The Aiken-Rhett House is located at 48 Elizabeth Street in downtown Charleston. It was constructed around 1820 and stands as the most well-preserved early nineteenth century townhouse in the city. The house was originally built for John Robinson, a wealthy merchant from Charleston. In 1825, several of Robinson’s ships were captured and burned by the French. Although not legally liable for the cargo on board the ships, he felt obligated to repay the planters for the loss of their crops.
In order to raise the capital he was forced to sell the home to William Aiken in 1827. That same year the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company was incorporated and Aiken – for whom the city of Aiken was named – was designated its first president.
Aiken used the home as a rental property until his death in 1831, when his assets were divided between his wife and his only son, William Aiken, Jr., was a successful rice planter who would later become a prominent statesman and governor of South Carolina. He and his wife, Harriet, moved into the house in 1833 and began an extensive renovation of the property.
The main entrance was moved to what was originally the side of the house. The passageway is an ornate Gibbs surround made out of marble with a mahogany door outfitted with a semicircular fanlight and sidelights with decorative grillwork.
Since the entrance was lower than the rest of the house, a new staircase was constructed inside. Upon entering the home, a curved double staircase, made of marble with decorative ironwork and mahogany railings, rises to the main level of the home.
Windows on the first level were replaced with tripartite (made up of three parts) windows measuring eight feet by ten feet. A three-story addition was constructed which added a dining room to the first floor. Porches were extended an extra bay to cover the new addition.
A larger staircase was constructed starting on the main level, which rose the entire three stories of the structure. This new staircase, while not original to the house, became the main passageway. The original staircase which was smaller and less ornate, though still detailed, became the back stairwell.
In 1857, another wing was added just off of the double marble entrance stairs. This wing was built to showcase Aiken’s impressive art collection. The gallery features a four-paneled skylight and an ornate plaster cornice adorned with fruit and leaf motifs. The addition of the art gallery would be the last significant change to the house.
Aiken, Jr. lived in the house until his death in 1887, at which time he left the property to his family. The house remained in the family until 1975, when it was donated to the Charleston Museum. In 1995, it was purchased by the Historic Charleston Foundation. Much like Drayton Hall, the owners of the Aiken-Rhett House have chosen the preserved, not restored approach, making it one of the most authentic house museums, in terms of original fabric present, in Charleston — daily tours of the home and outbuildings are offered.
In 2017, the Historic Charleston Foundation, along with English Purcell and Joseph McGill, organized the very first tour of its kind in the country, called Beyond the Big House. The tour focused only on the dwellings associated with the enslaved behind the mansions in Charleston. It proved to be a massive success and sold out quickly and will continue to be an annual event. The Aiken-Rhett House courtyard served as the finale location. Re-enactors were on hand to tell stories of the enslaved, as well as to educate about the Gullah culture. Visitors were invited to participate in McGill’s Slave Dwelling Project initiative which focuses on sleepovers, in dwellings for the enslaved, across the country to promote education, awareness, and preservation.