From its settlement in 1670 until 1783, Charleston's development was almost entirely English, perhaps explaining why Charleston is not a "typical" Southern city, from either a social or architectural standpoint. From the simple austerity of the John Lining House, possibly pre-1700, to the Chippendale-influenced granduer of the Miles Brewton House c.1765, one can easily glimpse the strands of both social and architectural refinement.
In spite of the fact that Charleston's early architecture is highly English in flavor, there were certain local conditions that influenced its design. Most visitors are immediately fascinated by the numerous tall, slender houses with many-tiered piazzas--all seemingly too close for comfort.What they are seeing is the Charleston "Single House," which in fact is comfortable and habitable during hot and humid summers.
Colonial Charles Town actually saw a diverse array of architecture in keeping with the broad trans-atlantic English tradition of provincial ports and market towns, including row houses and large Georgian town houses. The Single House first appeared in the early 18th century, and gradually became the prevalent floor plan for the historic houses of antebellum Charleston. It proved remarkably adaptable in its own right. One sees very small Single Houses with plain facades directly fronting the street (as in 29 Archdale St. shown on left), as well as massive multi-level Single Houses with piazzas above the level of nearby trees (as shown in 45 East Bay St. below right).
The evolution of the Charleston Single House has been the subject of many dissertations. Perhaps, many have suggested, it came about because of the narrow lots as laid out in 1680 and continued in the Grand Modell of 1725. With its narrow, gable end to the street, one room in width and two rooms in depth, divided by a central stair hall, the Single House was recorded in its earliest form around 1700, when a good portion of the city was still surrounded by bastions and walls, and space was obviously at a premium.
Aside from the town's narrow lots, Kenneth Severens adds another oft-cited explanation for the early popularity of the Single House: "The Single House was a creative response to the increasing scarcity of space in the city and was designed to mitigate the unpleasantness of hot, humid summers. With its narrow side directly on the street, the rectangular house with two rooms in each story grew tall to raise the main entertaining room to the level of the prevailing breeze which passed through a side piazza. As a free-standing house communicating more with a side garden than with the street the Single House offered a masterful but still vernacular solution to the residential problems of achieving comfort, privacy, and propriety."
But was ventilation really the originating impulse of the single-house, or were piazzas a later adaptation to Charleston's climate? The earliest Single Houses, such as the Col. Robert Brewton House c.1720, typically had no piazzas, though some included a one-story piazza. By 1750 there are numerous references to one-story piazzas. Not until the end of the 18th century do two-story piazzas have documentation, and the many tiered ones that exist today are products of the 19th century. This evidence suggests that while ventilation may have played a major role in the increasing popularity of this type of architecture, the reason for its origin may lie elsewhere.
Gene Waddell offers another explanation for the first appearance of the Single House: fire protection. "Paired dwellings and row houses seem to be prototypes of the Single House. They provide a probable explanation for the entrance around the side. Many of them still have public and private entrances. One entrance on the street opens into a business, and the other around the side provides direct access to the living space above without passing through the public space." (For an example of a paired dwelling with front and side entrances as described by Waddell, see 28 Tradd St. c.1785.)
Since public and private business could both be accomodated by paired dwellings and row-houses, and since these types are the most efficient possible use of space on a cramped peninsula, a strong social or cultural impulse must have produced the separation of the free-standing Single House. Waddell points out that if ventilation were the primary reason, Single Houses would have had windows across their rear walls. But many instead have nearly featureless rear walls with only a stair hall window. (For a good comparison of the front and back sides of adjacent Single Houses, see our photo of 30 Hasell St. Looking through the wrought-iron gate, you can see the front of 30 Hasell St. on the right and the back of 32 Hasell St. on the left.)
Some have assumed that this lack of backside windows was dictated by privacy. But the most likely explanation, Waddell maintains, was fire protection. And in fact, Charleston's earliest disastrous fire (1740) occurred in the waterfront district of East Bay, Tradd, and Elliot Streets, an area rich with early mercantile row-houses such those at 5-7 Tradd St. After such a calamity, separation of dwelling spaces by a side aisle courtyard and a solid back wall must have seemed a desirable solution for fire protection in this high density urban landscape. It was after this fire, from 1750 onward, that the Single House rapidly gained popularity.
The development of two and three story piazzas is clearly explainable by the need for ventilation, and the piazzas may well have been an adaptation of the concept of country porches. Bernard Herman has pointed out that Charleston was situated on the border between the plantation South and the cosmopolitan world of Atlantic commerce. Many Single Houses also had plantation-type dependencies: carriage houses, slave quarters, and assorted outbuildings, typically distributed toward the rear of their long, narrow lots. Lot plans were developed to provide an "Alley or Passage in common" for all of the living and working spaces. The passage typically ran immediately along the piazza-side of the house. He argues that the Single House became the urban equivalent of the plantation "big house." From the high vantage point of its elevated piazzas overlooking the common passage, the slave-owning resident of the Single House could monitor the movement of all persons to and from the street.
Beyond shade and ventilation, the piazza apparently became the most visible embodiment of this melding of mercantile and plantation genres, and its visibility also made it the vehicle for architectural expression and individuality. Single Houses were built in the Georgian Style (see: 59 Church St. c.1733), Federal Style (see: 68 Broad St. c.1796), Italianate Style (see: 21 King St. c.1857), and even Gothic Revival Style (see: 13 Franklin St. c.1850) during those respective periods. But the Single House seemed to find its most popular expression in the style of Classical Revival, as supporting posts became fluted columns and piazza entranceways grew heavy with ornamentation. In fact, a number of three-tiered Single Houses embodied the classical ideal to perfection by using Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns on their low, middle, and top tiers respectively (esp. 51 East Bay St.).
For all the above, the Charleston Single House in its many variations remains a remarkable example of vernacular architecture adapting itself to the demands of nature, culture, and society. It seems most reasonable that all the above explanations were correct to some degree, and that early Charlestonians developed the Single House as an ingenious solution to the various demands of their unique urban landscape: a house that provided privacy, ventilation, fire protection, and social status within the confines of a tightly restrictive public space.
This essay is an adaptation of the preface to The Charleston Interior, courtesy of the Preservation Society of Charleston, with excerpts from the essay Charleston Single House by Bernard Herman, courtesy of Historic Charleston Foundation. Quotations are taken from The Charleston Single House: An Architectural Survey by Gene Waddell, and Charleston Antebellum Architecture and Civic Destiny by Kenneth Severens.