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Thursday, 07 March 2013 03:42

Grandeur Preserved: Historic Charleston Foundation's House Museums and Collection


Fig. 1: The Nathaniel Russell House, Charleston, S.C., 1808. Historic Charleston Foundation. Photography by Rick McKee.

HCF was not alone in recognizing the architectural significance of the Nathaniel Russell House. In addition to national support, stories of schoolchildren donating bags of pennies demonstrated the community’s passion for both the house and the foundation’s preservation mission. Henry Smith Richardson, president of the Vick Chemical Company of New York, pledged half of the property’s purchase price. The Nathaniel Russell House served as Historic Charleston Foundation’s headquarters from 1955 until 1992.
Historic Charleston Foundation (HCF) was founded in 1947 to preserve and protect the historic landmarks structures and material culture that make Charleston a unique American city. The foundation is well known for its advocacy programs, including protective covenants and easements, and it was the first organization in the country to establish a Revolving Fund, a model now replicated in historic communities across the nation. Education and outreach coupled with preservation is at the heart of its mission. One of the primary ways that HCF fulfills this goal is through the interpretation of its collection and two museum sites: the Nathaniel Russell House (1808) and the Aiken-Rhett House (circa 1820). These historic properties serve as an ideal exhibition space for HCF’s outstanding collection of fine and decorative arts, architectural elements, and archeological fragments from the early eighteenth to the late nineteenth centuries.

The Nathaniel
Russell House

When the Nathaniel Russell House and expanded lot at 51 Meeting Street were threatened by site development in 1955, HCF rallied local and national support to rescue this historic property. The acquisition constituted a dramatic change in course for the nascent preservation organization, which just a few years prior had proclaimed that “the foundation was not concerned with house museums.”

Opening the Nathaniel Russell House, one of the most architecturally significant structures on the peninsula, to the public proved to be a fortuitous decision (Fig. 1). With the Nathaniel Russell House as HCF’s preservation flagship, the foundation established itself as a commanding presence in the preservation world, and its early efforts to furnish this Federal townhouse morphed into a nationally renowned museum collection. For over two centuries, visitors have admired the grand Federal-style townhouse of prominent merchant Nathaniel Russell. Born in Bristol, Rhode Island, in 1738, Russell came to Charlestown at the age of twenty-seven as a factor for Providence and Newport merchants, at a time when Rhode Island and South Carolina shared important trade connections. Russell quickly transitioned from factor to noted international merchant and rose to a position of wealth and prominence in the community.

Fig. 2: The most noted architectural feature in the Nathaniel Russell House is the flying staircase. Built on the principle of a cantilever, it ascends from the first to the third floor without any visible means of support. Photography by Rick McKee.

Fig. 3: Charles Fraser (1782–1860), miniature portrait of Nathaniel Russell, Charleston, S.C., 1818. Watercolor on ivory, 4 x 3¼ inches. Inscribed “Fraser/Painter” in the artist’s hand; below in pencil “Mr. Russell of Charleston/from life by C Fraser/Painter.” Gift of Mrs. Henry Abbot (92.5.3). Photography by Rick Rhodes.

Renowned Charleston artist Charles Fraser painted this miniature of Nathaniel Russell only a few years before his death. The entry for this commission is the first in Fraser’s account book dated 1818 to 1839. Russell paid Fraser fifty dollars for his miniature.

Completed in 1808 when Russell was seventy years old, the lavishly ornamented house served as a testament to his great wealth and was considered to be among the finest dwellings in Charleston. The house stood in contrast to other contemporary Charleston residences, with its unique geometric floor plan and fine architectural detailing such as the spacious reception room with intricate glazed doors, an elegant free-flying staircase, and elaborate trompe-l’oeil decoration from the first to the third floor (Fig. 2).

Painstakingly restored to its 1808 appearance in the 1990s, the collection exhibited in the Russell House includes objects that represent the high-style goods produced locally and abroad for Charleston’s sophisticated consumers. Nathaniel Russell’s miniature, his daughter Alicia Russell Middleton’s earrings in their original case, and silver made in the workshop of Hester Bateman are among several items that descended in the family and are currently on view in this designated National Historic Landmark (Fig. 3).
Fig. 4: The Aiken-Rhett House,
Charleston, S.C., 1818; 1830s.
Photography by Carol Ann Bowers.

