As a National Historic Landmark, downtown Charleston is home to thousands of historic buildings, homes, and alleyways, with some dating back to as early as the 1700s. In fact, Charleston’s historic architecture plays a tremendous role in characterizing Charleston as one of America’s most unique and charming cities.
Some of the most abundant forms of architecture found throughout the Charleston area include Colonial, Georgian, Federal, Gothic Revival, Italianate, Victorian, and Art Deco.
Colonial architecture, for example, was seen during the pre-Revolutionary War times of the 1600s – 1700s. Many homes found in Charleston today feature the Colonial-style architecture in their design, which often includes symmetrical facades, 2 (or 3) stories, brick or wood siding, pillars and columns, multi-pane windows, and entry-hall floor plans. One of Charleston’s oldest and most significant colonial-style buildings is the Old Exchange building, which is situated at the end of Broad Street.
Image above of the Old Exchange, taken from OldExchange.org
After the influence of Colonial architecture on homes and buildings during the 1600s and 1700s, Georgian architecture began popping up around the South. In fact, many plantations found in the Charleston area possess Georgian architectural styles, including Drayton Hall. If you’re traveling around the Charleston area in search of this particular architectural style, some of the key elements to look for include square and symmetrical facades, a centered front door, a decorative ledge or crown over the front door, chimneys, and five windows across the front of the house. A great example of the Georgian architectural style is the Heyward-Washington House on Church Street.
The Federal architectural style, on the other hand, began appearing in Charleston (and the newly founded American colonies) during the late 1700s up until the 1830s. Britain, as well as the temples of ancient Rome inspired this style. American Federal buildings and homes often have a fanlight over the front door (which is a semicircle window), several chimneys, two narrow windows that frame the sides of the front door, shutters, and an arched palladian window (which is a large window with three sections—a large center section and two side sections). One of the most famous Federal-style buildings in Charleston is the Aiken-Rhett House, which was built in 1820.
The video below explores the Aiken-Rhett House (as well as the Nathaniel Russell House):
After the popular Federal architectural style began to die down, the Gothic Revival style began to emerge and was popular up until the early 1900s. Reminiscent of medieval architecture, Federal architecture was celebrated for its ornate design, pointed windows, pinnacles, and oriel windows (which are windows that project outward). The Gothic Revival architecture movement emerged across America when the Gothic style was viewed as “proper Christian architecture.” The Huguenot Church, on the corner of Church and Queen Streets, is an example of this architecture that can be seen in Charleston.
The Italianate style appeared around the same time as the Gothic Revival style did. Italianate homes have flat or almost flat roofs, a symmetrical rectangular shape, tall and narrow windows, double doors, balconies, and overhanging ledges (or eaves). They are also characterized by their height and usually have 3 – 4 stories. Many homes in the Mount Pleasant I’On community are Italianate style.
Victorian-style homes and buildings are also seen throughout Charleston. These homes and buildings incorporate elements from the old Italianate and Gothic styles. Their steeped roofs, colorful walls, and ornate and fine details characterize most Victorian-style constructions.
Another popular form of architecture that we see in Charleston is the Art Deco style, which appeared during the roaring 1920s. Art Deco style was inspired by a variety of cultures and regions, including ancient Egypt, Africa, and India, as well as the ancient Mayan and Aztec cultures, and are characterized by modern and sleek designs, as well as geometric shapes. Some other elements that most Art Deco buildings and homes share include cube shapes, vibrant colors, pyramid shapes, trapezoid shapes, and curvy forms. The Riviera Theater in downtown Charleston is a great example of this style.
Image to the left of the Riviera Theater in downtown Charleston, taken from SCMovieTheatres.com
One of the best ways to soak in all the beauty of Charleston’s architecture is on the water! Hop aboard one of our 90-minute narrated Charleston harbor tours or a sunset sail aboard The Schooner Pride for a look at the beautiful cityscape of downtown Charleston.