The History of Pre-Civil War Architecture

The plantations of the old South are long gone, but many Southern plantation homes remain. These beautiful homes are architectural marvels and some are even popular tourist attractions. However, they harbor a highly problematic past.

These dwellings gave the wealthy white Southern families who built them a vehicle to show off their money and influence. They favored the sort of elegant, dramatic architecture that evoked classical styles. Yet, the impeccably landscaped grounds and spacious rooms required the endless toil of slaves to maintain. Although the majority of us now reject what our forefathers called “the peculiar institution” many still crave the look of the southern plantation home.

This style of architecture is marred by troubling and tragic events. So what elements made these vast estates unique? How does their history complicate their beauty?

Here we’ll break down what you should know about Southern plantation homes and the stories behind them.

History of Southern Plantation Homes

Plantation homes got their start in the 17th century Colonial-era South. These large farms produced money making crops such as cotton, sugar, indigo, rice, and tobacco.

The warm climate and fertile soil of the American South made it easy to grow cash crops in massive quantities. However, these crops were labor intensive and required lots of slave labor in order to turn a profit.

Each plantation contained a complex of buildings. The crowning jewel of a plantation complex was the plantation home.

The rest of the complex consisted of the buildings necessary to keep the plantation operations going. This included structures for storing crops and livestock, and it also included slave quarters. The slave quarters were rough, and in most cases inadequate, so few of these buildings survived to the modern day.

In stark contrast, the homes where the plantation owners lived were often a show of decadence and beauty. Many of these buildings still stand, showing an incomplete but striking piece of Southern plantation history.

What is Antebellum Architecture?

The majority of the enormous palatial plantation homes sprang up after the 1803 Louisiana Purchase through the years before the American Civil War, which is where antebellum comes in. The word “antebellum” simply means “before the war” (from Latin “ante” translates to “before” and “bellum” translates to “war”). When antebellum is attached to the description of an American home it means that the home was built before the Civil War.

“Antebellum” is not a specific style of architecture, it is instead a time for architecture (1800 through 1861) that occurred in the American deep South. These homes are a nod to a time long since gone but not forgotten.

Defining Characteristics of Pre-Civil War Homes

Since most pre-Civil War Southern plantation homes resemble Greek Revival and a few other styles (we’ll go into further details in the next section), they featured grand, boxy, symmetrical architecture with central entrances in both the front and the back of the property. All such homes had Greek-type columns or pillars with vast balconies or verandas.

Other common architectural details of these homes included hipped or gabled roofs, evenly spaced windows, elaborate balconies, covered front porches, and a central entryway opening to a stately staircase and often a cupola. The balconies of these residences ran along the outer edge of the house.

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The deep overhangs of the roof shielded the house from the direct sunlight. There were numerous windows on all sides of the house to keep it cool. The sheltered outdoor areas, like the porch and verandas, provided lots of shady spaces for family gatherings and the porches often featured multiple wall partitions to use the space for different purposes.

The other features of the Antebellum homes were mostly for decorative purposes. Columns were designed to draw attention while creating the impression of opulence. The interiors of these mansions were just as magnificent as the exteriors. The extravagant features often included open stairways, huge foyers, grand ballrooms, and intricately designed plaster work along the ceilings.

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Architecture Styles

While many of these pre-Civil War homes had similar architectural details, they also individually had some different styles and can fall into a few different categories.

French Colonial

Known for symmetrical shape and steep pitched roofs, the French Colonial style homes boasted wrap-around porches on the lower and upper floors. These homes were very popular in Louisiana. Although this style has evolved over the last few centuries, modern day French Colonial homes have retained many of their traditional features. They were once small and symmetrical structures, but over time the number of rooms increased into an open plan layout which wasn’t separated by a foyer. You will see many French Colonial style homes in New Orleans and Louisiana, but not many in other parts of the Southern states. These homes had the added benefit of cross ventilation systems that allowed cool air to circulate throughout the rooms of the house, a much needed benefit in the hot Southern regions.

Gothic Revival

The Gothic Revival boasted picturesque architecture that was a popular movement throughout the U.S. These homes were built in the first half of the 19th century. To continue the wave of Pre-Civil War architecture, people began to embrace a European style.

