Charleston, South Carolina is an antebellum home lovers dream. All over the historic district, you can tour homes that display Charleston life in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. On Meeting Street, the Nathaniel Russell House reflects the wealth of the Russell’s, who built what would become one of the nation’s most important examples of Neoclassical architecture. I toured the home on my last day in Charleston this spring and loved the history of the family, Charleston society and middle class life during the time period.
To purchase tickets for the house tour, you’ll walk around the house and go in the back door which leads to the gift shop. At the counter, you can pay for your admission and receive a sticker you’ll peel off and stick on yourself. At the next time slot, follow the hall behind the gift shop and that’s where the tour begins. There, our tour guide introduced herself and asked us to follow her outside and around the house so we could begin just inside the front doors. Our guide, Maxine, shared that she has been a tour guide at this house for 20 years! Once we walked around the house and made our way into the entryway, Maxine started by telling us about the original home owner, Nathaniel Russell. Mr. Russell was a merchant by trade and came to Charleston in 1765 from Rhode Island. At the time, Charleston was the largest seaport in the South. His ships went all over the world and shipped tea and textiles. One of his ship manifests even listed tiger skins as some of the goods onboard! The house took five years to build and was patterned after a Federal Style house; meaning there were three oval rooms in the middle of the home and square rooms on the corners. Originally, the kitchen would not be attached to the house.
If you were to visit the house during the time the Russell’s lived there, the grand double doors leading to the interior of the house would be shut at all times. If you were there for a business meeting, you would not be permitted to go beyond those doors! Also, the doors we see today, are the original doors with the original glass. Besides the doors, the only possession in the house that was owned by Nathaniel and his wife, Sarah, that still survives was a Windsor chair displayed in the office. (The office was in the front of the house as well, on the left, when you entered the residence.) The rest of house was furnished with period pieces, but not pieces owned by the family.
From the front room, our guide led us through the double doors into the middle of the house where the staircase was located. The staircase is an architectural feature the house is known for, called a floating staircase. Originally, the staircase would not have been attached to the wall and was assembled with pegs – there are no nails in the staircase whatsoever! While we stood there, Maxine also asked us to look up at the ceiling, several floors above us. There was a medallion painted on the ceiling. When they were renovating the home, an artists removed 20 layers of paint before they discovered it! Speaking of paint, the gold color in the stair hall would have been the original color used when the Russell’s lived there.
From the stair hall, we filed into the dining room. The family would have eaten a three course meal here that started at 3 PM. When a guest was present, the meal could last two to three hours. The teal color of the walls are original to the time period and they would have also had carpet in this room. While we were in the dining room, our guide share some other interesting facts about the Russells and the time in which they lived. For example, Nathaniel Russell didn’t marry until he was 50 years old and he was 70 years old when they moved into this house. In that time, the plantation owners were considered “upper class” while merchants and doctors were considered “middle class.” So when Nathaniel’s oldest daughter married into the Middleton family, that was a “step up” in the social circle because Middleton was a plantation owner and he also signed the Declaration of Independence.
Family Dining Room/Correspondence Room
The next room we visited was considered a dining room as well, but only for the Russell family. They also used it as a correspondence room where Sarah would write letters. One thing that was a very important part of running the household was to open and close the shutters at different times of the day. The shutters were also original and could fold into the wall and lock. Slaves were taught to open and close them based on the position of the sun. This kept the sun from fading the inside of the house and kept the house cool during the heat of the day. On a small table there was a china set and Maxine told us that it belonged to a shipment that brought 10,000 pieces of this blue china to America. The ship took a round trip from Charleston to China and back – the voyage took two years!
Second Floor Formal Tea Room
It was an English tradition to entertain guests on the second floor and this room would have been where formal tea was served. If you looked up, you might have noticed that there was gold that looked like crown molding. When they discovered the room was outlined in 24 carat gold, they doubted that it was original to the house. But then, they discovered a letter from one of Nathaniel’s children stating that there was gold in that room used as trim. The historical team was shocked, yet, pleased by this discovery. The interesting thing I learned about this room was at night, if you closed the shutters and put out all the candles, it would be the darkest room in the house. Yet, in the morning, it was the brightest room in the house because the sun would have flooded the room with sunlight due to so many windows. Also, another neat fact was how they accessed the balcony – which was through the windows! The windows were as tall as a person, and apparently, unlatched and lifted up so you could walk right out.
Center Oval Room
The center oval room on the second floor was considered the drawing room and was just off the tea room. Because it was for formal entertainment, it was the most expensive room in the house. When the family moved in, it was the finest drawing room in Charleston, and perhaps even on the entire East Coast. It was also the only room in house that had a chandelier. The room had a piano and a harp; Maxine shared that every young lady in those days was expected to play a musical instrument. When our guide opened up for questions, one guy asked, “Did they hold dances in here?” Very gravely, the tour guide replied, “Mr. Russell started the Charleston Bible Society. They were not the partying type.” LOL! That made me chuckle on the inside! (However, it’s worthy to note they did hold a ball in that room when their oldest daughter married into the Middleton family.)
Second Floor Bedroom
Our tour ended in the bedroom. This bedroom was the best in the house and was Sarah’s. Guests and other family members stayed on the third floor. This room was decorated and patterned after a photograph from a great-grandchild.
Conclusion: I thoroughly enjoyed touring the Nathaniel Russell House! Though it wasn’t home to a famous person in history, or, someone who entertained a President like the Heyward-Washington House, it was a great way to learn more about the citizens of Charleston and how they lived in the 1800’s. I never toured a merchant’s home before and found all the information about the Russell family very intriguing. If you’re like me and love to tour old homes, put this one on your list – you won’t be disappointed!
The Charleston Historical Society acquired the house in 1955. In five years, they hope to have it fully restored. So come back and visit in 2023!
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