The Charleston Single House

As an architecture nerd who loves historic homes, I’m always ready to unleash onto the one question I inevitably hear when touring historic homes in Charleston:
What’s up with the houses with the front door that opens onto the porch?
Historically, this architecture has been entirely unique to the Lowcountry, and with its primary feature being the width of a single room, is aptly named the Charleston Single House.

I originally wrote this article in 2015, in a genuine effort to provide an alternative to my initial response to the above question, which was to inundate our home tour with a two hour lecture on historical architecture.

The context was great, though it was a bit much for one sitting.
So here you have an article that I keep updated regularly, as we often see creative adaptations of the Charleston Single House design.

For Perspective: Charles Town

Charleston has modest origins: a colonial fort on the edge of civilization; an early attempt at a stronghold for England in the southern colonies. The peninsula was a prize in the late 1600s, but one fraught with danger from every direction.

As the fortified walls of a modest provincial port arose within the high ground of the peninsula, Charles Town was growing rapidly into a market city, serving as the coastal face for inland agricultural plantations.

As such, wealthier residents were establishing homes in the city near the ports of international commerce. The architecture of the homes within adapted to the nature of colonial life.

A map of Charleston in 1872 showing the High Battery and White Point Garden

There was some diversity in the established residences of Charles Town, largely informed by English designs of the era – from the row houses on Tradd Street and East Bay Street, to colossal Georgian mansions within the peninsula and along The Battery
Between various natural disasters and devastating fires, the forms, designs, and positioning of homes in the port city have evolved in response to these as well as social, financial, and cultural forces.

One form emerged and persisted that was not only unique to the Charleston peninsula, but has become an iconic, defining characteristic of the city’s built environment:
It was the Charleston Single House design that was the most adaptable to the unique pressures that forged the City of Charleston in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Design of the Charleston Single

While there are many variations in architectural styles and lot placements, there are a number of defining characteristics of the Charleston Single House:

  • One room wide (hence the name) with three rooms along its length, including the central hall. The narrow side of the building faces the street, with one room on each floor claiming a street view.

  • The front door to the home is placed in the middle of the length side, not street facing. The door opens into a short hallway and staircase between the two length-side rooms.

  • Piazzas (what we call porches in Charleston) flank the full length side of typically the first two floors. Often a street-facing door is placed onto the first floor piazza.

  • One or more dependencies: originally kitchen and laundry houses, servants quarters, and other utilities – these are often later attached to the main home.

Floor plans for a typical Charleston Single House
Floor plans for a typical Charleston Single House

Function

It’s the subject of much discourse, and there is no one simple answer. The prevalence of the Charleston Single House is the product of many factors, whose influences waxed or waned from one cultural and architectural era to another.

Lot Design

In the early 18th century England imposed an urban planning design on its colonies across the pond known as the Grand Modell – characterized by blocks of slender lots with narrow sides facing the street.

The principle behind the Grand Modell was to maximize the number of lots that could be squeezed into a limited space – such as behind the walls of a fort, on a peninsula between two rivers.

The footprint of the Charleston Single House maximizes the space afforded by this rectangular lot design, with the front of the home facing the wide interior.

A 1739 map of Charles Town showing lot sizes
The Grand Modell seen in Charles Town, c. 1739

Natural Ventilation

Charleston Single Houses were positioned on their lots to best take advantage of the natural cooling effect of ocean breezes emanating from Charleston Harbor.

The length side of the homes are deliberately west- or south-facing, so that the piazzas on the structure naturally shade the windows during the hottest part of the day, again providing a cooling effect to the interior rooms.

The second floor of the Charleston Single and its attached piazza are typically where the homeowners entertain guests, as its height above the street level is cooled by the breeze from Charleston Harbor during humid summer evenings. 

The piazza of a Charleston Single House
First level piazza
Second level piazza

Fire Protection

The back walls of the Charleston Single are typically solid with either no windows, or often a single window illuminating the center stairwell.
The back wall typically houses the fireplaces and chimneys of the home.

Building designers likely included this feature as a sort of firewall to protect the home from a fire spreading beyond adjacent buildings; it’s probably not a coincidence that the popularity of the Charleston Single arose after the first disastrous city-wide blaze of 1740.

The windowless back wall also provided a measure of privacy, as the length-side fronts of adjacent homes faced only their own lots, and the back wall abutted against the lot line.

Back side of a Charleston Single House
Back side of a Charleston Single House

Formality and Business

The most formal room for entertaining guests was nearly always one of the front street-facing rooms of the house, usually referred to as the drawing room or parlor.

The best furnishings in the home were relegated to the Parlor, whose windows overlooked both the interior yard of the property as well as the street.

The most formal entrance to the home was from the street onto the piazza to the front door, while a carriageway entrance allowed social and business guests to enter at eye level to the home’s occupants.

Entry gate to a Charleston Single House
Entry gate to a Charleston Single House
Reception Parlor of a Charleston Single House
Reception Parlor of a Charleston Single House

Antebellum Culture

Much of the economic and social structure of Charleston was directly tied to the plantations along the Ashley and Cooper Rivers during the 18th and 19th centuries, during the same period in which the Charleston Single form arose to dominate the urban residential fabric of the city.

Much like the “big house” of the plantation was the main structure in a setting of several utilitarian buildings, the Charleston Single House was supported by a number of utilitarian and servant buildings, creating a sort of urban compound.

The positioning of the Charleston Single with its front facing an internal yard allowed for a separate strata of entrances, allowing pedestrians – typically servants – to enter literally beneath eye level of the homeowners.
When viewed in context with its placement on a lot and all its outbuildings, the Charleston Single served the purpose of an in-town plantation.

(For a definitive analysis of the Charleston Single as an urban plantation, I encourage you to read The Embedded Landscapes of the Charleston Single House, 1780-1820 by Bernard L. Herman.)

A drawing of the people of Charleston around the Custom House, circa 1860
Charleston, East Bay Street, c. 1860
The dependencies behind a Charleston Single House

Architectural Styles

While the form of the Charleston Single persisted, the elements of style evolved through the architectural periods of the 18th and 19th centuries.

From the modest early designs of traditional weatherboard and stately Federal styles, many Charleston Single Houses later incorporated elements of the Greek Revival, Italianate, and Gothic Revival periods – seen in new builds and very often in renovations performed in the mid-to-late 1800s.

Charleston Single Houses boast an array of flavors that make each one unique and identifiable to its eras.

Variations

Modifications appear in some Charleston Single Houses that, while perhaps not exemplifying every element of the design, are still based on a floor plan that is one room wide with a central entry.

Street-level door for office or retail space

Enclosed second level piazza

A stairway from the street-level door to a raised piazza entry

Corner lot with a street entry directly to the front door

Piazzas set back behind additional front rooms

Setbacks to create a front yard

 

Bay windows added

 

Modernization

Charleston Single homes are a beloved treasure in the historic Charleston landscape, with many homeowners taking great pride in restoring them to their original splendor.

Often there is much opportunity to modernize the Charleston Single while honoring the original character of the home.

Living in a Charleston Single House

In searching for a Charleston Single for sale, in addition to many beautifully preserved historic homes and those in need of restoration work, there are a number of new construction homes that stay true to many the original elements of the 19th century Charleston Single while incorporating modern design and conveniences.