The Foundation welcomes visitors to explore daily life in one of Charleston’s most exquisite dwellings. Located in Downtown Charleston near High Battery, the Nathaniel Russell House Museum, 51 Meeting Street, is widely recognized as one of America’s most important neoclassical dwellings. Historic Charleston Foundation purchased the National Historic Landmark in 1955, and the house served as the Foundation’s headquarters for 37 years. Today, the interiors are restored to their original 1808 grandeur and surrounded by formal gardens.
Nathaniel Russell was born in Bristol, Rhode Island. He settled in Charleston at the age of 27 in 1765, when Charleston was a bustling seaport. By 1774, Charleston boasted a per capita of wealth nearly four times that of all the American colonies. Russell’s career as a merchant involved the shipment of cargoes to and from New England, the West Indies, South America, Virginia, Great Britain, continental Europe, West Africa and Asia.
While most of his profits came from the exportation of staples, such as Carolina Gold rice, indigo, tobacco and cotton, Russell handled a broad range of imported goods. He also participated in the African slave trade both before and after the American Revolution.
In 1788 Russell married Sarah Hopton (1752-1832), daughter of one of Charleston’s wealthiest pre-Revolutionary era merchants. Two daughters were born to the Russells, Alicia in 1789 and Sarah in 1792. The house remained in the Russell family until 1857 when it was purchased by Governor R.F.W. Allston (1801-1864) and his wife, Adele Petigru (1810-1896). Later, after serving as a school for the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy from 1870-1905, the Russell House was converted back to a private residence. It remained so until 1955, when the Foundation purchased the site and opened the house for public tours.
In 1995, Historic Charleston Foundation embarked on a multi-year study and restoration of the Russell House. Today, the interior finishes and architectural details reflect Nathaniel Russell’s original dwelling, and the house is furnished with an outstanding collection of fine and decorative arts from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In recent years, grants and private donations have enabled the curatorial staff to identify and acquire important family items and a significant collection of objects with Charleston provenance. The collection allows the Foundation to interpret Charleston’s merchant elite in the early days of the American Republic.
At the Nathaniel Russell House, visitors learn about the Russell family, as well as the enslaved African Americans who were responsible for maintaining one of the nation’s grandest antebellum townhouses and the relationship of these enslaved domestic servants and the Russell family. An exhibition in the original kitchen house highlights artifacts uncovered during archaeological investigations at the site—pottery sherds, beads, and part of a slave tag. These objects reveal the everyday duties performed by slaves and the spiritual beliefs of the enslaved men and women that maintained the grand townhouse.
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