Charleston City Guide

By: Janice McDonald

Charleston Architecture & Landmarks

©2006 Charleston CVB Charleston's Middleton Place Plantation was built in 1741 and featuresornamental butterfly lakes, sweeping terraces, and one of theoldest landscaped gardens in the United States.

Charleston is all about various architecture like Georgian, Greek Revival, and Classic Revival styles, and just the mention of its names conjures images of its distinctive stately homes and classic buildings, which have stood the test of time, wars, hurricanes, and even an earthquake in 1886. More than 3,000 buildings in the city are labeled as "historic."

The whole downtown area is noted as a National Historic Landmark, as are many of the individual buildings. It's easy to see why many people who come to visit Charleston are happy just taking in the architectural wonders of the city.


Charlestonians of the past learned to cope with the heat by insisting their homes have porches. One of the unique features of a true Charleston-style house is the placement of its porches. From the front, the house looks like its entrance is a door to the left or the right. But if you look to the side of the house where that door is, you realize the door actually leads to the porch itself and the true front door is on the porch. Porches on a Charleston house are generally on both levels of the home.

The city is also known as the City of Spires because of all of the church steeples that dot the skyline. There are 13 historic churches and a temple in a less than mile radius of downtown. The oldest of which is St. Michael's Episcopal Church (14 St Michael's Alley), which dates back to 1752.

Insider's Guide: The Best of Architecture & Landmarks in Charleston

Insider's Guide: The Best of Architecture & Landmarks in Charleston

The best way to see the ins and outs of the historical homes of Charleston is to attend the Festival of Homes and Gardens (40 E Bay St) each spring. During the festival, many private homes, not normally open to visitors, are accessible.

Rainbow Row (79-107 E Bay St) is a series of private homes numbering 79 to 107. These townhouses were constructed in the mid-1700s are all painted different colors and have become a symbol of Charleston. Merchants who owned these buildings lived on the upper floors and used the ground floors for counting rooms and shops, but these places now are private residences.

The Edmondston-Alston House (21 E Battery) is a building made in 1825 and remodeled in a Greek-Revival style in 1838. This building showcases documents, original furnishings, elaborate woodwork, and an uninterrupted view of the Charleston Harbor.

The Heyward-Washington House (87 Church St) was built in 1772 during the Revolutionary era, and President George Washington stayed here during a weeklong visit to the city in 1791. The property still has its carriage shed, a 1740s kitchen building, and a handsome collection of Charleston-made furniture.

The Nathaniel Russell House (51 Meeting St) is a neoclassical building with lavish plasterwork, oval drawing rooms and a free-flying staircase made in 1808. Period antiques and artworks are used to furnish the home and give visitors a flavor of life in Charleston in the 1800s.

The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon (122 E Bay St) was built in 1771 and was designed primarily to accommodate heavy export-import trade and a place to conduct business and confine prisoners, pirates, and slaves. This Georgian-style building also hosted a grand ball in 1791 that President George Washington attended.

One usual, yet interesting, place in Charleston is a set of wrought iron gates featuring two horizontal swords joining at the center of a broadsword to form a cross. The Sword Gates (32 Legare St) were made around 1838 by a Charleston ironsmith and relocated to the site about 10 years later as a decoration and to discourage slaves from escaping the property.

Several churches with historic significance should be placed on your must-see list. St. Mary's Church (89 Hassell St) was built in 1839 and is a wonderful example of Classical Revival Style, featuring galleries on three sides of the sanctuary, oil paintings dating back to the 1800s, and tombstones with French writing in its churchyard. St. John's Lutheran Church (5 Clifford St) was built in 1818 and features Federal and Baroque architecture and an Italianate steeple added in 1859. St. Michael's Episcopal Church (14 St Michael's Alley) features an 186-foot-tall white steeple and bells dating back to 1764.

Drayton Hall (3380 Ashley River Rd) is one of the oldest surviving pre-American Revolution plantation homes. Its Georgian Palladian house is surrounded by live oaks and is maintained in virtually its original condition. Middleton Place Plantation (4300 Ashley River Rd) was built in 1741 and features ornamental butterfly lakes, sweeping terraces, and one of the oldest landscaped gardens in the United States.

Of course, there's more to Charleston than history and architecture. If you're hoping to do a bit of shopping while visiting the city, go to the next page for our guide.