Whenever I’m touring guests on one of my Charleston walking tours, if the gates are open, I always take advantage of the accessibility to the gardens around the Calhoun Mansion
as quietly and respectfully as possible. I can instantly hear the gasps when we ’round the back pathway and guests get a glimpse of the beautiful fountain. The magnificent trees, flowers, and hedges are worth taking several photos of and you can even throw a coin in one of the little fountains for luck. (You may even spy a few of the turtles that live along the south side of the house among the Koi fish and lily pads.)
The house itself stands out like no other and is located at 16 Meeting Street. It’s just one of those iconic sights in Charleston that knocks your socks off. The sheer size of it!!! Even though it’s called the Calhoun Mansion, I can’t help but honor the man responsible for its creation and always give a nod to George Williams, calling it “Mr. Williams’ Wonder-Mansion.” (I know, I know. But, it was HIS first.)
George W. Williams was a wealthy banker and merchant in Charleston. He achieved great success as a merchant before the Civil War. During the war, he made even more money as a blockade runner, wisely investing in British sterling instead of Confederate currency. After the war, he earned more than one million dollars with which he resumed business and opened a banking house. Later, he founded the Carolina Savings Bank at One Broad Street.
His mansion, on which he is said to have spent $200,000 to build in 1876, has 35 rooms and, with 24,000 square feet of floor space (including the attic). It is the largest building in the historic district constructed as a single residence. The house has 14-foot ceilings, elaborate plaster and woodwork, 35 fireplaces, a stairwell that reaches to a 75-foot-high domed ceiling, and a ballroom with a coved glass skylight that is 45 feet high. At the time it was built, the Charleston News and Courier called it the “handsomest and most complete private residence in the south.”
After Mr. Williams passed away in 1903, the property was acquired by his son-in-law, Patrick Calhoun, a grandson of John C. Calhoun
, the two-time Vice President of the United States, a/k/a the “Great Nullifier.” Calhoun sadly lost everything on Black Thursday
— October 24, 1929, when the stock market crashed. Over the next year, the Calhouns had to sell their furnishings, including the Minton tile in the fireplace surrounds, just to make ends meet. A year after the crash, the house was auctioned off on the steps of the Charleston County courthouse to pay off Calhoun’s creditors.
After that, the house then went through a string of occupants and many different uses, serving as a hotel called the Calhoun Mansion shortly after World War I. The grand property slowly deteriorated and by 1972 was condemned.
Enter Mr. Gebney Howe III, a Charleston native, who paid $220,000 for the dilapidated house in 1976. Howe then spent the next 25 years and $5 million restoring it. It opened to the public as a house museum in the 1980s. Howe put the house on the market again in 2001. It was then bought by an international litigator with a vast collection of art, antiques, and fascinating collectibles.
The spectacular house continues to operate as a museum and tours are a must-see on the list of fun things to see in Charleston. I especially love the artwork on the second floor.
The current owner lives on the 3rd floor of the house when he is in town. What a cool place to hang your hat, eh?
Fun fact: A scene from the 2004 film “The Notebook”
used one of the downstairs rooms as a set for the dining room scene of Allie’s parents. To see more TV & Movie Site locations filmed in and around Charleston, book my TV & Movie Tour by Private Car.