Nationally recognized paint expert and conservator Susan Buck determined that the house had been limewashed multiple times over the decades, and she identified the correct yellow for the restoration based on the building’s nineteenth-century appearance. According to Buck, white “pencil” lines were also applied over the yellow limewash in order to simulate block masonry.

Fig. 5: The Double Parlors,
Aiken-Rhett House, Charleston, S.C. Photograph by Rick McKee.

During the 1830s renovations, the Aikens removed the original central hall and created a double parlor divided by two mahogany pocket doors. Original mid- nineteenth century wallpaper in a block-printed Arabesque vine pattern remains on the wall along with late-nineteenth century paint treatments. The preservation of these historic surfaces is of great importance, and the foundation is currently seeking grants and private support to stabilize the nineteenth-century paper and decorative treatments throughout the house.

Fig. 6: Fish slice and fork, New York,
design patented 1847. Gale and Hayden,
patentee of design; William Gale and Son, manufacturing silversmith. Silver.
Slice: L. 13½, W. 1½ in.; Fork: L. 10⅛, W. 1⅞ in.
Historic Charleston Foundation.
Gift of the heirs of Mary Green Maybank (2000.3.17). Photography by Rick McKee.

This set features the initials “HR” for Henrietta Rhett, the only surviving child of Gov. and Mrs. Aiken, who resided in the house until her death in 1918. Though the Gothic style in architecture and decorative arts in general was prevalent at the time, Gothic silver is very rare, and this set is in one of the few documented patterns. The original box remains with the set.
The Aiken-Rhett House
In contrast to the Nathaniel Russell House, the Aiken-Rhett House (Fig. 4) has not been restored. The property, which remained in the family until 1975, was acquired by the Foundation in 1995 from The Charleston Museum and reopened to the public the following year. This historic site allows HCF the educational opportunity to discuss varying preservation methodologies, antebellum material culture, and the urban African-American slave experience.

The house was built in 1818 by John Robinson as a modest late-Federal-style dwelling and, in the 1830s, was expanded by Governor and Mrs. William Aiken Jr. into a Greek Revival mansion. The property has survived virtually unaltered since the nineteenth century. Original extant dependencies include the kitchen, slaves’ quarters, stable, coach house, garden folly and privies. Together with the main house, these structures combine to form a rare nineteenth-century urban complex illustrating the connections among those who comprised the household.
Fig. 7: John Mood (working 1816–1864). Covered Sugar Bowl and Creamer. Charleston, 1830–1850. Silver. Sugar bowl:
H. 9½, W. 9¾, Diam. 5¼ in.; Creamer: H.¼,
W. 7½, Diam. 4½ in. Historic Charleston Foundation, collection purchase (87.2.1–2). Photography by Charlotte Crabtree.

Working between 1816 until his death in 1864, John Mood was one of Charleston’s most successful silversmiths. Mood operated a successful business selling fashionable imported goods from the Northeast, in addition to specializing in both silver manufacturing and repair. In 1821, Mood stated in an advertisement, “South Carolinians, encourage your own Manufactories…he [John Mood] Manufactures and repairs all kinds of silver work, the Silver of which he will warrant superior to any Northern make which he has yet examined” (South Carolina Silversmiths 1690–1860, 3rd ed., 68).

Because so much of its early fabric and infrastructure survives, the Aiken-Rhett property demands special attention due to its conservation and interpretation needs. Between 2004 and 2007, thanks in great part to a Save America’s Treasures grant, the Aiken-Rhett House underwent an extensive exterior restoration to preserve the building’s envelope and to protect the fragile, irreplaceable historic finishes within the house. Now that this work has been completed the focus is on stabilizing and conserving––but not restoring––the historic interiors. This approach enables the interpretation of the house’s continued use and its evolution over time, as new technologies, such as gas lighting and electricity, were adopted. In addition, the intact decorative layers help us to better understand nineteenth-century conceptions of refinement, patterns of consumption, and decorative preferences in the Carolina Lowcountry (Fig. 5).
Figs. 8, 8a: Double chest and detail,
Charleston, S.C., ca. 1770. Mahogany with mahogany veneer, cypress and mahogany secondary woods.
H. 77¾, W. 41⅜, D. 21⅞ in.
Historic Charleston Foundation, collection fund purchase (2003.001.003). Photography by Russell Buskirk.

