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A Crash Course on the Architectural Styles of Charleston, SC

Charleston’s architecture dates back more than 300 years, with beautiful residences representing every style popular over time. There are also examples of diminutive working-class houses and folk buildings, with floorplans and characteristics unique to the region. Walking or driving through the city and the surrounding Lowcountry communities, you can date the era of development by the architectural styles present, from the sprawling suburban Mid Century Modern houses of the 1950s suburbs to the grand Georgian houses in the oldest parts of the city. Read on to learn about the architectural styles of Charleston, SC that shape our historic city.


Folk Forms


Charleston single houses are a vernacular residential form unique to the city that are typified by their narrow appearance. They were the most prevalent house type in Charleston from the because they fit on narrow town lots, and because they ventilate well. They are one room wide facing the street and have a central hall plan, and many have piazzas (Charlestonian for porches) running the length of the house. The front door is found halfway down the long elevation of the house and opens into a central stair hall.  Single houses might be a diminutive two-story wood frame building, three stories over a formal raised basement, or any size in between. They can be ornamented in any architectural style, such as Greek Revival, Italianate, Victorian, or folk variations.  


A smaller version of the single house, the freedman’s cottage is a humble one-story typology that usually has a piazza like its taller counterpart.  They are almost always wood frame, with simple ornament.  These cottages are found throughout the city, tucked on small courts and lanes, but there are more in the East Side and Cannonborough-Elliottborough. They proliferated after the American Civil War and were home to working class Charlestonians, many of whom were formerly enslaved (giving rise to the freedman’s name). Neither freedman’s cottages nor single houses were common outside of downtown Charleston, since they are an urban form that is less necessary on a larger rural or suburban lot.


A folk Queen Anne single house with a prominent bay window.
(image 1): A folk Queen Anne single house with a prominent bay window.

Eighteenth Century Styles


Charleston’s earliest architecture was mostly simple, wood frame buildings described as Colonial because of the era when they were constructed.  They usually had minimal design features but were well built, practical buildings. The famous Pink House of Chalmers Street, with its asymmetrical window placement driven by practical needs over formality, and Middleburg Plantation in Berkeley County, are prime examples.  


As the eighteenth century progressed, homeowners wanted more formal and decorative houses that reflected the latest tastes in Europe.  Sometimes called Georgian for the era when the Kings George ruled the colonies including South Carolina or Palladian for the Italian Renaissance architect that eighteenth-century English builders drew influence from, the fancier buildings constructed circa 1700 to 1780 are very symmetrical, elegant, and have a centrally placed front door with a pediment and simple classical features.  Georgian houses are style-conscious, unlike their folk colonial counterparts.  The Lowcountry has no native stone, so our local examples might have similar stylistic elements to northern colonial examples of the same period, but ours are wood frame or brick structures.


Where they’re found: In the oldest parts of downtown Charleston like South of Broad and the “French Quarter”.  There are also beautiful plantation examples throughout the Lowcountry.


The circa 1715 John Lining House, one of the oldest in the city, has both colonial and Georgian features. It is a steep-roofed, wood frame house with small windowpanes like early buildings, but the symmetricity and formal entry are Georgian features.
(image 2): The circa 1715 John Lining House, one of the oldest in the city, has both colonial and Georgian features. It is a steep-roofed, wood frame house with small windowpanes like early buildings, but the symmetricity and formal entry are Georgian features.

Architecture for a new nation and Antebellum Revivals 


Federal architecture gets its name because it grew alongside the new nation as the United States left its British origins behind (ask a British person and they’ll say the Georgian era lasted until 1837, and they won’t know what Federal architecture is!).  These buildings were constructed between 1780 and circa 1820.  They tend to be a bit more elegantly proportioned and ornamented than their predecessors.  Take for example the Josiah Smith house on Meeting Street, with its elliptical portico and curved stone stairs.  Federal buildings very by region, like the colonial buildings that came before them. Lowcountry examples are often single houses with delicate arcaded piazzas added.


Where they’re found: most Charleston neighborhoods south of Line Street, Old Village Mount Pleasant, and rural examples across the county.


(image 3): The circa 1783 Josiah Smith house, built circa 1783, is a grand federal house with more ornament than its predecessors.
(image 3): The circa 1783 Josiah Smith house is a grand federal house with more ornament than its predecessors.

The nineteenth century brought an eclectic mix of new styles to the United States, and there was an option for every taste.  Greek Revival was one of the most popular across the nation, but especially in the South.  The style was used for every type of building, from government structures to churches and synagogues to residences.  Greek Revival buildings draw from ancient classical architecture, exuding symmetry, timeless classical details like colonnaded porches, and facades that resemble temple fronts (a feature found less commonly in Charleston examples because our houses are typically narrow).  To be truly qualify as Greek Revival, the buildings should use Greek Orders of columns: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian.  The Roper House on the Battery has a grand, blocky façade and massive Ionic columns running down the side of the house that are visible from a great distance from the Harbor: textbook Charleston Greek Revival.