Perhaps the most commonly identifiable characteristics of this style of architecture are the pointed arches used for doors and windows. Gothic Revival homes showcase castle-like towers, pointed arched windows, vertical facades, pitched roofs, and parapets.

Georgian

Roughly finished limestone trim, granite pedestals, decorative molding, and massive stone arches were all a part of Georgian architecture. This style also featured symmetrical themes and cornice entries.

Federal

Does the term Federal remind you of the Federal government in the U.S.? Well, that’s exactly what this architectural style means. It connotes an era in U.S. history when the Federal government system was being developed. Many European-style architectural elements were incorporated into Federal buildings and personal homes. This style is heavily influenced by ancient Greek and Roman structures.

A Federal-style home typically consisted of a simple rectangular or square box with two or three stories. Many of these homes featured projected wings and wrap-around balconies. Elliptical fanlights, palladian windows, and oval shaped rooms were other characteristics of the Federal style.

Greek Revival

The Greek Revival is perhaps the notable architectural style that is closely linked to the Antebellum period. These homes were inspired by the simple, symmetrical proportions of the ancient temples of 5th century Greece. In the U.S., this style reached its peak from 1825 to 1860. Houses were usually white with bold details, gables, heavy cornices, ionic columns, domes, and arched windows.

Plantation

Not all southern plantation homes were grandiose mansions. Some started out as practical farm houses, while others were built to be decadent from the start. As plantation owners made more money, they often added to their homes to make them larger and more imposing.

Many plantation homes used neoclassical elements inspired by ancient Greece and Rome. One of the most popular neoclassical elements were pillars in front of the house. These homes had boxy designs and also used white and natural colors to mimic the look of stone used in classical architecture.

Most Southern plantation homes included wide balconies all the way around the outside of the house. This was a place for wealthy plantation owners and their families to sit outside while staying in the shade.

The windows on a plantation house were usually symmetrical, evenly spaced, and large.

The grand entrances to a plantation house cemented its palatial feel. Large entrances in front and back were also symmetrical and positioned in the center of the house, to give the balanced look popular in neoclassical design. Pillars typically flanked the front entrance.

Many Southern plantation homes featured large landscaped gardens, including bushes manicured into geometric shapes to highlight the house’s symmetry.

If you really want to understand pre-Civil War architecture, there is no better place than Charleston, SC, and the surrounding area.

Charleston, a National Historic Landmark, has over 2,800 historic buildings, from homes to businesses, and even some cobblestone streets. The well-preserved architecture in Charleston plays witness to the town’s rich history. Founded in 1670 as Charles Towne on the west bank of the Ashley River, the town moved to its current location in 1680. It is the oldest city in South Carolina and is exemplary for its progression in architectural styles. For the purpose of this article we will concentrate on the styles of the pre-Civil War era namely Georgian, Federal, Gothic Revival, Greek Revival, and Plantation (which can encompass many styles.)

Pre-Civil War Charleston Architecture

1. Georgian (Heyward-Washington House)

Georgian architecture featured square and symmetrical facades with five windows across the front, chimneys, and a centered front door with crown molding. This style quickly swept the South, and Georgian-style houses began to pop up all around Charleston.

The Heyward-Washington House, built in 1772, was home to Thomas Heyward Jr, who signed the Declaration of Independence. It was rented to George Washington in May 1791 (hence the name, the Heyward-Washington House). It opened in 1930 as the town’s first historic house museum featuring a kitchen open to the public, formal gardens with late 18th century plants, and a collection of historically locally made furniture such as the famous Holmes Bookcase.

Heyward Washington House
87 Church Street
Charleston, SC 29403
(843) 722-0364
https://www.charlestonmuseum.org

2. Federal (Aiken-Rhett House)

After the Revolutionary War, Federal architecture began to make its way through Charleston from the late 1700s to the 1830s. Marked by several chimneys, balconies, shutters, narrow windows framing the front door, arched Palladian style windows, and fanlights (usually above the front door with a semicircle window), this style was inspired by Britain and the temples of ancient Rome.

Built in 1820, the Aiken Rhett House (or Governor William Aiken House) is one of the most famous Federal-style buildings in Charleston; however, it also has some Greek Revival features that were added after 1831 by William Aiken, Jr. It remained in the family for 142 years until it was sold and opened as a museum in 1975.

