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Foundation Matters

Preserved as Found: The Ongoing Work to Study and Conserve the Aiken-Rhett House

Posted: July 8, 2024

Years of observational data on the cracks at ARH.

A few weeks ago, our summer interns Madelyn Reber and Amanda Nestor completed an update to an interior plaster crack study at the Aiken-Rhett House. This study began in 2009 and has been updated almost every year since by our dedicated team of interns each summer. The study has been documenting crack systems in the plaster walls and ceilings throughout the Aiken-Rhett House. This provides us with an annual check-up on the conditions of the interior finishes and how they are changing over time.

While the plaster crack study is an invaluable tool for documenting the decorative finishes of the house, it has also helped to focus efforts on understanding some of the underlying structural systems at Aiken-Rhett and how they are performing over time.

Over the past few years, we have been doing a deep dive into understanding some of the more significant crack systems identified in the plaster study, and the potential causes of those cracks. The two primary areas of concern are the west wall of the main house that fronts Elizabeth Street, and the north wall of the dining room.

Prior to the Aiken family moving into the house in 1835, they conducted a major renovation that significantly altered many of the structural systems, particularly in the double parlors. Further renovations and additions to the house in the 1850s by the Aiken family introduced more changes to the house. There has never been a comprehensive investigation of the structural systems, or exactly how the original systems were modified during the two phases of renovations in the 19th century. Understanding the current condition of the critical structural elements, and how the subsequent renovations affected those systems is the primary goal of this investigation.

LEFT: Aiken-Rhett House as built c.1820s. RIGHT: Aiken-Rhett House after 1835 and 1854 renovations.

In 2021, HCF received a grant from the South Carolina Department of Archives and History to fund a 3D laser scan of the main house to help inform a more intensive structural investigation. By starting with a non-destructive method like laser scanning, the engineering team was able to pinpoint specific areas in the house to prioritize for the assessment. The 3D scans produced a detailed digital model of the entire house, allowing the engineers to analyze cross sections of the floors and walls to see if there has been any significant deflection or movement over the life of the building. This data was crucial in confirming that there were no immediate life safety concerns to address that may affect visitation or the safe occupancy and use of the house.

Laser Scan of Aiken-Rhett House from Elizabeth Street

Structural Engineer, John Moore, looks underneath the floorboards to see the condition of the main staircase.

Earlier this year, John Moore from EM Structural Engineers and preservation contractor Moby Marks were able to identify priority areas in the house that warranted further study using the laser scanning data. This included the west elevation of the main house; particularly the lintel over the double parlor window, but also the pocket door walls in the double parlor, both staircases, and the north wall of the dining hall addition.

Just before the July 4 holiday, the team identified floorboards around these areas that had already been cut when the gas and electric lines were installed in the 19th and 20th centuries. By lifting floorboards to inspect the structures underneath, the team was able to avoid damaging floors that have never been disturbed previously. The use of infrared cameras to help locate floor joists and headers through the plaster and floorboards was an exciting method for seeing through the walls of the museum.

Using minimally invasive and non-destructive methods like these are critical as part of our long-term stewardship of the house and its delicate fabric. The investigative work will continue throughout July. The team will then report on the findings and prepare a stabilization plan for any structural systems that need remediation. These stabilization efforts will take several years to plan, fundraise, and implement, but will be a necessary step for the long-term preservation of the Aiken-Rhett House Museum. We will be sure to post more updates as we learn more about the house throughout this investigative work. Please consider supporting this work and our many other ongoing preservation projects at both the Aiken-Rhett House and the Nathaniel Russell House by donating to Historic Charleston Foundation. 

-Justin Schwebler, Preservation Manager


Image Gallery:

Preservation in Progress at the Aiken-Rhett House Museum, 2024
Preservation in Progress at the Aiken-Rhett House Museum, 2024

Preservation in Progress at the Aiken-Rhett House Museum, 2024
Preservation in Progress at the Aiken-Rhett House Museum, 2024
Preservation in Progress at the Aiken-Rhett House Museum, 2024
Preservation in Progress at the Aiken-Rhett House Museum, 2024
Preservation in Progress at the Aiken-Rhett House Museum, 2024
Preservation in Progress at the Aiken-Rhett House Museum, 2024

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