54 Hasell Street is perhaps the oldest residence in Charleston – by that I mean the oldest building built specifically as a residence (instead of later being used as one), dating from 1712. At the time this house was built, it was “in the country”. Colonel William Rhett (and, yes, if Rhett Butler had been real, Col. Rhett would have been “his people”) purchased property outside of the original walled city, about 2 blocks north of Major Daniels’ Creek where the City Market is now situated. Rhett called his new property of about 30 acres “Rhettsbury”. On Edward Crisp’s map of 1711, which shows the walled city, Rhett had a dock on the Cooper River between Craven’s Bastion (the present site of the U.S. Customs House on East Bay Street) and the half-moon battery (the present site of the Old Exchange Building), and he had a house nearby in the walled city. It was shortly after the Crisp Map was published that Rhett built his house in Rhettsbury at what is presently 54 Hasell Street.
Colonel Rhett is one of Charles Towne’s earliest heroes, helping protect this young English settlement on the peninsula from invasion by hostile forces and from the scourge of pirates. In fact, Rhett is most well-known around these parts for his 1718 capture of the “gentleman pirate” known as Stede Bonnet together with his crew of pirates.
While no longer the original acreage, 54 Hasell is still one of the largest owned single-family properties on the Charleston peninsula. The house, built of brick covered with stucco, was altered around 1800 and restored around 1950; it certainly would have been smaller and looked different at the time it was built. The east entry with its stairs were not part of the original house; neither were the piazzas we see on the east and west ends. Subsequent owners after Rhett have been good to the property and 54 Hasell stands proudly over the immediate area.
If you ever get a chance to view the gardens behind the house, don’t hesitate! The gardens, created in the 1940’s by the famous New York landscape design firm, Innocenti & Webel, are occasionally open during private home and garden tours, and last June was my opportunity to see the gardens during Spoleto’s “Beyond the Garden Gate” tour. I was unprepared for the expanse of the garden which is divided up into several garden “rooms”, one of which was designed and used for concerts for family and intimate gatherings. My overall impression was one of sanctuary, an oasis in the midst of June heat and facilitated by the shade of Southern live oak trees.
I would imagine that Colonel Rhett would be pleased with how his “Rhettsbury” has evolved into 54 Hasell Street over the last three hundred years!