Running water, gas lighting, handsome wood floors, carpet and curtains, a two-tone paint job — even a hook for hanging a mirror or portraits.
We take them for granted today, but these architectural features would have been something special inside an antebellum Charleston home.
One certainly might expect to find them inside the mansion at 48 Elizabeth St., now the Aiken-Rhett house museum.
But when a team of architectural conservators studied the slave quarters out back, they were stunned to find them all there.
Carl Lounsbury and Willie Graham, architectural experts with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, joined Orlando Ridout V to undertake what might be one of the most detailed studies of the house’s outbuildings — a project that has taken almost a year.
The Historic Charleston Foundation hired this architectural dream team as part of its multiyear effort to get as complete a picture as possible of one of this city’s grandest and most unaltered 19th century homes.
“The story people told before we started the work is that Aiken didn’t care about the slaves,” Graham says. “It seems what we have learned from our work is that it’s much more nuanced. The carpeting, curtains, a hook to hang a looking glass —that’s really over the top.”
“This is top of the line,” Lounsbury adds. “There’s no doubt about it.”
It’s still subtle stuff.
The surviving wooden fragments around doors and windows indicating a spot where curtains were hung — as well as the tack holes in the floor boards — aren’t obvious to visitors.
That eventually could change as the foundation uses the team’s findings to update its interpretation of the house museum.
Adding to the complexity is that these outbuildings — a kitchen, slave quarters, stable, garden follies and privvies — evolved over three eras, beginning in their original construction in the early 19th century, a major expansion around 1830 and a further upgrade around 1850.
Before anyone thinks the team is trying to revise history to say that Gov. William Aiken’s slaves were happy, they say it’s important to consider:
The niceness of the slave quarters could be considered yet another way for Aiken to display his wealth.
Even the slave quarters, relatively nice as they were, show that the slaves there had limits. For instance, there was no glass in a window nearest the dining room, essentially forcing the salves to keep that shutter closed.
These building tell only a small part of the story.
“You don’t want to get the image that Aiken was a benevolent slave owner,” Graham says. “He was buying them 30 at a clip, but the slaves who have the most favored positions in his household are given good accommodations.”
The larger lesson is how fresh eyes seeking answers to fresh questions still can find much to learn from the Lowcountry’s wealth of historic architecture. The Aiken-Rhett House’s outbuildings have been studied before — many times — and yet there still was more to learn here.
“Charleston continues to offer up great stuff that needs further investigating,” Graham says. “It hasn’t all been studied.”
The Charleston chapter of the American Institute of Architects has a $500 scholarship for a recent high school graduate planning to enroll in an accredited architecture program as a semester this fall. Anyone interested may email firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
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