including Ruth’s favorite Aiken possession, a Lowcountry phenomenon known as a joggling board, and the reason why the Aiken-Rhett House made it into the 21st century without being restored.