Exploring Charleston’s Architectural History in Home Customization

South Carolina is steeped in rich history, distinctive architecture, and scenic beaches and islands. It is a gem in the South. Thanks to our rich history there are certain architectural features that have made our region unique. Locals love the unique features of our city and many of the unique Charleston architectural features are requested on custom new homes.

Whether you’re a resident of Charleston or simply curious about the historical significance of Charleston-style homes in South Carolina, let’s delve into a brief history of our architecture.

History of Charleston Architecture

townhouses in england

Charleston, SC, was founded in 1670 as a port city and named after King Charles II of England. The city rapidly became one of the earliest unique architectural styles in the United States. Charleston-style homes that date back to the early 1890’s are still standing in in downtown Charleston.

These distinctive homes are no longer built in the exact style, making them exclusive to historic districts. Today, over 2,700 of these homes still stand as a testament to Charleston’s architectural legacy. While homes in other Southern cities may bear a resemblance, a true Charleston-style home is a hallmark of the “Holy City” itself.

Charleston Architectural Style

Colonial

Time Period: 1600s to 1700s. Colonial architecture was the main style during the American Colonial period, from the 1600s to the late 1700s. It took inspiration from countries that settled in the American colonies, like Spain, England, and France.

These buildings were simple, with little or no decoration, symmetrical shapes, a centered exterior door, double sash windows, and steep, pitched roofs.

Georgian

Time Period: 1714 to 1830. Georgian architecture is very symmetric, like Colonial, but it drew more from Greece and Rome than Western Europe.

Georgian buildings have more decor and ornamentation compared to Colonial structures. However, the decoration is not excessive and is sometimes absent on some Georgian buildings.

Federal

Time Period: 1780 and 1830. Another restrained style on the east coast of the U.S. is Federal architecture. These structures were simple boxes, two rooms deep, with no ornamentation on their exteriors.

Federal-style buildings are found in East Coast cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.

Classical Revival

Time Period: 1895 to 1950. By the late 1800s, Classical Revival became popular in the U.S. It borrowed from various architectural styles, including Greek Revival, and often featured large columns with Corinthian, Doric, or Ionic capitals.

Gothic Revival

Time Period: Late 1740s to 1860. Gothic Revival structures aim for dramatic impact and are often seen in churches. They include architectural details like steeply pitched roofs, decorative dormers, and wood trim resembling lace.

Famous examples include Hurst Castle, Trinity Church, and the French Huguenot Church in Charleston.

Victorian

Time Period: 1837 to 1901. Named after Queen Victoria, Victorian style was popular from 1837 to 1901. It features steeply pitched roofs, ornate gables, iron railings, rooftop finials, towers and turrets, and asymmetry.

Italianate

Time Period: 1840s to 1880s. Italianate architecture combines 16th-century Italian Renaissance with Picturesque architecture, creating drama in its design. It gained popularity during the Victorian Period.

Art Deco

Time Period: 1925 to 1940. Art Deco is widely recognized for sleek exteriors with stylized ornamentation.

Famous examples include the Chrysler Building in NYC and the Griffith Observatory in LA.

Facts and Myths About Charleston Architecture

peninsular charleston southern style home

Charleston’s distinctive architecture, known as the “Holy City” style, is concentrated in and around Peninsular Charleston, setting it apart from other Southern styles. The city boasts a remarkable array of pre-Civil War houses in vibrant hues, coupled with cobblestone streets.

Despite variations in architectural styles, a common interior layout characterizes all Charleston homes, featuring front doors opening into foyers leading to staircases, bedrooms on the left, a living lobby on the right, and a kitchen, with arched doorways separating the rooms.

A prevalent misconception suggests that Charleston homes had narrow facades to avoid higher taxation, and another myth links the architecture to early residents cultivating sugar plantations. However, both notions have been debunked.

What are Charleston Style Homes?

charleston style homes

Charleston style homes come in two main versions – single house and double house. These iconic homes are predominantly located in Charleston’s historic districts, specifically the French Quarter and Battery districts, setting them apart from other southern home styles like Colonial houses.

Notably, Charleston homes are exclusive to the Charleston peninsula. While the single house and double house share similarities, they possess distinct characteristics that differentiate them from each other.

Charleston Single House

A Charleston single house is characterized by its narrow facade when viewed from the street, but it extends extensively into the property, creating a long structure. Although it appears to be about one room wide, it is, in reality, several rooms wide when viewed from the side. Typically, there’s an entryway at the front leading to a porch or piazza, where the actual entrance is often located.

