The subtropical climate and wealth created by plantation agriculture led to the emergence of distinctive forms and, in some cases, exceptionally sophisticated buildings. At the same time, the dominant theme in South Carolina architecture has always been the vernacular: common buildings designed to serve utilitarian purposes and lacking significant stylistic ornamentation.

The architecture of South Carolina historically has been shaped by cultural and geographic diversity, undulating political and economic fortunes, and an overwhelmingly agrarian landscape. English building traditions were the major influence of the colonial era, although African slaves, Huguenot immigrants, and other cultural groups also made important contributions. The subtropical climate and wealth created by plantation agriculture led to the emergence of distinctive forms and, in some cases, exceptionally sophisticated buildings. At the same time, the dominant theme in South Carolina architecture has always been the vernacular: common buildings designed to serve utilitarian purposes and lacking significant stylistic ornamentation. In the decades after the Civil War, the growth of inland towns and cities brought greater variety to the built environment, and increasing integration with the national economy gave prevailing trends in style and design a greater influence on communities statewide. Recent decades have been dominated by suburban sprawl and the architecture of mass retailing, the rise of vacation resorts and retirement communities in the lowcountry, and the persistence of regionally distinctive building traditions.

Cultural diversity was central to the architectural development of early Charleston, where the population included English immigrants, French Protestants, and Barbadians as well as smaller numbers of Scots, Sephardic Jews, and Germans. Commingled in the built environment were building traditions and stylistic preferences that arrived with each of these groups. Enslaved Africans made contributions of indeterminable value by imparting design influences from their own cultural roots and by providing the vast majority of the labor needed for production of building materials and construction. The combined influence of these cultural groups provided the basis for the architecturally distinctive environment that took shape in eighteenth-century Charleston.

The city’s traditional Georgian architecture reached full maturity in the rebuilding campaign that followed the devastating fire of 1740. By about 1760 Charleston was among the wealthiest cities in the English colonies and architecturally one of the most sophisticated. Construction of major buildings such as St. Michael’s Church (1752–1761), the Statehouse (1753–1760), and the Exchange and Custom House (1767–1771) and a residential building boom signified its rising status. The emergence of the famed Charleston “single house” as a distinct building type occurred during the mid-eighteenth century. Built on a rectangular plan with its narrow side set directly against the street, the single house was a creative response to the scarcity of space in the city, and its side piazzas and room layout attempted to mitigate the oppressive lowcountry heat by allowing summer breezes to circulate through the main living spaces.

Charleston’s importance as a center of the building trades increased in the early national period, when the planter-merchant elite enjoyed renewed wealth from exports of rice and Sea Island cot- ton. The most opulent surviving residences from the early nineteenth century include the Joseph Manigault House (ca. 1803), the Nathaniel Russell House (ca. 1808), the Patrick Duncan House (ca. 1802–1816; used as Ashley Hall school since 1909), and the Aiken- Rhett House (ca. 1818). Construction of public and commercial buildings dominated later decades. The trend began with the Robert Mills–designed Fireproof Building (1822–1827) and gained strength after the economic doldrums of the late 1820s and the nullification crisis passed. The Meeting Street Theatre (1835–1837); Market Hall (1840–1841); and two Greek Revival–style buildings, the Charleston Hotel (1838–1839) and Hibernian Hall (1839– 1841), were especially significant.

The architecture of smaller port towns such as Beaufort and Georgetown differed from that in the coastal cities of Charleston and Savannah. With freestanding homes on large lots and loosely ordered business districts, these towns were less urban in character. Georgian, Federal, and Greek Revival influences predominated. Georgetown’s best-known landmarks include Prince George Winyah Episcopal Church (1742–1746), the Market Building (1842), and Winyah Indigo Society Hall (1857). Among the highlights of Beaufort’s exceptionally rich built environment are the Federal-style John Mark Verdier House (ca. 1786); Marshlands (ca. 1814), a frame house set on an English basement that displays a combination of Federal and West Indian influences; and Greek Revival residences such as the Dr. John A. Johnson House (ca. 1850) and the Edward Means House (ca. 1853). Tabby, a cement made of lime, sand, and oyster shells, was used extensively in Beaufort and the surrounding area in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Important examples of tabby construction include the Beaufort Arsenal (1795; rebuilt 1852), the Elizabeth Barnwell-Gogh House (ca. 1780), and the Thomas Fuller House (ca. 1786; also known as the Tabby Manse).

In contrast to the coastal plain, the architecture of the upstate reflected its frontier setting. Even fairly large plantation houses often lacked refinement. Ornamentation, if present at all, was limited to fireplace mantles, door and window surrounds, and entry halls. Most yeoman farmers lived in small, one- or two-room houses of log or frame construction. Saddlebags, double-pen, and hall-and-parlor floor plans were common, and scattered examples of dogtrot houses–typically two rooms built around an open central passageway–could be found in the Midlands, Appalachian foothills, and upper Savannah River Valley. Log construction remained common in the upstate well into the nineteenth century.

