Gretchen Mckay, Pittsburgh Post-gazette
A "front" door in Charleston, S.C., leads to a porch.

CHARLESTON, S.C. — There are plenty of reasons to visit the historic port city of Charleston. But what charmed me most were the houses.

Laid out in a grid by the English in 1680, "Charles Towne," as the city was originally known, is blessed with an awe-inspiring array of 18th- and 19th-century homes. And it's not just the gracious antebellum mansions along the seawall overlooking the Ashley River that filled my old-house lover's heart with such envy and longing.

Charleston's signature "single" houses — long, narrow homes with piazzas that stretch down the entire side — are what make its streets so visually appealing. This distinctive house style was shaped by the city's hot and humid summers, plus the fact there wasn't a whole lot of land to divvy up.

Situated on a narrow peninsula, Charleston's city plan called for crowding as many houses onto its narrow streets as possible. To maximize living space (most lots measure just 40 to 50 feet), builders went up instead of out. Adding a south- or west-facing piazza on each level, meanwhile, allowed residents to catch cooling ocean breezes and shield themselves from the brutal afternoon sun. Outfitted with shuttered panels, the porches served as outdoor living and sleeping rooms.

What makes the single house even more interesting is the false front door at the end of the ground-floor porch, opening from the street. Although it looks as if it leads into the house, in reality it leads just to the piazza. The "real" front door is on the porch, about halfway back.

The best way to get an inside look at these houses is a tour of the city's house museums. I would have loved to have wandered a few miles outside the city to either Drayton Hall, a 1742 plantation house that's considered one of the finest examples of Georgian Palladian architecture in America, or Middleton Place, an 18th-century rice plantation that includes America's oldest landscaped gardens. However, we focused on homes near the City Market. Charleston, after all, is known as a walking city.

Two centrally located houses well worth visiting are Heyward-Washington and Nathaniel Russell.

Located within a district known as Cabbage Row, the three-story, 6,000-square-foot Heyward-Washington residence was built in 1772 by Daniel Heyward, a wealthy rice planter, who gave it to his son Thomas, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Adding panache is the fact that George Washington rented it for a week in May 1791 for the then-princely sum of 60 pounds.

The house's classic Georgian plan includes a center hall with pairs of rooms on each side. Each of its 12 rooms has a fireplace in which the family burned coal imported from England. As was the custom at the time, the front rooms on the main level served as the business area; the real living and entertaining was done on the second floor.

When the Charleston Museum purchased the house in 1929, it was being used as a commercial bakery. So the two front rooms had to be reconstructed according to best guesses. But everything beyond the archway is original — the paneled doors, the long-leaf pine floors, the woodwork and even the colors on the walls.

The first-floor rooms are decidedly simple, but the second floor is anything but. The paneled drawing room overlooking Church Street on the "piano nobile" is particularly grand, with an ornamented chimney piece in the American Rococo design, broken-pedimented doorways and equally elaborate crown molding.

Fine furnishings are the main interest here. Around the time of the American Revolution, Charleston was a center for cabinet making, with more than 250 English-trained artisans in residence. Many fine Heyward-Washington pieces were crafted out of mahogany shipped from the West Indies.

Large furniture was common in Charleston because of the large, high-ceilinged rooms. One humongous 13-piece bookcase dominates an entire wall in the first-floor reception room.

In the "withdrawing" room upstairs is a 12-foot-tall Holmes bookcase made around 1770. The master bedroom overlooking the garden includes an exquisite four-poster bedstead that belonged to Thomas Heyward.

The exterior includes a picturesque garden and a brick kitchen quarter, which was constructed in 1740 and included five small rooms above for the Heyward's dozen or so slaves. It's the only historic kitchen in the city that is open to the public.

If you'd rather be dazzled by architecture, the Nathaniel Russell House, located two blocks south on Meeting Street, is a better bet. This Federal-style townhouse was completed in 1808 for Nathaniel Russell, a Yankee who came to Charleston in 1765 and made his fortune exporting indigo, rice, cotton and tobacco. The house cost him $80,000 to build, when average value of a home was $262.

Furnished with period antiques and artwork, it is widely recognized as one of America's most important Neoclassical houses. Its rooms come in three geometric shapes — rectangle, oval and square.

One of the prettiest rooms in the house is the oval dining room off the first-floor hall. Considered the home's "proper room," its vivid blue-green walls appear painted but are actually covered —18th-century style — in small squares of paper. Period furnishings include a polished demilune table set with Chinese export dishes dating from 1775 to 1800, and an elegant mahogany wine cooler called a cellarette. Lamps on the mantel date from the 1760s. Both the heart-pine floors and the wood interior shutters are original.

The second-floor drawing room is even more highly decorated. Papered in apricot, it features elaborate plaster moldings covered with 24-karat gold leaf and plinth blocks at the base painted to resemble lapis. The curved entry doors have a burled walnut veneer that resembles tortoise shell. Furnishings include both a piano forte from 1790 and an 1803 French harp.

The home's main feature is a free-flying spiral staircase that winds its way up three stories in an impressive feat of engineering. (Each cantilevered step supports the one above and below it.) Its ceiling is actually a hand-painted trompe l'oeil on canvas.


Gretchen McKay can be reached at [email protected].