In Charleston, the double chest was favored over
the high chest of drawers—in fact, not a single Charleston-made example of the latter form had been documented. The foundation’s outstanding example
is one of only two known Charleston double chests with quarter columns in the base and applied fretwork on the upper chamfers.

Unlike the Nathaniel Russell House, the majority of objects exhibited at the site were originally owned by the Aiken family. Governor William Aiken Jr. and his wife, Harriet Lowndes Aiken, purchased many of the furnishings and textiles currently in the collection when they transformed the original Federal-style structure into the grand Greek revival mansion seen today. In 1833, at the age of twenty-seven, the newly married Aiken inherited the property from his father, William Aiken Sr., a first-generation Irish immigrant and wealthy businessman. Aiken enjoyed a successful career in the South Carolina and United States legislatures from 1838 to 1858, while his wife was an accomplished hostess and noted family matriarch. His extensive business interests and the requirements of political life ensured a steady schedule of entertaining at their Charleston residence.

While the majority of the furnishings in the home were in the plain Grecian style of the 1830s and 1840s, Gothic-inspired and Rococo Revival objects were added to the family collection over time. The Aiken family patronized the fashionable New York firms of Duncan Phyfe and Deming and Bulkley, which operated a warehouse in Charleston at 206 King Street. They adorned their tables with the finest silver and porcelain from Charleston, the Northeast, and abroad. Among the items on display is a rare Gothic-pattern fish slice and fork in the original box, which was manufactured by the firm William Gale and Son (Fig. 6).

Fig. 9: Urn Stand, Charleston, ca. 1790. Mahogany with white pine glue blocks. H. 28¾, W. 13 in. Historic Charleston Foundation, collections fund
purchase with contributions by Thomas R. Bennett, Mr. and Mrs. John F. Hackenberg, and Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin F. Lenhardt Jr. (2007.001.01). Photography by Russell Buskirk.

Of the various accoutrements associated with tea drinking in America, the urn stand is the rarest of extant items known today, and this stand is one of only two documented Charleston-made examples. Although a seemingly modest object, the urn stand represented the epitome of fashion and sophistication in the eighteenth-century. Silver hot water urns, costly items found in only the wealthiest American households, were placed upon these stands adjacent to the tea table. Both the stand and the urn were functional but specialized, superfluous forms, and therefore, their use was a display of wealth and refinement.

Fig. 10: Edward Savage (American, 1761–1820), Portrait of Alicia Russell (Mrs. Arthur Middleton), Probably Philadelphia, 1795/96. Oil on canvas, 40 x 31 ¾ inches. Historic Charleston Foundation, collection purchase (67.1.1). Photography by Catherine Rodgers.

Young Alicia is shown picking roses, perhaps a reference to her family’s love of gardening. Her mother and grandmother, Sarah Hopton, were among Charleston’s most accomplished amateur gardeners.
Fig. 11: George Romney (British, 1734–1802), Portrait of Mary Rutledge Smith and Son Edward. London, England, 1786. Oil on canvas,
96 x 60½ inches. Historic Charleston Foundation, collection purchase with contributions by anonymous southern Foundation (77.1.1).

This portrait is an example of HCF’s early efforts to secure artistically and historically significant artifacts for the collection. This portrait
of Mary Rutledge Smith (b. 1747), painted while on her grand tour, received much acclaim in Charleston and was exhibited throughout the nineteenth century. The painting was publicly viewed at the Carolina Art Association in 1884 for the last time before it was sold at auction and disappeared into a private collection in England. Almost a hundred years later, the portrait was purchased on behalf of HCF by a donor and permanently returned to Charleston where it is exhibited at the Nathaniel Russell House.
The Collection
Preservation is not just about saving buildings and their interiors, historic districts, or city planning. The process of acquiring artifacts is in itself an act of preservation. In fact, Historic Charleston Foundation’s acquisition program is one of the many ways that the organization actively safeguards the city’s rich cultural heritage.