(image 4): The Roper House, built in 1838 on the High Battery, with its massive Ionic columns.
(image 4): The Roper House, built in 1838 on the High Battery, with its massive Ionic columns.

Roman Revival also uses classical features but follows Italian precedents, so you’ll see arched features that don’t belong on a Greek Revival house.  Italianate houses were all the rage in the 1850s.  They have pairs of corbel brackets supporting low pitched roof overhangs, blocky, symmetrical facades that look like Italian villas, and arched window and door openings.  Cast iron was available by this time, so many southern examples have lace-like cast balconies.  Most are masonry and cupolas might crown the roofline, a practical feature for cooling a house before air conditioning.   


Gothic Revival, popular alongside Greek and Italianate, never really caught on in Charleston for residences, but the style was common for carriage houses and outbuildings, for churches because the best surviving examples of earlier Gothic architecture are ecclesiastical, and for smaller wood frame houses known as Carpenter Gothic.  Gothic buildings have a vertical emphasis, pointy, spire-like ornament, pointed arch window and door openings, and steep rooflines.  The picturesque style was part of the romantic movement of the nineteenth century, and was an escape from the rigid, classical influenced styles.  


(image 5): The spectacular fan vaulted ceiling in the gothic style Unitarian Church.
(image 5): The spectacular fan vaulted ceiling in the gothic style Unitarian Church.

Exotic Revival was a luxurious movement reserved for the mansions of well-traveled elites. These grand houses borrowed from Asian, Egyptian, Swiss, and Moorish design precedents.  They might have bold colors and unique ornament that jumps out as much less western than the other styles of the day.  


These revival styles are uniquely American but have obvious ties to Europe.  Ease of travel and shipping thanks to steamboats and railroads, paired with printed architectural idea books like Andrew Jackson Downing’s 1850 Architecture of Country Houses allowed ideas and materials to move more quickly across the growing nation. Charleston is a wealthy port city, so it was usually on the cutting edge of the latest designs and architectural ideas.


Where to find them: The revival styles are found throughout Charleston. Carpenter Gothic folk buildings are common in the East Side, while grand Exotic Revival houses fit best South of Broad. A house with an Italianate cupola might be on a landlocked house today, but there is a good chance the residence was once waterfront if it has a “widow’s walk.”


(image 6): A Moorish Revival residence in Harleston Village.
(image 6): A Moorish Revival residence in Harleston Village.

Late Nineteenth Century: Victorians and a Return to the Past


By the 1860s, Charleston clients could purchase factory-made paints and mass-produced architectural ornaments, leading to highly decorated houses with whimsical rooflines and complicated details often grouped together as “Victorian.”  In Charleston, the use of the Victorian substyles outlasted the reign of Queen Victoria, to circa 1920.  Lowcountry builders used the style for newly constructed houses after the Civil War, but they also added Victorian ornament like bay windows and delicate “gingerbread” woodwork to earlier houses to update them.  


A few of the most common styles in the late nineteenth century were Queen Anne Victorian, which have asymmetrical facades, one-story wrap-around porches, a mix of classical details and exotic revival holdovers, and several colors and siding profiles on the building.  Charleston’s most iconic example is 2 Meeting Street Inn, which has an arcaded two-story porch (uncommon in colder climate examples) and a curved oriel window.  


Second Empire examples like the Wentworth Mansion are grand masonry buildings with mansard roofs; this style was all the rage in Paris in the mid 19th century, so the rooflines look distinctly French. Second Empire was less common in Charleston than Queen Anne and Stick/Eastlake, which is often wood frame construction, has faux timber frame details, large, square windowpanes, gingerbread ornament, and the occasional turret.  Like Queen Anne, the style originated in England but became more popular in the US than its place of origin. 


(image 7): The striking Wentworth Mansion, with its mansard roof and Second Empire ornamentation.(image 7): The striking Wentworth Mansion, with its mansard roof and Second Empire ornamentation.
(image 7): The striking Wentworth Mansion, with its mansard roof and Second Empire ornamentation.

(image 8): A folk Victorian house, with turned porch supports and gingerbread ornament, in Wraggborough neighborhood.
(image 8): A folk Victorian house, with turned porch supports and gingerbread ornament, in Wraggborough neighborhood.

Shingle Style, popular at the same time, had shingles for siding and simple exterior wood ornamentation. Builders attempting to update earlier homes melded local traditions with new fashions, and the eclectic, heavily ornamented preferences of the era to create fusions. 


