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.