What Is Charleston Architecture?

A row of Charleston single houses.

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The city of Charleston, South Carolina—often referred to as the Holy City—is well-known for its cobblestone streets and massive collection of candy-colored, pre-Civil War houses. Known as Charleston-style homes, you'll find the largest collection of the city's historical houses, built in the traditional Charleston style, in the French Quarter and Battery districts. Regardless, Charleston-style single homes, and somewhat less commonly, Charleston double homes, are extremely prevalent throughout the peninsula. Unlike other southern architectural types, like French Colonial and antebellum architecture, Charleston architecture is found exclusively in Peninsular Charleston.

Although Charleston-style houses can come in a variety of architectural styles, like Federal, Greek Revival, or Victorian, they all share a similar interior layout. Read on to learn more about Charleston architecture, including its history and distinguishing, must-have elements.

The History of Charleston Architecture

Charleston single and double house architecture was an extremely early architectural style in the United States. Charleston, South Carolina was originally settled in 1670—with the name Charles Towne, honoring King Charles II of England—and Charleston architecture didn't follow long after. It's believed that the first Charleston-style houses were constructed in the early 1700s.

As previously mentioned, both single and double houses were constructed all over Peninsular Charleston. Although they share several characteristics, there are some key differences:

  • Charleston single houses have tall, narrow fronts and are typically only one room wide on the home's street-facing side. From the side, however, they can be the width of several rooms. Although single houses appear to have a centralized front entryway, this door actually leads to a small piazza or porch. The true entryway was typically placed along the porch, so the modest, Victorian-era Charlestonians could have more privacy entering and exiting their homes.
  • Charleston double houses aren't nearly as common in Charleston, but can still be found in the Lowcountry. Unlike a single house, the Charleston double house faces the street at its full length—rather than just one room's width. The double house is a two level design with four rooms (total), divided by a central hallway. You'll typically find two rooms downstairs and two rooms upstairs in a Charleston double house.
A Charleston double house.
A less commonly seen Charleston double house. RiverNorthPhotography/E+/Getty Images 

It's sometimes said that Charleston-style homes were built with extremely narrow façades to avoid higher taxation on street-facing frontage. Another myth says Charleston-style homes were inspired by the traditional structures of Barbados, where many early residents of Charleston kept their sugar plantations. These myths, however, have been disproved.

Although Charleston architecture was extremely popular during the 1700s and 1800s, construction of single and double houses halted abruptly in the 1890s. During the height of its popularity, it's estimated that there were 4,500 Charleston-style homes built in the Holy City. Today, however, it's believed that about 2,700 Charleston houses remain standing today.

Because Charleston architecture was exclusive to Peninsular Charleston—and homes weren't built in this style after 1890—it's unlikely that you'll find a Charleston-style home outside of the city's historic districts. Charleston architecture shares many characteristics with the French Colonial homes in New Orleans, Louisiana, but traditional Charleston architecture can only be found in the city of Charleston.

Must-Have Elements

Although single houses and double houses can be found throughout Charleston, single houses are far more common—especially in historical areas, like the French Quarter. Because single houses are the more prevalent architectural type, we'll focus on their architectural elements. Some of those elements include:

A long, narrow shape

Charleston was originally divided into long, narrow lots, so homebuilders had to build long, narrow structures. The narrow side of the house, which typically faces the street, is simply a façade; the long side of the house, which is perpendicular to the street, is the true front of the house and where most Charlestonians placed the entryways to their homes.

A wider side

Although Charleston single houses' façades are typically one room wide, the longer side of the house can be extremely large, and usually several stories tall.

A faux front door

Charleston single homes appear to have a front door that faces the street, but in reality, these doors are entryways to the home's piazza or porch, where you'll find the true entryway to the home. This structure was meant to give Victorian-era residents a greater sense of privacy.

A porch

Charleston single houses typically have porches on the long side of the house. Why? Placing the porch perpendicular to the street increases exposure to a cool breeze. The porch is usually accessed by the "faux" front door that faces the street.

A consistent interior layout

No matter the style of the home—from Federal, to Greek Revival, to Victorian—all Charleston houses share a similar interior layout. The home's front door typically opens to a foyer and staircase, with a bedroom to the left, a living room to the right, and a kitchen attached to the living room, separated by an arched doorway. The upper-levels tend to follow the same layout.

Although you're unlikely to find a Charleston-style house outside of Charleston, South Carolina, there are thousands of historical sites you can see in the Holy City. As previously mentioned, there are an estimated 2,700 Charleston single and double houses in Charleston, along with thousands of other historical buildings.