The building form most closely identified with upstate plantations is commonly known as the Carolina farmhouse or I-house. Two stories tall with a lateral-gable roof, houses of this type usually have a central hall plan and are two rooms wide and one room deep. The vast majority of those built in South Carolina have exterior end chimneys. The form derives from English antecedents and became common in the tidewater South after the Revolutionary War. Over time, owners often added decorative embellishments and rearward additions. Although far less ubiquitous today than in the nineteenth century, examples of the type are still common on the rolling land- scape of the upstate.

The Greek Revival, which appeared in Charleston and Columbia in the 1820s and remained popular until the Civil War, was the dominant style of the late antebellum period. Archetypal domestic examples include Milford (1839) near Pinewood; Magnolia (1855) near Eastover; the Chisolm-Alston House (1834–1836) and the Robert William Roper House (1838–1839) in Charleston; and the Rankin-Harwell House (1857; also known as the Columns) near Mars Bluff. The influence of the Greek Revival also extended to more modest dwellings. Throughout the Pee Dee and in cotton-prosperous upstate counties such as Laurens and Union, countless examples of what became an archetypal form–a raised cottage, one or one-and-a-half stories in height, with a lateral-gable roof and a projecting central portico with columns–demonstrated the popularity of the style. The best-known examples of this type are Bonnie Shade (ca. 1854) in Florence and two houses in Laurens: the Thomas Badgett House (built before 1846) and the Allen Dial House (ca. 1855).

The architecture of slavery was a powerful presence in the South Carolina countryside. Providing shelter for the number of slaves needed to work a large plantation required extensive housing. Rows of slave cabins–often called the “slave street”–stood in the rear or to the side of the planter’s residence. The quality and type of slave housing varied greatly. One-room structures of log, earthfast, or frame construction were most prevalent, and saddlebag houses and other double-pen forms with central chimneys were also fairly com- mon. Wattle-and-daub walls, dirt floors, mud-and-stick chimneys, and crowded conditions were the norm. Only on large plantations did owners sometimes provide better quality housing, occasionally with modest decorative features that mirrored the architectural style of the plantation house. For many slaves, living conditions improved only marginally after emancipation, and the housing occupied by white tenants and sharecroppers, although better than that of their black counterparts, still left much to be desired.

The construction of two monumental public buildings, the new state capitol in Columbia and the Custom House in Charleston, drew national attention during the 1850s. Work on the new state capitol began in 1855 under the direction of John R. Niernsee, whose design melded classicism and monumentality within the central block-with-wings form that by then had become virtually standard for state capitol buildings. The Civil War halted construction in 1862. Although hastily fitted with a temporary roof in 1867, the building was not fully completed for another forty years and stood as a grim reminder of the war’s costs. Construction of the Custom House began in 1849. The Boston architect Ammi B. Young pre- pared the original plans, which called for a cruciform building finished in granite with four Roman Corinthian porticos and a Renaissance dome. Edward B. White supervised construction. The project proceeded at a steady pace in the early 1850s before suffering delays and cost overruns, and rising sectional tensions eventually halted construction. In 1859 Congress did not pass an appropriation to continue construction, and, like the new state capitol in Columbia, the Custom House became a symbol of unrealized civic ambitions. The building was finally completed in 1879 without the planned dome and side porticos.

The emergence of upstate towns and cities in the 1880s and 1890s marked a new phase of building that reflected the development of transportation connections and commercial ties to regional and national markets. Railroad depots, trackside warehouses, and main street commercial buildings were central to the economy of the New South and symbolized the prevailing spirit of commerce and progress. Union stations built in major cities served as civic gateways to their communities and often featured flamboyant Romanesque Revival or Italianate styling. Small town depots often displayed Stick-style accents. Commercial buildings featured pressed metal, cast stone, and terra cotta ornamentation. Italianate, Romanesque, and Victorian influences were common.

The growth of the upstate was closely tied to the development of the textile industry. Most of the mills built in antebellum South Carolina were small brick buildings, generally three or four stories tall and large enough to accommodate roughly five thousand spindles. By contrast, the factory buildings needed for the mills of the New South were considerably larger. In 1880 the typical South Carolina mill still had fewer than 6,000 spindles, but by 1910 that number had increased to more than 25,000. South Carolina firms such as Lockwood, Greene and Company, J. E. Sirrine, and W. B. Smith Whaley became leaders in mill design and engineering.

Mill villages were central to the architectural transformation of the upstate. Worker housing was adapted from common vernacular types. Double-pen and gable-wing cottages and duplexes were especially common. Although simple and outfitted with few amenities, mill housing represented an improvement in living conditions for families from rural areas. The layout of early villages tended to be informal, but systematic planning became the norm after about 1880. Grid street patterns remained prevalent until after the turn of the century, when curvilinear streets inspired by contemporary trends in suburban design became fashionable. In the early twentieth century textile firms added landscaping, better-quality housing, and community buildings to make mill village life more appealing. No matter what the layout and amenities, however, a well-defined sense of social and corporate order was evident in the built environment. The mill was the focal point of the community, and buildings with a civic role such as churches, the mill store, and the community center were prominently placed. The large, stylish houses occupied by mill managers and their families held commanding locations. Worker housing occupied the lowest rung of the ladder.

