City Directories and History: RUSSELL HOUSE
Constructed 1808; altered 1857, 1908, 1915; restored 1955, 1990s
“Completed in 1808 on an original lot of Charleston’s Grand Modell, the Nathaniel Russell House is recognized as one of America’s finest examples of Neoclassical domestic architecture. Its builder, Nathaniel Russell (1738-1820), was a prominent merchant from New England who came to Charleston as a young man of twenty-seven and quickly amassed a huge fortune.
In landscape setting Russell’s house differs from most of Charleston’s early urban dwellings; it sits back from the street approximately 30 feet, creating a front garden entrance through which the house is entered at ground level. Wrought-iron balconies on the second-floor exterior wrap around the house and overlook the garden. The main house was originally part of a large town house complex that included the two-story brick kitchen and laundry connected to a larger two-story, T-shaped brick carriage house with stables, storerooms, privies, and quarters for the Russells’ approximately eighteen slaves on the second floor. Running along the south side of the property is Price’s Alley, a thoroughfare since the eighteenth century that housed Irish immigrants and African American tradesmen in the antebellum period.
This house points to a reliance on architectural pattern books for detail, although the architect for the Russell House remains unknown. The three-story house contains only three rooms on each floor. Each floor utilizes the geometric patterns of a square room, an oval room, and a rectangular room. A free-flying, or cantilever; staircase connects the three floors and is perhaps the most stunning interior architectural feature in the city. In 1809 one of Russell’s daughters, Alicia, married Arthur Middleton, and the house served as their residence for the next ten years. Sarah Russell, another daughter; married the Reverend Theodore Dehon, whose death four years later of yellow fever sent Mrs. Dehon and her three children back to live at the Russell House.
After Nathaniel Russell’s death in 1820 and his wife’s death in 1832, the house was inherited by Sarah Russell Dehon, who continued to live here with her daughter, her son-in-law, and their twelve children. In 1857 the house was purchased by Gov. R. E W. Allston. He, his family, and their slaves were forced to evacuate the house during Charleston’s 500-day bombardment by Federal troops. The house survived intact, although after Governor Allston’s death one year later; Mrs. Allston had to open it as a female academy. In 1870 the Allston executors sold the property to the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy, who owned the house for the next thirty- eight years, after which it was returned to single family residential use. Purchased by Historic Charleston Foundation in 1955 and designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1974, the Russell House is today open to the public as a house museum.”
Information from: The Buildings of Charleston – J.H. Poston for the Historic Charleston Foundation, 1997
The Nathaniel Russell House is an excellent example of the Adam style of architecture. Russell’s house was built when local carpenters had a decade of experience with the light and airy manner made popular by Robert Adam. His house has been called an exercise in ellipses, for
from its free-flying stair to the wrought iron balconies, to the principal windows and doors, we find the expression of movement, combining in a contrast of forms. It was the last great house of the city’s post-revolutionary period. Built in 1809, the house is in the form of a rectangle, conforming partially to the outline of a single house, but with a strongly projecting four-sided bay which rises the full three stories of the central block of the house.
Its face is dressed with marble window lintels, relief brick courses, lovely bright red cutting brick arches above the windows of the second story, and topped with a paneled balustrade running fully about the central block and the south bay. The house is constructed of brick and has a hipped roof. The interior detail has all the delicacy and intricate ambition of the American version of the Adam manner. Slender double-encased pilasters in door and window architraves, Chippendale fret, anthemions, the iris, urns and swags, combine and enhance each other in both plaster and wood to give the rooms a most extraordinary refinement. Listed in the National Register August 19, 1971; Designated a National Historic Landmark November 7, 1973. (Courtesy of the SC Dept. of Archives and History)
Other sources of interest: Charleston Tax Payers of Charleston, SC in 1860-61 and the Dwelling Houses of Charleston by Alice R.H. Smith – 1917 The HCF may also have additional data at: Past Perfect and further research can be uncovered at: Charleston 1861 Census Schedule or The Charleston City Guide of 1872
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