The single house is the building form most closely associated with eighteenth-century Charleston architecture. It first appeared in the early eighteenth century and emerged as a favored residential form after the fire of 1740. The typical single house stands two or more stories in height and is built on a rectangular plan with its narrow end facing the street. Each floor has two rooms with a central stair-hall in between. Piazzas occupy the long wall facing the inside of the lot, and the chimneys are located on the opposite wall, in the rear of the house.
Architectural historians have devoted considerable study to the origins of the single house. The most common explanation holds that the form developed as a response to the hot and humid lowcountry summers and the scarcity of space in the urban environment. The tall, slender profile allowed breezes to circulate freely across the broad piazzas and through the main rooms. The orientation of the house removed it from direct engagement with the public street, secluding the occupants from the life of the city. In the words of the architectural historian Kenneth Severens, “As a free-standing house communicating more with a side garden than with the street, the single house offered a masterful but still vernacular solution to the residential problems of achieving comfort, privacy, and propriety.” Gene Waddell, however, has suggested that fire protection was a more important consideration. Observing that the single house became popular after the fire that swept through the waterfront district in 1740, Waddell has argued that its freestanding form and nearly solid rear wall represented a departure from the paired dwellings and row houses of the colonial era and reflected a desire for increased fire protection in a dense urban environment. Another interpretation has been offered by Bernard Herman, who argued that the social and symbolic stature of the single house and the dependencies found in the rear—slave quarters, carriage houses, and outbuildings—effectively made it the urban equivalent of the plantation “big house.” The organization of the lot placed formal social spaces nearest the street and utilitarian activities in the rear, while the house offered a vantage point for the occupants to keep watch over their domestic slaves and access in and out of the lot. Viewed in this context, the development of the single house reflected Charleston’s role as the gateway between the world of Atlantic mercantilism and the lowcountry plantation landscape.
The single house is widely recognized as one of the most distinctive vernacular forms in the South. Numerous examples remain in the historic core of the city. Among those that illustrate the evolution of the form are the Charles Elliott House at 43 Legare Street (ca. 1759; altered in 1911); 90 and 94 Church Street (ca. 1760–1765); the Robert Pringle House at 70 Tradd Street (ca. 1774); the Simmons-Edwards House at 14 Legare Street (ca. 1800); and the Timothy Ford House at 54 Meeting Street (ca. 1800–1806).
Herman, Bernard. “The Charleston Single House.” In The Buildings of Charleston: A Guide to the City’s Architecture, by Jonathan H. Poston. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.
Severens, Kenneth. Charleston Antebellum Architecture and Civic Destiny. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1988.
Waddell, Gene. “The Charleston Single House . . . An Architectural Survey.” Preservation Progress 22 (March 1977): 4–8.