According to Chris Bonner, this unique design emerged as a response to Charleston’s climate, featuring long south or west exposures for shade and catching breezes. The deep two-story piazzas along the south and/or west sides provided essential shade and ventilation, serving as a distinctive architectural solution to the local climate long before the era of air conditioning.

This design also naturally created a separation of public and private spaces, enhancing privacy for residents.

Charleston Double House

The Charleston double house, while less prevalent than the single house, stands out as another classic representation of Charleston-style architecture, particularly in the Lowcountry.

Prominent examples of this architectural design include the Aiken-Rhett Museum House and the Heyward-Washington House.

In contrast to the single house, the double house presents a full-length facade to the street. This two-story design features a central entrance hallway running through the middle of the home, creating a symmetrical layout. With a total of four rooms, two on each floor, the double house captures the essence of historic Charleston charm and elegance.

Charleston-Style Home Color Scheme

One undeniable characteristic of Charleston-style homes is their vibrant and impeccably bright color scheme. From the pinks and yellows of Rainbow Row to the reds and blues of Broad Street, Charleston showcases a unique taste for lively and eye-catching colors. However, this hasn’t always been the case.

After the Civil War, Downtown Charleston faced a period of decline and weariness.

In 1931, Dorothy Porcher Legge took the initiative to revitalize the city by painting a section of homes on East Bay Street pink.

As the street started to look more appealing, other residents joined in, each choosing their pastel hues. And thus, the tradition of colorful Charleston homes was born.

Characteristics of Charleston Homes

charleston mansion

In Charleston, where things are usually fast and easy, we’re lucky to have skilled artisans who care about preserving old homes. This means you can find many great examples throughout the city.

Let’s check out the special details of these homes.

Narrow and Long

Charleston single houses look narrow from the street, like row houses, but they are long, stretching far back into the property.

Wide

Double houses in Charleston have a wide front, unlike single houses. But single houses are long enough to make up for their narrow fronts.

Fake Front Door

Charleston homes have a “fake” front door that leads to the porch, not directly inside. This started during the Victorian era (1837-1901) to give homeowners more privacy.

Piazza

You’ll see a piazza designed to catch breezes throughout the day. Placing porches perpendicular to the street lets more breeze flow through on warm days.

Interior Layout 

Charleston homes typically have a similar inside layout, two stories tall, with stairs dividing the sides when you enter. There’s usually a bedroom on the left, and the living space and kitchen are on the right. An arched doorway often separates the living room and kitchen. Upstairs, there are two separate rooms on either side.

Architectural Style

The Charleston homes you see often have different styles based on when they were built. These styles include Colonial, Federal, and Victorian, as well as Gothic Revival, Classical Revival, Italianate, and Art Deco.

Bright-Colored Exteriors:

The most famous Charleston homes on East Bay Street, called “Rainbow Row,” have candy-colored exteriors. Many Charleston-style homes are brightly colored, making them stand out even more.

Considering Building a Charleston home? Contact Oak Angel Builders for Trusted and High-Quality service!

If you love the Charleston aesthetic, then you’ll need to hire a local contractor who can help you incorporate some of these iconic elements into your upcoming design. Many elements lend themselves to modern construction beyond the color schemes. By combining features from historic homes into your modern design, you are creating a bridge between historic influence and modern-day living. Give Oak Angel Builders a call; they are the trusted experts in custom home construction and design throughout Johns Island and Charleston. With their emphasis on creative solutions and high-quality craftsmanship, the Oak Angel team can bring your historically influenced team to life.

Your dreams of a custom home in Charleston deserve not only the best materials and techniques but also a profound knowledge of the local architectural legacy. Let Oak Angel Builders be your companion, merging the charm of Charleston’s historic look with the innovation and personal touch you crave.

Reach out to Oak Angel Builders and step into a new phase of your life, where your vision takes shape, brick by brick, room by room, forming an exceptional custom home. With a team dedicated to your preferences, the outcome will be a home that provides solace for you and radiates the splendor of the South.

Frequently Ask Questions!

Working with builders and designers who understand Charleston's architectural history ensures your home captures the essence of the city's unique style. Features like floor layout, front facade design, and color choice can be included as a homage to historic Charleston design.

Yes, modern technologies can be seamlessly integrated into Charleston-style homes to enhance energy efficiency without compromising their architectural integrity.

Regular maintenance, using quality materials, and consulting with experienced builders contribute to the longevity of a Charleston-style custom home.

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