Aiken-Rhett House Museum
The Aiken-Rhett House was built in 1820 by Charleston merchant John Robinson. It is a typical Charleston double house with a central hallway and two rooms on either side. It was purchased by William Aiken, Sr. in 1827 and remained in the hands of family descendants for 142 years. The house was donated by family members to the Charleston Museum in 1975. It was purchased by the Historic Charleston Foundation in 1995, which maintains preservation efforts and offers daily tours. The house contains much of the original artworks and furnishings purchased by Governor William Aiken, Jr. and his wife. The house was listed in the National Register on November 21, 1977.
Backstory and Context
John Robinson, a wealthy Charleston merchant, build the house in 1820. In 1825, several of his ships were captured and burned by the French. Not legally liable for the loss of the cargoes, he nonetheless felt obligated to the planters for the loss of their crops aboard. In order to raise the capital, he was forced to sell the home to William Aiken, Sr. in 1827.
Aiken was an Irish immigrant and had accumulated a large fortune as one of Charleston’s leading merchants. The house was used as a rental property. Upon his death in a carriage accident, his holdings were divided between his wife, Henrietta Wyatt Aiken, and his only son, William Aiken, Jr.
In 1833, William and his new bride, Harriet Lowndes, decided to make the house their main residence. They extensively renovated the property by moving the main entrance, reconfiguring the first floor and created a large addition. In 1858, an art gallery was added along with an iron balustrade. The Aikens traveled to Europe the same year and returned with many pieces of art and furnishings, many of which are still on display.
William, a successful businessman, rice planter, and politician would become Governor of South Carolina (1844-6). With high standards for elegant living and entertaining, documents revealed the names of 14 highly skilled slaves that were kept at the property to tend to the family’s needs. Many remained following Emancipation and two worked at the Aikens-Rhett House until their deaths.
While Aiken died in 1887, his wife Harriet continued to live in the house until she, too, died in 1892. Her daughter Henrietta and her husband, MAJ A.B. Rhett raised their four sons and one daughter in the house. When Henrietta died, the house was her children and their heirs. Two of her sons, I’on Rhett and Andrew Burnet Rhett, Jr. continued to live in the house until the mid twentieth century.
The house was donated in 1975 to the Charleston Museum. In 1995, the Historic Charleston Foundation purchased it and maintains preservation efforts and offers daily tours.
The house reflects the changes that occurred during the first half of the nineteenth century, with late Federal period, Greek Revival, and Victorian period influences. It is three stories, made of brick covered in stucco. Quoins decorate the corners and the basement has been scored to resemble stone. It features a Doric double piazza of two-stories and with a pediment at the attic level. There are several outbuildings. A kitchen building includes three kitchens, workrooms, and servant quarters on the second floor. There is a stable, two Gothic style brick privies, and two sheds.
The house was listed in the National Register on November 21, 1977.
Tickets are $10 adults, $5 children 6-16, under 6 – free