Almost a century before it was built, the ground on which George Walton Williams would build his home was hallowed in the tradition of optimistic patriotism. 14-16 Meeting Street in downtown Charleston was originally part of the Lowndes House plot owned by Governor Charles Pinckney, who hosted George Washington three times in 1791.
Williams was highly regarded throughout Charleston as a businessman, banker, and humanitarian. Having amassed a great fortune, Mr. Williams decided to build a grand residence at 16 Meeting Street as a testament to his desire for Charleston’s re-emergence from the civil war. The construction of the house took 3 years and required the talents of hundreds of otherwise unemployable local artisans and craftsmen for its creation, as well as craftsmen from Baltimore who were experienced in the contemporary woodwork and fresco styles of the Gilded Age.
The Williams Mansion was called the “handsomest and most complete private residence in the South” when it was built (Charleston News and Courier.) This outstanding home was constructed in 1878 for $200,000 and the lot was purchased for $40,000 in confederate currency. The architect was William P. Russell, a local architecture firm.
The Williams Mansion is a baronial Italianate manor house, widely acclaimed as one of the great post-civil war homes on the Eastern Seaboard. It is Charleston’s Gilded Age Mansion. Recently featured on A&E’s American Castles, the remarkable 24,000 square foot structure consists of 35 rooms with 14-foot ceilings, ornate plaster and wood mouldings, elaborate chandeliers, and has 23 period fireplaces, a stairwell that reaches to a 75-foot domed ceiling, and a music room with a 45-foot glass skylight. The grand entrance hall is an astounding 15 feet high by 14 feet wide and 50 feet long. It was recently named one of the top things to do in Charleston by Travel and Leisure.
After Mr. Williams’ death in 1903, the home passed to his wife, Martha, and then his oldest daughter Sarah Williams Calhoun upon Martha’s death two years later. Sarah kept the mansion in her named until her death in 1928. During her ownership, the property was leased to a local hotel, who changed the name to the Calhoun Mansion for marking purposes, using the last name of Sarah’s husband, Patrick Calhoun, though he did not own the property. John C. Calhoun nor any of his immediate family ever owned or lived in the mansion at 16 Meeting Street. Upon Sarah’s death, Patrick Calhoun’s financial troubles forced the family to sell the property. The house went through a succession of occupants and uses, gradually deteriorating until it was almost condemned in 1972. The house was then purchased by a Charleston native who spent 25 years and millions of dollars restoring it.
Now, the grand edifice that Mr. Williams first created has been reborn. The Calhoun Mansion, the largest single-family residence in Charleston, has been brought back to the standard Williams first created. Although the house remains a private residence, it is open to the public daily for viewing. Please join us to celebrate the Calhoun mansion’s continued uniqueness and grandeur; see for yourself what makes it a jewel in the crown of Charleston’s celebrated historic structures.
The collection inside the mansion today represents the opulent lifestyle experienced by the wealthy merchants and industrialists of the late 19th century. Those with vast amounts of wealth in the United States, often business tycoons and railroad barons from areas such as New York or Rhode Island, traveled extensively on grand tours and collected both antiques and contemporary art on their travels. A visit to a Gilded Age home was a viewing of what the finest grand tour had to offer, often reflecting travel across the European and Asian continents. Being part of the wealthiest of the merchant class in Charleston, Williams’s home was elaborately decorated with items similar to those found in the current Gilded Age collection.