Nathaniel Russell House
Considered one of Charleston’s grandest homes despite being built by an outsider from Rhode Island, the Nathaniel Russell House (51 Meeting St., 843/724-8481, www.historiccharleston.org, Mon.–Sat. 10 a.m.–5 p.m., Sun. 2–5 p.m., last tour begins 4:30 p.m., $10 adults, $5 children) is now a National Historic Landmark and one of America’s best examples of neoclassicism.
Built in 1808 for the then-princely sum of $80,000 by Nathaniel Russell, a.k.a., “King of the Yankees,” the home is furnished as accurately as possible to represent not only the lifestyle of the Russell family, but the 18 African American servants who shared the premises.
The house was eventually bought by the Allson family, who amid the poverty of Civil War and Reconstruction decided in 1870 to sell it to the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy as a school for young Catholic women.
Restorationists have identified 22 layers of paint within the home, which barely survived a tornado in 1811, got away with only minimal damage in the 1886 earthquake, but was damaged extensively by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 (and since repaired). As with fine antebellum homes throughout coastal South Carolina and Georgia, the use of faux finishing is prevalent throughout, mimicking surfaces from marble to wood to lapis lazuli.
Visitors are often most impressed by the Nathaniel Russell House’s magnificent “flying” spiral staircase, a work of such sublime carpentry and engineering that it needs no external support, twisting upwards of its own volition.
When you visit, keep in mind that you’re in the epicenter of not only Charleston’s historic preservation movement, but perhaps the nation’s as well. In 1955, the Nathaniel Russell House was the first major project of the Historic Charleston Foundation, which raised $65,000 to purchase it. Two years later, admission fees from the house would support Historic Charleston’s groundbreaking revolving fund for preservation, the prototype for many such successful.
For an extra $6, you can gain admission to the Aiken-Rhett House farther uptown, also administered by the Historic Charleston Foundation.
© Jim Morekis from Moon Charleston & Savannah, 4th Edition