Aiken-Rhett House Museum
48 Elizabeth Street
Charleston, SC 29403
(843) 723-1159
https://www.historiccharleston.org/

3. Gothic Revival (The Huguenot Church)

Gothic Revival emerged as a popular style during the antebellum era, inspired by medieval Gothic architecture finials, decorative designs, scalloping, hood mouldings with label stops (ornamentation at the end of the moulding), pointed windows, and pinnacles with a “castle-like” appearance.

This beautiful Gothic Revival church was built in 1844. The Huguenot Church congregation has origins that can be traced back to the 1680s, most of which were French refugees. The church still follows 18th century French-style church services, but in the English language.

French Huguenot Church
136 Church Street
Charleston, SC 29402
(843) 722-4385
https://www.huguenot-church.org/

4. Greek Revival (Fireproof Building)

Greek Revival, also known as Classical Revival, emerged during a time when the U.S. was establishing itself as a new nation. Before the Civil War, Charleston prospered and expanded with many plantation owners building elaborate homes to show off their wealth. Greek Revival, with its large columns, high arches, and triangular roofs, was meant to emanate social prominence. Although the Fireproof Building (now housing the non-profit South Carolina Historical Society) was built with minimal ornamentation, it is one of Charleston’s best examples of Greek/Classical Revival. Built in 1827, the Fireproof Building held public safety records and this was the most fire protected building of its time.

It was designed by Robert Mills, the first-American born architect, who worked with important early American architects (like Thomas Jefferson) and was responsible for the Washington Monument.

South Carolina Historical Society
100 Meeting Street
Charleston SC 29042
(843) 723-3225
https://schistory.org/

5. Plantation (Boone Hall)

Boone Hall Plantation was founded in 1681 and is distinguished by its planted oak tree corridor on the drive toward the mansion house.

Boone Hall offers the best insight into Gullah and slave history out of any plantation in the Charleston area. There are special tours dedicated to telling the plantation slave stories, as well as a house tour and open-air coach tour of the grounds.

Boone Hall Plantation & Gardens
1235 Long Point Road
Mt. Pleasant, SC 29464
(843) 884-4371
https://www.boonehallplantation.com

6. Plantation (Drayton Hall Plantation)

Drayton Hall was once the headquarters of the Drayton plantation empire that spanned from Georgia to South Carolina, and incorporated over 100 different plantations in the two states. This site is located just down from the Magnolia Plantation, making it easy to visit two plantations in one day, as well as the professionally guided house tour. The house is the oldest preserved plantation home in America. Upon its construction it was immediately regarded as a palace, and every artifact inside has a story behind it.

Drayton Hall
3380 Ashley River Road
Charleston, SC 29414
(843) 769-2600
https://www.draytonhall.org

Plantation Homes Today

All the grand design elements in antebellum architecture stood in shocking contrast to the shacks and villages where the slaves lived.

Many Southern plantation homes have been kept in pristine condition and are now tourist sites. In the past, tours of these homes glossed over the atrocities of slavery, instead focusing on romanticizing the lives of the slave owners.

Hurricane Katrina damaged or destroyed several plantation homes when it hit the South. This led some people to ask: Are plantation homes worth preserving considering what they stood for?

Plantation houses and other antebellum structures have an important history. They mark an interesting time in American Architecture, but more importantly, they mark a disturbing time in the past that should inform our future.

Today, plantation sites offer a chance to learn about the tragic legacy of slavery as well as the value of preserving Southern pre-Civil War architecture.

Learn More By Talking To a Pro

Although the original antebellum architectural style’s time has passed, if you’re a fan, you can still adapt this style to a modern home. Large windows, a central patio supported by columns, and a carved balustrade can give a contemporary home an antebellum touch. Limiting embellishments, such as choosing straight, square columns over ornate Corinthian columns, can further update the pre-Civil War look. Even if the style isn’t for you, there is a lot to be learned from understanding how these luxurious residences came to be.

Here at Renew Urban we specialize in the construction of one of a kind luxury custom homes and historic renovations. You want to talk to an expert when choosing a home renovator! We are committed to our craft and always strive to exceed our clients’ expectations and desires. If you are considering a new home or renovation please contact us or call (843) 639-4731