The Aiken-Rhett House
A sea merchant named John Robinson built the house in 1817, but after only eight years in the house he was thrown into dire financial straights when his ships were lost at sea. He was forced to sell the property. William Aiken Sr. bought it in 1827 and in 1833 his son, William Aiken Jr., a future governor and member of Congress, made the house his family’s primary residence.
One of the reasons that there are so many magnificent homes in Charleston is that in the 1800s, wealthy Charleston families saw their houses not only as the center of their family life but as the hub of their social life as well. The homes were show pieces meant to display the family’s status to their guests. The Aiken house was no exception, and Aiken Jr. made major renovations to the home, including moving the front entrance and building a large addition, calculated to make the home more impressive.
Along with the political offices that William Aiken Jr. held, he also held a more dubious distinction: he was one of the state’s largest slaveholders. The Aiken-Rhett house is one of the few residences in the city whose slave quarters have survived hurricanes and the wrecking ball. The chance to walk through the rooms where enslaved African-Americans slept, ate and lived is chilling, and it provides a rare glimpse into the life of the urban slave.
Heirs of William Aiken, including his daughter Henrietta and her husband Gen. A.B. Rhett, lived in the house until the 1970s, when it was sold to the Charleston Museum and then to the Historic Charleston Foundation in 1995.
The Aiken-Rhett House is a perfect compliment to the Historic Charleston Foundation’s other property, the Nathaniel Russell House. While the Nathaniel Russell House has been restored to the way it would have looked in the 19th century, using reproductions and modern craftsmen to replicate damaged décor, the Aiken-Rhett House takes a preservation-based approach to protecting the property. Every effort is made to keep all of the house’s original elements intact. The visual effect might not be as striking as the brightly colored walls and faux marble of the Nathaniel Russell House, but seeing the original, untouched detailing in the Aiken-Rhett House is absolutely fascinating.
You can visit the Aiken-Rhett House at 48 Elizabeth St., two blocks from the Charleston Visitor Center, Monday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m and on Sunday from 2 to 5 p.m. The last tour begins at 4:15 p.m. Admission, which includes a wonderful audio guide, is $10. You also can visit both the Aiken-Rhett House and the Nathaniel Russell House in one day by purchasing a combination ticket for $16.