The Aiken-Rhett House Museum, 48 Elizabeth Street, c. 1820, is unique in many ways. For example, it remained in the hands of family descendents for 142 years until it was sold to The Charleston Museum and opened as a museum house in 1975. Historic Charleston Foundation purchased the house in 1995 and adopted a conservation approach to the interpretation of this important house and its outbuildings.
Located on the corner of Judith and Elizabeth streets, Charleston merchant John Robinson built the house in 1820 as a typical Charleston double house with a central hallway and two rooms on either side. The original front entrance was located on Judith Street, where the piazza, a Charleston term for a double side porch, is now located. When Robinson lost five ships at sea in 1825, he was forced to sell the house to meet his financial obligations. Subsequently, it became the property of William Aiken Sr. in 1827.
Aiken, an Irish immigrant who had accumulated a large fortune as one of the city’s leading merchants, used the house as a rental property. When he died suddenly in a carriage accident, his vast holdings were divided between his wife, Henrietta Wyatt Aiken, and his only son, William Aiken Jr.
In 1833, the young William Aiken and his new bride, Harriet Lowndes, decided to make the house their primary residence. They began an extensive renovation of the property. Three main changes took place: the front entrance was moved, the first floor was reconfigured, and a large addition was built onto the house. By all accounts, they created one of the most impressive residences in Charleston.
A successful businessman, rice planter, distinguished politician and governor of South Carolina, William Aiken Jr. was one of the state’s wealthiest citizens. Following a well-established tradition among Charleston’s elite, Governor Aiken and his wife traveled in Europe and returned with magnificent fine art and furnishings. In 1858, while abroad, Governor Aiken commissioned his cousin, Joseph Daniel Aiken, to design and oversee the construction of an art gallery, the only one of its kind in the city. Today, many of the objects acquired by the Aikens on their travels remain in the rooms for which they were purchased.
The Aiken family library, containing more than 2000 volumes mostly published in the 1800s, has recently been transferred to the Charleston Library Society archives and placed on long-term loan. Many of the books are signed by family members and were purchased on their travels through Europe.
Prior to the Civil War, the Aiken-Rhett House was maintained by a population of highly skilled enslaved African Americans who worked to sustain the Aikens’ high standards for elegant living and entertaining. Occupations within the household included carriage drivers, cooks, footmen, gardeners, laundresses, nursemaids, and seamstresses. A post Civil War document reveals the names of 14 slaves that lived at the Aiken-Rhett House and attended the family: Tom and Ann Greggs, and their son, Henry; Dorcas and Sambo Richardson and their children, Charles, Rachel, Victoria, Elizabeth, and Julia; Charles Jackson, Anthony Barnwell, and two carpenters, Will and Jacob. Many of these individuals remained in Charleston following Emancipation, and Jacob Gaillard and Henry Greggs lived and worked at the Aiken-Rhett House until their deaths in 1896 and 1908.
The back lot of the Aiken-Rhett House is where the slaves worked and lived, and they probably took their meals communally in the kitchen. A unique site, the Aiken-Rhett House retains both original outbuildings. One is the kitchen and laundry and the other a carriage and stable house, above which are found sleeping quarters. Many of the rooms had fireplaces, and paint evidence suggests these rooms were painted vibrant colors.
William Aiken, Jr. died at his summer home in Flat Rock, North Carolina, in 1887. He left his property to his wife and daughter. Harriet Aiken continued to live in the house until her death in 1892. Her daughter, Henrietta, and son-in-law, Major A.B. Rhett, raised their four sons and one daughter in the house. Upon Henrietta’s death, the house was divided between her children and their heirs. Two sons, I’On Rhett and Andrew Burnet Rhett, Jr. continued to live in the house until the mid twentieth century.
The Aiken-Rhett House is open, Mon-Sat, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sun, 2-5 p.m. (last tour begins at 4:15 p.m.).
Tickets are $10 adults; $5 children 6-16; under six free.
Please contact Valerie Perry for more information or to schedule a group tour.