Originally built in 1820, and expanded twice in 1830 and 1850, the Aiken-Rhett House is one of the nation’s best examples of a well-preserved townhouse complex from this era. The grounds include the main house, a kitchen, slave quarters, carriage block, and a back lot. This museum house offers a compelling portrait of life in 19th-century Charleston, both for the upper-class family who lived here and the scores of enslaved Africans who made their lifestyle possible. Explore the Aiken-Rhett House on your next visit to Charleston!
Though both the Nathaniel Russell House and the Aiken-Rhett House are part of the Historic Charleston Foundation, different approaches have been used in maintaining each museum over the years. While the Nathaniel Russell House has been meticulously restored, conservators of the Aiken-Rhett House decided to take a preserved-as-found approach, where virtually nothing has been altered in the majority of the house since HCF assumed ownership in 1995. This means that all the furniture, finishes, and architecture were left intact, so visitors are able to see them in their original form. This includes the slave quarters, with original paint, floors, and fixtures dating to the 1850s. Because of this, it’s probably one of the very best places to see and understand the everyday realities of slave life in Charleston. The exception to this preserved-as-found strategy is the art gallery, which houses paintings and sculptures acquired by the Aiken family on their European Grand Tour in 1857-1858.
While a tour of the Aiken-Rhett House Museum might be truly fascinating for adults, children might need a little extra excitement and hands-on engagement to inspire a love of history. If you’re traveling with kids, consider visiting during one of the Historic Charleston Foundation’s fun family activity days. Offerings this summer include a Family Fun Scavenger Hunt, where families will scour the house and grounds for certain objects, clues, and artifacts to discover more about the Aiken family and their servants and slaves. There will also be period games and crafts, as well as a mock archaeological dig in the yard.
Another great activity day will focus on indigo dye, first turned into a mass-produced crop in the South by Eliza Lucas Pinckney, an astute Charleston businesswoman and plantation owner. Visitors will learn about her important legacy as they experiment with tie-dyeing a shirt, and any other items of clothing they bring along. What a fun way to immerse yourself in history!
These are just a few of HCF’s offerings this summer: check their calendar for upcoming events!