We continue exploring the Aiken-Rhett House and outbuildings this week. This property is extensive, and Historic Charleston Foundation provides an excellent, user-friendly program for visitors to maneuver the main house, outbuildings and grounds.
As this is a museum house owned and operated by Historic Charleston Foundation, there is a $12.00 cost for adults; the cost is well worth the tour. The tour is self-guided; when you enter 48 Elizabeth Street, you will be directed down the stairs to purchase your ticket, receive
your headphones and other paraphernalia if not using your smart phone.
The tour will begin downstairs in the servants’ hall which is directly beneath the dining room. There was an elaborate ring or “call” system for each of the rooms in the “Big House”. The remnants of this system are evident on the exterior of the house when you walk out of the
servants’ hall into the inner courtyard.
Life “behind the Big House” is probably best understood through a visit to 48 Elizabeth Street because the outbuildings have been well-preserved and authentically interpreted. Standing at the top of the outside stairs in the rear of the house gives you the best overview of the expanse of the rear property. Tall brick walls enclose the back yard and lend an air of seclusion; no one can see inside the property from outside and vice versa. Two identical two-story Gothic revival rectangular buildings flank the border walls; one building served as the original kitchen and laundry, and the other was built as the carriage house and stables. The enslaved African Americans belonging to Governor Aiken lived on the second story of each building; the windows
look over the interior yard and, together with the brick walls, reinforce the visible and invisible
boundaries of each enslaved life.
Walking through these buildings as you listen to the narrative is a moving experience as layers of history are peeled away and you are introduced, by name, to several of the enslaved people who lived and worked on this property. The reality can be somewhat unnerving and emotional.
As you visit the interior of 48 Elizabeth Street, the disparity of the two worlds that existed side by side is evident. The house, preserved instead of restored, is still impressive in its faded grandeur. Crystal chandeliers, gilded full-length mirrors, peeling wallpaper, antique furniture and, with one entire room as art gallery, speak of the Aiken family’s past wealth and lavish living. This property is a must for those interested in antebellum life in Charleston.
Next week we’ll visit more of the structures in the Wraggborough district of Charleston.