Travel: Charleston Architecture

The rain started to fall not long after we arrived in downtown Charleston. We’re talking biblical-grade rain: fat and window-rattling, rain that came down so fast and hard that the narrow streets around the outdoor City Market (think Marrakech-meets-King of Prussia mall) were soon under several feet of water. That’s when something odd happened: nothing. Nobody screamed. Nobody yelled. No sirens. No running for the hills. A hotel employee later explained the Johnstown-esque scene—and the natives’ equanimity toward it: “That pretty much happens every time it rains around here,” she said.

Indeed, the deluge soon passed and the water subsided, but the scenario proved to be a metaphor for the city’s relationship with its visitors: Charleston is a place where tourists are inundated with options—you can do everything here from kayak to reenact Civil War battles—even while the city begs you to slow down and enjoy life. It seems like the best way to experience it is to pick a couple of things that you really want to do, and then stop worrying whether or not you’re actually going to do them.

Our agenda was appropriately lacking in ambition: to check out the city’s architecture. I took this to mean we should spend a couple of days leisurely walking around looking at cool buildings. Even this proved a tad too Type-A, however. I blame Planters Inn, located in the heart of Charleston’s historic district, where we were staying for the duration of our visit. The best hotel along the City Market, the Planters manages to be sophisticated without being stuffy, charming without being precious.

The first night of our stay, we decided to check out the hotel’s restaurant, Peninsula Grill, a well-known purveyor of traditional Low Country cuisine, where the big hits were the jumbo lump crab, tomato and spinach salad with fried green tomatoes; the lobster and corn chowder; and the ultimate coconut cake. If coconut is your thing, a slice of the cake—which is big enough to provide shade to a small crowd—is probably worth the price of a round-trip ticket.

The next morning, our architectural tour began in earnest at the Joseph Manigault House, on the northern edge of the city’s downtown. Now a national historic landmark owned by the Charleston Museum, the three-story brick townhouse is one of the finest examples of neoclassical architecture in the country, with an austere symmetry that’s offset by strikingly bright interior colors and an impressive collection of period furnishings from England, France and America. Afterward, we hiked all of three blocks to the Aiken-Rhett House. Like many of the historic buildings in Charleston, it’s owned by a nonprofit preservation group. As is not the case with most of the other historic buildings, the group has decided to “conserve” rather than restore the Greek Revival house,

which basically means that it hasn’t been gussied up since the family that last owned it stopped living there in the 1970s. Even in its less than tidy state, the house is jaw-­dropping in size and splendor, with sweeping marble staircases, intricate cast-iron work, a giant double parlor room and an art gallery. Yet amid this grandeur, the most interesting aspect of the property is the outbuildings, unchanged for more than a century, which offer a stark reminder of what life was like for the people—slaves—whose work allowed the Aikens and the Rhetts to live so lavishly.

We walked back toward the center of town to see the Nathaniel Russell House, a neoclassical behemoth completed in 1808. Owned by the Historic Charleston Foundation and set amid lush gardens, the house is an interesting counterpoint to the Aiken-Rhett; it’s been fully restored, all the way down to period accents and furnishings, and provides a vivid sense of what it must have been like to be ridiculously loaded in the early 19th century. The house’s showstopper is its free-flying staircase, an accurate description of which is beyond my pay grade, and the physics of which continue to leave me scratching my head.

It’s hard not to get caught up in the past in Charleston—history, much of it not so pleasant, seems to float like a fog around the city—and it can be damned exhausting. By our second night in town, we were itching to eat somewhere, anywhere, that felt like it was conceived in this millennium. It turned out to be one of the best decisions we made. FIG, located on Meeting Street, has been open for just over two years, yet has quickly become one of the city’s best-known dining spots. The restaurant has been written up everywhere from National Geographic Traveler to the New York Post, and it’s not hard to understand why. The atmosphere is contemporary but comfy, the service impeccable, the food even better. We were fans of the crispy duck confit appetizer and the hanger steak bordelaise, though it’s hard to imagine making any missteps with the menu. Hell, even the cauliflower was good.

The next morning, we headed to yet another Greek Revival mansion, the ­Edmondston-Alston House, which offers some of the city’s most striking views of Charleston Harbor. Built in 1825 by a prosperous merchant and wharf owner, the house boasts a second-floor piazza from which General P.G.T. Beauregard watched the bombardment of Fort Sumter in 1861. P.G.T. made a fine choice, but after seeing the Edmondston-Alston digs, I was, I admit, all housed out. If I heard the words “trompe l’oeil” again, I was going to bust my own jaw. But there was one more place we needed to go. And so, with a mix of duty and dread, we made the 20-minute drive out to Drayton Hall, located nine miles up the Ashley River from downtown Charleston. There, the dread soon gave way to wonder. Architecture and preservation nerds will tell you that this red-roof plantation house, completed in 1742, is the oldest example of Georgian-­Palladian architecture in America. What they don’t tell you is that Drayton Hall is one of the most stunning homes you will ever see. Preserved intact for over 250 years—there’s still no running water, electricity or central heating—the house is both an architectural wonder and an affecting look at a piece of history.

After our tour of the house, we lingered on the property, walking amid the magnificent live oaks, draped in Spanish moss, along the river. It seemed like a fitting end to a couple of days in Charleston, a slow-cooked mix of reverence and revelation.

* Where to stay:
Planters Inn, 112 North Market Street, 843-722-2345,; rooms from $265.

* Where to eat:
Peninsula Grill, 112 North Market Street, 843-723-0700,; dinner for two, about $140 with wine.
FIG, 232 Meeting Street, 843-805-5900,; dinner for two, about $100 with wine.

* What to do:
Joseph Manigault House, 350 Meeting Street, 843-722-2996,; $9.
Aiken-Rhett House, 48 Elizabeth Street, 843-723-1159,; $10; tickets available for both the Aiken-Rhett and Nathaniel Russell houses for $16.
Nathaniel Russell House, 51 Meeting Street, 843-724-8481,; $10 (see above).
Edmondston-Alston House, 21 East Battery, 843-722-7171; $10.
Drayton Hall, 3380 Ashley River Road, 843-769-2600,; $5 to $