Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Aiken-Rhett House, Charleston, SC - Pt. I

Photos via Library of Congress

“Through closed shutters the tendrils of vines reached in from outside. Broken chains of prisms hung from chandeliers. Rotting silk drapery clung to gilded poles. Silver hardware had turned black, and a heavy black dust covered everything and hung in the air, so thick in one room that they could not breathe.” - Henry Wiencek, “Old Houses”

So was the Aiken-Rhett house when the curator from the Charleston Museum entered the neglected mansion accompanied by two decedents of the family that had lived in the house for 150 years. The last occupant of the house, Frances Rhett, had moved out of the house three years prior, and had recently donated the house to the museum. Her late husband, I’on Rhett and his brother Andrew Burnet Rhett, Jr., occupied the house (with staff) as bachelors for many years, spurning any ideas of modernization, living just like their ancestors had.

1830's Entrance Hall - Photo via Library of Congress

The fourteen room mansion was built in 1817 by John Robinson, a wealthy merchant, who only lived in the house for a short time until he was forced to forfeit it to his creditors when several of his ships were lost at sea. One of the creditors, William Aiken, took possession of the house until he was killed in a carriage accident and the house passed to his son William Aiken, Jr.

William Aiken, Jr., a wealthy planter and future governor of South Carolina, with his wife Harriet were to have the greatest influence on the appearance of the Aiken-Rhett house. Beginning in the 1830’s, they oversaw an extensive redesign of the house in the Greek Revival style. The first floor was divided into double parlors and the entrance was moved from the wide front porches (know in Charleston as piazzas) to the side, where an elegant marble entrance hall was built.

Photo - Michael Eastman

In the 1850’s, the Aikens once again redecorated, this time in the Rococo Revival style. A gallery was built to display the artwork acquired from the family’s travels throughout Europe and a large portrait of Harriet Aiken, by George Whiting Flagg, was installed in the second parlor, so large that a window was blocked off to accommodate the life-sized painting.

William Aiken passed away in 1887, followed by his wife in 1892. At Harriet’s death, her daughter Henrietta began a custom that was followed by successive members of the family, her mother’s room was simply shut-off, her belongings left untouched.

Henrietta and her husband, Major A.B. Rhett, raised their family in the house. When Henrietta passed away it was divided between her children and their heirs. Burnet Rhett, Jr and his brother I’on Rhett, followed by his wife Frances were the last occupants of the house. Little by little, rooms not needed were closed and left for time to take it’s course.

Harriet's bedroom

The Art Gallery

The Back Staircase
Photos via The Library of Congress