Of the many attractive aspects of Historic Charleston that draw both visitors and residents alike has of course included the built environment of the city, particularly the residential neighborhoods on the peninsula. Charleston is a trove of historic architecture, in boroughs that are deliberately preserved and maintained with their genuine character intact. 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 is the deal with all the houses with doors that open from the street onto the porch?“
The current housing stock of genuine Charleston Single House structures is almost entirely unique to the Lowcountry of South Carolina – hence the name – with origins in the Caribbean and its primary feature being the width of a single room, oriented with its side facing the street.
There is a storied history behind this special architecture, with very many original specimens faithfully preserved and changing ownership on our real estate market.
From Barbados to 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 first settlers of the Lowcountry arrived from the Caribbean Island of Barbados – sugar plantation owners and farmers looking to establish a colony to expand their holdings. First landing at a site in West Ashley, plantations were established with slave labor throughout the Lowcountry, initially in the area of Goose Creek.
Ultimately the peninsula was the prize of the Lowcountry.
Formed at the convergence of the tidal Ashley River and the deep Cooper River, what would become Downtown Charleston jutted into a broad harbor feeding directly into the trade routes of the Atlantic Ocean.
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 shipping ports of international commerce. The architecture of the homes within adapted to the nature of colonial life, while reflecting the architectural legacy of the original settlers: narrow, single width designs commonly seen in Bridgetown and elsewhere in Barbados.
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 seven citywide fire events 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.
Following a series of devastating fires on the island of Barbados, nearly all of the single house stock has been destroyed, leaving the single house design almost entirely unique to the City of Charleston.
The flavors of Barbados persist in Charleston though: in our architecture, the pastel home colors, and our love for a good rum.
Design and Layout
While there are many variations in architectural styles and lot placements, there are a number of defining characteristics of the Charleston Single House:
- A single room in width (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 (“porches” in Charleston speak) 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, stables, and other utilitarian structures – these were often later attached to the main home by way of a “hyphen” or demolished.
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.
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 provincial fort on a peninsula.
The footprint of the Charleston Single House makes the best use of the space afforded by this rectangular lot design, with the true front of the home facing the interior of the lot.
Shade and Ventilation
Charleston Single Houses were positioned on their lots to best take advantage of the natural cooling effect of 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 move the entertaining of guests in the evening, as its height above the street level is more apt to catch the harbor breeze.
The rear of the Charleston Single House is right on the lot line, making the most of the lot space facing the other direction.
There are no mandatory setbacks in Historic Charleston, so stay on friendly terms with your neighbor.
The back wall is typically solid with very few openings, often only a single window illuminating the center stairwell.
The fireplaces and chimneys are situated here as well.
The primary purpose of this design element was originally intended as a barrier to protect the home from a fire spreading beyond adjacent buildings; it’s probably not a coincidence that the popularity of the Charleston Single surged after the first disastrous city-wide blaze of 1740 destroyed many row houses.
The 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 of the neighboring home.
Formality and Business
The most formal room for entertaining guests is the front street-facing room to the left of the entrance, usually referred to as the drawing room or parlor.
Homeowners adorn the parlor with their best furnishings, whose windows overlook 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 guests to enter at eye level to the home’s occupants.
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 dependencies such as a kitchen house and servant quarters, creating a sort of small 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.
While the form of the Charleston Single persisted, the elements of exterior adornment 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 Queen Anne periods – seen in new builds and very often in renovations performed in the mid-to-late 1800s.
Living in a Charleston Single House
This mostly depends on the borough – large-frame Charleston Singles are common in Ansonborough and South of Broad, while smaller lots in Elliotborough and Westside hold many small-form Charleston Singles.
New or Old
The earliest Charleston Single Houses date back to the early 18th century in the historic neighborhood South of Broad. Over time the extremely popular design was implemented in every borough on the peninsula over more than two centuries, beginning to wane after the 1930s.
In addition to many beautifully preserved historic homes and those in need of restoration work, there are a number of newer construction homes that stay true to many the original elements of the 19th century Charleston Single while incorporating modern design and conveniences.
Owning a Charleston Single House
Throughout the peninsula of Downtown Charleston there are thousands of Charleston Single Houses across the historic boroughs.
In searching for a Charleston Single for sale there are options to consider:
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
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.