Walk through Charleston’s Heyward-Washington House or the Joseph Manigault House and you can see the grandeur. With a little imagination you can see ladies in silk gowns and men in their finest coats sharing a meal and conversation. You can hear the nearly silent steps of an enslaved resident of the house bringing dinner from the kitchen or keeping the house in its impeccable order.
Both houses, located in the Holy City’s historic district, are now owned by the Charleston Museum. The Manigault House is right across the street from the museum. The Heyward house is tucked on a side street farther south. Both are beautifully restored to look as they did in their glory days.
The Manigault house was built in 1803, a Federal-style house with a remarkable central staircase and a domed temple gate in the garden. Every step is a step in luxury — until the docent, who told the story’s house beautifully, stood in the middle of a gorgeous room and told us how the room used to be filled with children who lived here in the early 20th Century. The house had been turned into a boarding house by then and there were dozens of children and their parents sheltering here. There was once a gas station in the garden area. And the USO used the building to give soldiers a place to relax and socialize during World War II.
The Heyward-Washington House (we’ll call it the H-W) was built in 1772. A Georgian double house, it was the home of Thoms Heyward Jr., one of South Carolina’s four signers of the Declaration of Independence. George Washington slept here for a week when he visited in 1791. That’s how it gets its name. From 1794 to 1810, the house was the home of Judge John and Mary Grimke and their children. Two of their daughters, Sara and Mary, became famous abolitionists.
It features a collection of grand Charleston furniture, big carved bookcases and mantles. It is cozier than the Manigault but don’t let the facade on the street fool you. Beyond the public rooms on the first floor are more buildings, including a kitchen filled with fascinating tools, and a formal garden.
Like the Manigault House, the H-W was more than a house. It was used as a boarding house in 1820. From 1883 to 1929 it served as a bakery with the front window turned into a door into the sales area. The Charleston Museum bought it in 1929 when its fate seemed to be demolition.
I’m grateful to the Charleston Museum for preserving these beautiful old houses. I love walking through the rooms of places such as these. I admire the furniture, study the drapes (I am a big curtain fan.) and consider the colors on the walls. And there’s lots of color, very little beige.
Their history is more than the famous people who lived here or came here. It’s fascinating to see how regular people continued to walk through these rooms and use them in a way that would keep body and soul together.
Ⓒ Text and photos Mary K. Tilghman
PS — Thanks for stopping by! This is my blogging anniversary. I’ve been writing on this site for four years. I’m grateful for the opportunity.