From the purchase of the Nathaniel Russell House in 1955 to the present, HCF has assembled a growing collection of over three thousand artifacts, many of which have local provenances and were produced in the Lowcountry. The collection of eighteenth-century furniture, porcelain, and fine metalwork document Charleston’s transformation from colonial outpost to grand cosmopolitan city. Charleston’s sophisticated citizens enjoyed unparalleled economic prosperity throughout the colonial period, which resulted in an insatiable luxury goods market. HCF’s nineteenth-century artifacts tell the story of antebellum and post-Civil War Charleston. During this later period, the style center shifted from England to the Northeast, and the thriving local cabinetmaking and metalworking community witnessed a significant decline.

Although a great deal of silver plate was imported in the eighteenth and early- nineteenth centuries, the number of Charleston silversmiths practicing the trade during this period attests to the strength of the market and the steady patronage of the local clientele (Fig. 7). No less than sixty silversmiths, jewelers and watchmakers associated with the goldsmith’s trade worked in Charleston during the colonial period. Into the second decade of nineteenth century, there was a substantial number of metalworkers compared to the city’s overall population.

The Charleston-made furniture exhibited throughout the Russell House exemplifies the quality of workmanship for which Lowcountry decorative arts are known. The foundation’s outstanding example is one of only two recorded Charleston double chests with quarter columns in the base and applied fretwork on the upper chamfers (Fig. 8) One of the most uncommon items in the Americas but a form well-known in Charleston is the urn stand. Although frequently referenced in the account book of Charleston cabinetmaker Thomas Elfe, this neoclassical example exhibited in the Russell House is one of only three documented, locally-made examples (Fig. 9). Such urn stands, while functional, were also indicative of the social aspirations of Charleston’s elite, their great wealth, and the level of sophistication to which they aspired.

Fig. 12: Henry Benbridge (American, 1743-1812). Portrait of
Thomas Middleton of Crowfield and his Daughter Mary Middleton Shoolbred, Charleston, ca. 1778. Oil on canvas, 50 x 41 inches. Historic Charleston Foundation, collection purchase (71.6.1).

After spending considerable time abroad training under the masters of his time, Philadelphia-born Benbridge moved to Charleston in 1772. Except for a two-year absence in the 1780s, he remained in Charleston painting and teaching until his death on January 25, 1813. This portrait of Thomas Middleton and his daughter is one of the most significant works in the collection. Son of William and Sarah Wilkinson Middleton, Thomas Middleton (d. 1779) was among Charleston’s landed gentry. His uncle Henry Middleton built Middleton Place and was president of the Continental Congress. His cousin Arthur was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Benbridge favored rich colors, such as the deep reds and brilliant yellows seen in this portrait.

In their eagerness to emulate English gentry, Charlestonians placed great importance on having their portraits painted, and HCF’s collection includes paintings by well-known European and American artists. Henry Benbridge (1743–1812) made a comfortable living painting merchant and planter families, such as the Middletons. After training with Europe’s masters and receiving encouragement from Benjamin West, Philadelphia-born Benbridge moved to Charleston in 1772. The Foundation’s portrait of Thomas Middleton and his daughter is one of the most significant works in the collection (Fig. 12).

Cosmopolitan Charlestonians often sought artists during their travels. Edward Savage (1761–1817), who worked in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, painted the portraits of Nathaniel Russell and his daughter Alicia Russell Middleton, currently in the dining room of the Russell House (Fig. 10).

The true measure of sophistication and wealth in Charleston society, however, was the ability to commission a portrait from a European master during a grand tour. In 1786, famed London artist George Romney (1734–1802) painted an elegant, full-length portrait of Mary Rutledge Smith and her son, Edward (Fig. 11). Exhibited in Charleston during the nineteenth century in several local exhibitions, it is still considered one of the most significant American grand tour portraits.

Acquiring and interpreting the collection is one of the many ways that HCF actively preserves the city’s significant cultural artifacts. HCF remains dedicated to securing notable examples of decorative and fine art. As the 2011 Winter Antiques Show loan exhibitor, HCF will highlight its collection and museums as well as examples of fine and decorative art from other leading Charleston institutions in Grandeur Preserved: Masterworks Presented by Historic Charleston Foundation, on view at the Park Avenue Armory, January 21–30, 2011. For more information regarding this exhibition, please visit or call 843.724.8497.

Brandy S. Culp is curator of Historic Charleston Foundation, and in this role, she is also curating the exhibition, Grandeur Preserved: Masterworks Presented by Historic Charleston Foundation.