Charleston has seen many architectural eras come and go since the original walled city was founded in 1680. Between various natural disasters and devastating fires, the forms, desins, 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, however, that is not only unique to the Charleston peninsula, but has become an iconic, defining characteristic of the city.
From the days of Charles Town, whose beginnings were really more of a colonial fort on the edge of civilization, the buildings were of mostly English design. The architecture adapted to the nature of colonial life – initially within the walls of a small, fortified provincial port, into a growing market town that served as the coastal face for inland agricultural plantations. There was some diversity in the layouts of homes – from the row houses on East Bay Street to expansive Georgian mansions within the peninsula. It was the Charleston Single house design, however, that was the most adaptable to the unique pressures that forged the City of Charleston in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Design Elements of The Charleston Single House
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) adorn the full length side of typically the first two floors. Often a street-facing door is placed onto the first floor piazza.
Purpose of the Charleston Single
It’s the subject of much discourse, and there is no one simple answer. The prevalence of Charleston Single house is the product of many factors, whose influences waxed or waned from one cultural and architectural era to another.
Lot Design. The original urban design of 1680 Charles Town incorporated slender lots with narrow sides facing the streets, with lengthy depths extending into the blocks – the speculated reason for this layout was to mitigate the scarcity of space on the peninsula. In the early 18th century England imposed an urban planning design on its colonies across the pond known as the Grand Modell, to which the designers of Charles Town adapted to further incorporate the long, slender lot designs. The footprint of the Charleston Single house maximizes the space afforded by this rectangular lot design.
Natural Ventilation. Charleston Single homes 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 usually 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 enjoys a stronger harbor breeze throughout the warm, humid evenings.
Fire Protection. The back walls of the Charleston Single are typically solid with no windows, instead claiming the placement of the home’s fireplaces and chimneys. 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.
Formality and Business. The most formal room for entertaining guests was always one of the front street-facing rooms of the house, usually referred to as the drawing room or parlor room. Identifiable by the best furnishings in the home, these rooms are usually found on the second floor. The first floor often held a more business purpose, with many Charleston Single homes having a separate entrance to the first floor front room as an office or shop. 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.
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 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 the definitive analysis of the Charleston Single as an urban plantation, read The Embedded Landscapes of the Charleston Single House, 1780-1820 by Bernard L. Herman.)
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 Georgian designs, sculpted Federal styles, to the ornate features of Italianate and Gothic Revival periods, Charleston Single houses boast an array of flavors that make each one unique and identifiable to its era. Perhaps the most popular expressions of the Charleston Single are in the Classical Revival style of the antebellum era, with their fluted columns and heavy ornamentation.
Living in a Charleston Single House
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.
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.