We’re always gathering at plantations in Charleston, from elaborate outdoor picnic spreads and live music on the banks of the Ashley River at the annual Spoleto Festival Finale, to strolling and sipping at Wine Under the Oaks at Boone Hall Plantation in Mount Pleasant. In town, several impressive museum houses are open for tours, and locals try not to miss stopping by their favorites around the holidays to see them dressed up in bows, fruit, and flowers. In recent years, African-American history and culture have become a larger part of the programming year-round. And if you want to make a day of it—including stopping for a traditional “tea” with such fare as crust-less pimento cheese and shrimp salad sandwiches—several groups offer spring and fall tours as fundraisers, including the Garden Club of Charleston, Preservation Society of Charleston, and Historic Charleston Foundation. Read on for a few of Charleston’s can’t-miss plantation and home tours.
Nathaniel Russell House
On lower Meeting Street, the circa-1808 Nathaniel Russell House has the most impressive curved staircase I’ve ever seen, but it’s also known for its rigorous attempts to return its walls to original 19th-century paint colors, including a peachy-pink shade in the drawing room and the famous bright azure blue-painted dining room.
The rooms in the stately brick house are empty now, but if you’re around Charleston long enough, you’ll eventually meet someone who remembers going to the Ashley River property in the 1970s or earlier, when it was still owned by the seventh generation of the Drayton family. Built in 1738, it’s regularly studied by architects and craftsmen.
Magnolia Plantation & Gardens
Somewhere in the groves of camellias is a blush-pink variety named for Brenda Beach, a lovely Charleston grandmother I met several years ago. Heirloom camellias are just one part of the incredible flora on this property owned by the Drayton Family since the 1600s. It’s also home to the boardwalks, alligators, and wading birds of the Audubon Swamp Garden.
On the famous East Battery overlooking the harbor and Fort Sumter, this circa-1825 house with wide piazzas is where Confederate General Robert E. Lee once spent the night. It’s open for tours, and not many people know visitors can stay there, too. Three rooms/suites are available for overnight stays (in a section not open to the public).
Okay, this is my hands-down favorite old house in Charleston. It’s mostly unfurnished, letting your imagination take over when you walk through the tall-ceilinged rooms. Remnants include a standing harp, family portraits, and a gray-painted drawing room, a leftover from when “Swamp Thing” filmed at the house in the 1970s.