Where to find them: Victorian houses are all over Charleston, and there are beautiful examples in old Summerville, which as a popular late 19th century summer resort town, and other small Lowcountry towns like McClellanville. The grandest examples are in the city’s elite suburbs, but folk Victorian examples are popular in the East Side. Shingle style was popular for summer cottages and resorts in beach communities like Sullivan’s Island.


Clients who disliked the excess of the Gilded Age, with its grand Renaissance Revival houses with monumental columns, or the frill of the Victorian styles, had alternatives. Colonial Revival buildings brought a return to the past with simple massing, limited ornamentation, a few understated classical details, symmetry, and a simple color palette.  Some looked like Georgian mansions, while others are much simpler folk frame buildings. The revival came about as America celebrated its centennial, and people became nostalgic about the country’s past, and the simple, practical, but elegant architecture before mass production.  


(image 9): A historic postcard of the Villa Margherita at 4 South Battery, a grand Renaissance Revival house.
(image 9): A historic postcard of the Villa Margherita at 4 South Battery, a grand Renaissance Revival house.

The Arts and Crafts, or Craftsman, style also grew as a rejection of the Industrial Revolution. The houses are simple, usually wood frame, have low single-story porches, wide overhangs, and geometric, simple woodwork.  You won’t find gilded ornamentation or the splashy colors of the Victorian houses, but instead, neutral colors and unpainted wood paneling. Bungalow houses grew out of this movement. 


Where to find them: Colonial Revival and Arts and Crafts houses proliferate on the southwestern end of the peninsula, which was reclaimed to make a new neighborhood in the 1910s, and in the streetcar suburbs to the north, like Hampton Park Terrace, Wagener Terrace, and North Central.  Once auto suburbs became popular, Colonial Revival and Craftsman’s began to appear in today’s West Ashley and neighborhoods like Riverland Terrace on James Island, in the 1930s and 1940s. Colonial Revival and Arts and Crafts remained popular well into the twentieth century and are experiencing a revival in new construction today.


(image 10): A Craftsman house with colonial features like shingle siding, designed by Sears as a kit house. 
(image 10): A Craftsman house with colonial features like shingle siding, designed by Sears as a kit house. 

The Auto Era: Modernism and Another Return to the Past


The twentieth century brought architectural change to every part of the country, even Charleston, though the city thankfully had a historic district by 1931 to help protect its earlier buildings.   Modern architecture and material culture looked to the future and tried to create a clear break from the traditions of the past. Modernism’s main characteristics are no historical references, minimal or no ornamentation, and the use of streamlined modern materials like steel, glass curtain walls, and mass-produced veneers. North Charleston was booming when these new styles caught on, but downtown Charleston was lagging economically. That’s why there are not many examples of Art Deco, a fun, flashy movement from the 1920s-1940s, that captures the zeitgeist of the Jazz Age and the Auto Age, with neon lights, geometric forms, glass block windows, and smooth, curved facades.   Deco was used for the city’s corner building and movie theaters, but rarely for houses.  Mid Century Modern houses, with their low-slung, one-story facades, large glass windows, lack of traditional ornament, and clean architectural lines- and the humble brick veneered ranch house, are a suburban phenomenon.   


Where to find examples: There are very few residential examples of modern style buildings in downtown Charleston, aside from Murray Boulevard.  To find the best ones, head for post-World War Two commuter neighborhoods like Avondale and East/West Oak Forest in West Ashley, subdivisions on James Island, and most of North Charleston (especially the commercial strips and 1950s communities near the old Navy Base). The best collection of modern buildings in the city is the medical district at the east end of Calhoun Street.


By the 1940s, most communities began losing their unique folk traditions.  For example, few single houses were built between the 1920s and the late 20th century. Alongside the modern movement, however, grew a new style that was and remains popular for houses: Neotraditional. This broad style uses modern construction methods and materials, including aluminum, vinyl, and Hardiplank siding, but reintroduces some historic ornament (like columns on the front porch), simple historic plans like the Cape Cod cottage, and even Colonial Revival and Arts and Crafts motifs on new buildings.  


Where it’s found: The style is popular for houses across the county, on rural lots in Ravenel and in the subdivisions throughout the Charleston area from the 1940s to today.  New houses in the city’s historic district usually have a neotraditional aesthetic to fit in better with the historic architecture they reference.  Single houses have experienced a revival, even in subdivisions throughout the Lowcountry. Chances are, if you’re observing a house built within the last 60 years, there’s a bit of traditional detail to be found.


(image 11): a minimalist modern take on a Charleston single house, constructed in 2021.(image 11): a minimalist modern take on a Charleston single house, constructed in 2021.
(image 11): a minimalist modern take on a Charleston single house, constructed in 2021.

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