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Foundation Matters

Aiken-Rhett House: A Family Legacy

Posted: August 25, 2017

The Aiken-Rhett House Museum, c. 1820, is a unique survivor. The house descended in the Aiken-Rhett family for 142 years until it was sold to The Charleston Museum and opened to the public in 1975.

Charleston merchant John Robinson built the house in 1820 as a typical Charleston double house. When he 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 and began an extensive renovation of the property. By all accounts, they created one of the most impressive residences in early 19th-century 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 enjoyed an extensive European Grand Tour and returned with magnificent fine art and furnishings for their renovated house. 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.

William Aiken, Jr. died in 1887 at his summer home in Flat Rock, North Carolina. He left his property to his wife and daughter. His wife, Harriet, 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.


14 responses to “Aiken-Rhett House: A Family Legacy”

  1. Kerrie Scott says:

    What is the latest tour time. Do we just need to be finished by 5pm? Is it about an hour?

  2. della says:

    This is probably my favorite thing I’ve done on my many visits to Charleston. I love the preservation as opposed to restoration approach – giving this house an eerily beautiful and rich historical atmosphere. Walking down the slave quarters hallway was a very visceral experience. I cannot say enough how much I enjoyed my visit. I would love to visit again!

  3. Juana says:

    Is the Aiken Rhett walker accessible?? Are there stairs??

    • Holland Williams says:

      There are stairs in the Aiken-Rhett House. We do have a ramp that we can use for access to the ground floor. The ground floor allows guests to view the Prep kitchen inside the main house, the back lot, the carriage block and the first floor of the slave quarters, including our new archaeology exhibit.

  4. Ledy Esquenazi says:

    Can one purchase a combo ticket at either Aiken-Rhett or Nathaniel-Russel house?

  5. Marie Chrest says:

    The audio tour was very informative. The equipment was subject to difficulties and we had to swap out one as it failed to function.
    The docents were very helpful. Even gave a great recommendation for lunch.

  6. Caroline says:

    I really like that the designers of this tour didn’t shy away from accurately portraying how hard life was for African American slaves at this time. So many tours of historical properties sail right over it but this really didn’t shy away from the subject matter and that is so important.

  7. Kate says:

    Really enjoyed our visit yesterday! Love the fact that the Aiken Rhett house and grounds preserved. Really gave a feel for what it was like during those years. Audio was great once WE figured it out. Very informative! Staff helpful, engaging and generally interested in guests. Highly recommend a visit here!

  8. Kara Allaire says:

    I was a Historic House Interpreter at the Aiken-Rhett House I’m 1991-1992. What a unique a experience! This home will always hold a special place in my heart 🙂

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