Nathaniel Russell House
History and museums
The Nathaniel Russell House is a historic house at 51 Meeting Street in Charleston, South Carolina, United States. Built by wealthy shipping merchant Nathaniel Russell in 1808, it is recognized as one of America's most important Neoclassical houses. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1973.
Russell commissioned an unknown architect to build a large townhome in the then popular Federal-style. Sited on a large city lot in downtown Charleston, the rectangular house has a symmetrical façade, with a projecting four-sided bay that rises the full three-stories of the central block of the house. Constructed of Carolina gray brick, the three bay entrance front emphasizes height rather than width with the main living areas on the second and third-stories. The house is 9,600 square feet (890 m2) with 6,000 square feet (560 m2) of living area.
The first-story entrance front is dominated by the residence's grand entrance door. The eight-panel door is faux-grained and is encased by fluted pilasters, and topped by an elliptical fanlight detailed with looped tracery set within a molded nichelike arch. The entrance is flanked by single unadorned windows.
The three windows on the second-floor are emphasized by their floor length, ornamented with white marble lintels and are set in recessed red-brick arches with white keystones, tied together with a narrow white string course that runs around the entire perimeter of the house. Also featured is a light wrought-iron balcony that breaks out in a semicircle before each of the second-story windows, and displays Nathaniel Russell's initials in the center. A balcony also surrounds the projecting bay on the south side of the house, but does not interconnect with the one on the entrance front. Above the second-story brick arches is found a subtle red, double-brick string course that is topped with three additional windows on the third floor with prominent marble lintels. The architectural details that are found on the entrance front is carried over to the south facing façade, and can be viewed from the garden. A paneled balustrade runs fully about the central block and the south bay rendering the low hipped roof imperceptible.
The interior of the Nathaniel Russell house is greatly influenced by the Adam style, popular at the first of the 19th-century, that introduced curved walls, elaborate plasterwork decorations and striking mixed color schemes. The house features three main rooms per floor each of different geometric designs: a front rectangular room, a center oval room, and a square room in the rear. The rectangular entrance hall with a black and white diamond patterned floorcloth edged with a leaf motif, and the adjacent office was where Russell would conduct business. Separating the public rooms at the front of the house from the more private rooms used by the family, wide faux-grained double doors with glazed rosette patterned insets and an elliptical fan shaped transom, gives access to the golden walled stair hall that showcases the most important architectural feature of the house, the cantilevered spiral staircase, that ascends to the third floor. The asymmetrical hall is illuminated by a Palladian window, and further ornamented with trompe-l'œil painting resembling a plaster cornice and an elliptical medallion that were painted by Charleston artisan Samuel O'Hara. Off the central stair hall is the oval dining room, with turquoise walls that appear painted, but are small squares of unpatterned wallpaper bordered with interlocking rings, in red and gold, above cypress wainscoting painted white. The heart-pine floors and the wood interior shutters are original. At the rear of the house is a square parlor, that was enlarged at a later date to connect the house with the kitchen, and was used by the family for everyday dining.
The second-floor oval drawing room is the most highly decorated room in the house and is where the women of the house retired to after dinner. Papered in apricot, it features elaborate plaster moldings covered with 24-karat gold leaf and plinth blocks at the base painted to resemble lapis lazuli. The Adamesque ornamentation of the fireplaces' mantles and cornices are among the most detailed in the city. The curved entry doors are faux-grained to resemble flame-grained mahogany on the exterior and tortoise shell on the interior. Curved mullioned mirrors on one side of the room balance the windows to provide symmetry and reflect light in the room.
The large rectangular withdrawing room found at the front of the house has soft gray walls and white wainscoting that offsets the multilayered gilded cornice molding. The windows are surrounded with tall slender pilasters and overhanging entablatures, that add dimension to the walls. With windows on three sides, the room was utilized primarily during the day to take advantage of the daylight and breezes. At the rear of the house is the square shaped master bedroom, and additional bedchambers are found on the third floor. Though most of the art and furniture displayed in the house are not original to the Nathaniel Russell House, they are of the correct time period for when the Russell family inhabited the house, and many are of Charleston origin.
The house and grounds are separated from the street by a brick and wrought iron fence with the entrance gate flanked by tall brick columns capped with stone ball finials. To the south of the house is the garden that was originally laid out in a geometric arrangement with patterned beds of flowers, ornamental shrubs and large orange and grapefruit trees. Today a formal English garden can be found with gravel paths, boxwood hedges and plants favored in the 19th-century. In the rear of the house is the two-story slave quarters that housed many of the estimated 18 slaves that were at the Nathaniel Russell House.
Nathaniel Russell (1738-1820) originally from Rhode Island, settled in Charleston in 1765, becoming a prosperous shipping merchant. In 1788, Russell married Sarah Hopton (1752-1832), a member of one of Charleston’s wealthiest families at the age of 50, and two daughters were born soon after, Alicia in 1789 and Sarah in 1792. As one of the wealthiest citizens in Charleston, Nathaniel Russell sought to build a more prestigious home to display his prominence in the city. Construction began on the house in 1803, and the Federal style house was completed five years later at a cost of $80,000, when 70-year-old Nathaniel and his family moved into their new home.
The house remained in the Russell family until 1857 when it was purchased by Robert Allston (1801-1864), a successful rice planter who lived in the mansion while he was governor of South Carolina . In 1870, his executors sold it to the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy where it served as a boarding school from 1870 through 1905, upon which the mansion was converted back to a private residence by the Mullally and Pelzer families. In 1955, when it became apparent that the garden may be subdivided after the house had languished on the market for two years, the Historic Charleston Foundation was created to preserve the property. Within 30 days, the Foundation was able to raise the $65,000 needed to purchase the property, and opened the house for public tours soon after.
In 1995, the Historic Charleston Foundation embarked on a multi-year study and restoration of the mansion to return the interior finishes and architectural details to how it looked when first built. Grants and donations have enabled the acquisition of a significant collection of objects with Charleston provenance, to allow the Foundation to interpret Charleston’s merchant elite in the early 19th-century. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1973, and is today a popular attraction in Charleston.