From the street outside the Nathaniel Russell House, you can make out the original owner's initials in the black ironwork of the balcony railing above the front door. The large "N.R." announced to every passerby that this magnificent Federal townhouse belonged to Nathaniel Russell.
In fact, every detail of the Nathaniel Russell House is meant to impress the visitor. Russell was a rich merchant but lacked the impressive family tree of other wealthy Charlestonians. But what he lacked in pedigree he made up for in style.
Built in 1808, the Nathaniel Russell House is one of the most important neo-classical structures in the United States and was declared a landmark in 1973. The building is spectacular. Upon entry an elegant, elliptical spiral staircase greets you. When you visit, be sure to peek underneath the staircase for a look at its cantilevered construction.
The rest of the house is just as dramatic. However, several of the most stunning visual effects are created with a bit of theatrical magic. Where the walls meet the ceilings trompe l'oeil tricks the eye into seeing elaborate swags of plasterwork. Heart of pine doors are painted to look like a rich mahogany, and in the oval room where Nathaniel Russell's daughter, Alicia, married Arthur Middleton, embellishments are painted a rich blue to give the effect of lapis lazuli inserts in the stone.
The Russell family owned the house until 1857, when it was sold to Robert Francis Withers Allston, governor of South Carolina. In the years after the Civil War, the house served as a school for girls.
Today, thanks to the work of the Historic Charleston Foundation, the property has been meticulously restored to its 19th century brilliance and filled with contemporary furnishings.
The Nathaniel Russell House is located in downtown Charleston at 51 Meeting St. and is open for tours (given by knowledgeable, friendly docents) Monday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Sunday from 2 to 5 p.m. The last tour is at 4:30 each day. Tickets are $10, but if you are also visiting the Aiken-Rhett House you can buy a combined ticket to both historic homes for $16.
For more information on the Nathaniel Russell House or on the work of the Historic Charleston Foundation, visit www.historiccharleston.org.