Our Sunday-afternoon tour of the Aiken-Rhett house in Charleston, S.C., began in the basement of the historic structure. And as far as I was concerned, it could have ended there.
The first room on the tour is the so-called “warming room,” where slaves would hold the food that was about to be served to the masters upstairs – up the back stairwell of course.
This room contained a stretcher table that looked just like many of the stretcher tables I’ve been investigating at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts. A ladderback chair in front of the hearth looks like the chairs in my files. The built-in cupboards were detailed with simple beads for the most part – plus some other straightforward profiles.
The reason this room was so intoxicating is the Aiken-Rhett house is my favorite kind of house museum. Instead of trying to restore the structure to some certain point in its history, the Historic Charleston Foundation committed itself to preserving the house in its current state. Not adding. Not taking away. Not changing. Just suspending the house in time after an amazing 192-year run in a city at the epicenter of our country’s volatile history.
So the furniture is the real stuff. Not reimagined or restored or rebuilt to some modern plan. The walls throughout the house are in various stages of decay, with the shadow of every layer of wallpaper and built-in still evident.
The warming room, slave quarters and work yard are interesting and striking to me because they have aged far better than the rooms reserved for the masters. The slave quarters feature simple plaster walls. The moulding at the floor is simple yellow pine with a bead at the top. The original furniture is nothing special, and yet it wears its scars from age better than the high-style stuff in the main house.
In the fancy part of the house the elaborate mouldings, plaster work, wallpaper and paint haven’t survived as well – no surprise considering the fragility of the materials. The original furniture was fairly well cared for, though the post-1830 stuff is awkward, heavily veneered and infused with classicism (to my eye). Interestingly, the slave’s work yard was built with Gothic details.
So what the heck does all this mean? Glad you asked. The Aiken-Rhett house is definitely a four-story touchstone for my next book, “The Furniture of Necessity.” Until I walked into the cool, dark confines of the house’s warming room, I was wondering if my ideas for the book were nuts. After 10 minutes poking around the warming room, I became certain my ideas for the book were nuts – and dead-nuts correct.
— Christopher Schwarz
P.S. My apologies for the photos. The museum’s policy is to allow photos only from exterior vantage points. If you are ever in Charleston, I highly recommend a visit to this home.