As the textile boom gained strength, the emergence of the southern middle class created unprecedented demand for housing in towns and cities, sparking a wave of residential construction that began in the 1880s and gained strength in later decades. Home buyers favored nationally popular styles and folk housing forms ornamented with Queen Anne and Neoclassical details. New construction initially occurred on the periphery of town centers and spread outward into undeveloped areas. Bungalows and Craftsman- style houses were popular in suburban neighborhoods, and upscale developments also included houses designed in the Neoclassical, Colonial Revival, and Tudor Revival styles.

The expansion of public services in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries resulted in the construction of new public and institutional buildings, including courthouses, city halls, post offices, and libraries. Neoclassicism dominated public architecture in the New South. Architects such as William Augustus Edwards, who designed courthouses in nine South Carolina counties, employed monumental classical orders and rusticated stonework to convey a sense of civic authority. James Burwell Urquhart, Charles Coker Wilson, and James J. Baldwin produced Neoclassical designs for public schools and buildings on college and university campuses. Italianate and Romanesque influences were also popular before about 1900. Clemson University, Winthrop College, and Coker College were among the educational institutions that grew significantly during the era.

The architecture of black colleges and universities fit squarely within a similar stylistic idiom. Most of the state’s historically black colleges and universities, including Allen, Voorhees, and South Carolina State, trace their beginnings to the 1880s and 1890s. Black architects and builders played a leading role in their design and construction, and students enrolled in mechanical arts classes often pro- vided labor for construction. William Wilson Cooke, a Greenville native who in 1907 became the first African American to serve as a senior architectural designer in the U.S. Supervising Architect’s Office, designed Lee Library (1898) and Tingley Memorial Hall (1908) at Claflin College. Miller F. Whittaker designed several buildings at South Carolina State and later served as its president.

In the twentieth century, the combined influence of several factors produced dramatic changes in South Carolina architecture. Federal programs were especially important. During the New Deal, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) erected new schools, post offices, and courthouses in communities statewide, and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built seventeen state parks with rustic-style architecture and naturalistic landscape features. Defense spending during World War II resulted in the expansion of existing facilities such as Fort Jackson and Parris Island and the creation of Naval Air Station Beaufort and Naval Weapons Station Charleston. The architecture of the cold war arrived in the early 1950s with the construction of the Savannah River Plant, a mammoth facility near Aiken designed to produce fuel for nuclear weapons.

In the decades after World War II, a surge of suburban and exurban development reshaped the architecture and landscape of South Carolina. The postwar housing boom added substantial numbers of new residential units to many communities, especially larger cities such as Columbia and Charleston, and introduced modern house forms such as the ranch and split-level. As residential subdivisions developed along municipal perimeters, retail stores abandoned traditional Main Street locations in favor of suburban shopping centers and strip malls. Adding to urban and suburban growth were changes made possible by the civil rights revolution and the rise of the Sunbelt South. The collapse of Jim Crow and rising wages in south- eastern cities opened up the floodgates for an influx of population from other parts of the country that contributed to housing demand and new business development. Starting in the mid-1980s, the proliferation of so-called “big box” retail stores and the acceleration of commercial and residential development fueled the phenomenon known as urban sprawl, which dramatically changed the appearance of communities throughout the state.

Contemporary architectural design reflects the tensions present in South Carolina’s changing society. The glass and concrete office towers that dominate the skylines of Columbia and Greenville stand in stark contrast to the spirit of traditionalism that has been the hall- mark of southern architecture for more than three centuries. In the lowcountry, the juxtaposition between former rice plantations and the architecture of the modern tourist economy, with its beachfront hotels, waterfront condominiums, and golf-course housing developments, is equally striking. Paradoxes evident in the present-day built environment reflect a deeply rooted tendency to embrace change in the name of “progress” while holding fast to old identities. The result is a rich and varied legacy that encompasses the vernacular and the high style, the rustic and the urbane, the conservative and the avant-garde.

Bryan, John M. Creating the South Carolina State House. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.

Lane, Mills. Architecture of the Old South: South Carolina. Savannah, Ga.: Beehive, 1984.

Lounsbury, Carl. From Statehouse to Courthouse: An Architectural History of South Carolina’s Colonial Capitol and Charleston County Courthouse. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.

Poston, Jonathan H. The Buildings of Charleston: A Guide to the City’s Architecture. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.

Ravenel, Beatrice St. Julien. Architects of Charleston. 1945. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992.

Severens, Kenneth. Charleston Antebellum Architecture and Civic Destiny. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1988.

Wells, John E., and Robert E. Dalton. The South Carolina Architects, 1885–1935: A Biographical Directory. Richmond, Va.: New South Architectural Press, 1992.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Architecture
  • Author
  • Keywords Robert Mills, expansion, changing styles, I houses, transportation, mill villages
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date June 18, 2024
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update July 15, 2022
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