The following is a historical account of a property colloquially referred to in the past as the “Calhoun” Mansion, now reverted back to its original moniker of the Williams Mansion, located at 14-16 Meeting Street in Charleston, South Carolina. This account starts with the biographical history of the original owner, George Walton Williams, continues with his construction of the mansion in 1878, and its history thereafter. It by no means contains every nuance but has been condensed to the most important details pertaining to the history of Williams, his family, and their residence in and ownership of the mansion. It should be stated at the outset that this building and property have nothing to do whatsoever with John C. Calhoun or his family. Calhoun had died twenty-eight years before the mansion was completed. Rather, the mansion was constructed and occupied by Williams and remained in his family from when he built and occupied the house in 1878 until his eldest daughter Sarah’s death in 1928.
In his lifetime, George Walton Williams, the original owner of the mansion, would rise from relative anonymity as a farmer’s son in northern Georgia to one of the greatest entrepreneurs in late 19th century Charleston. The following information can be found in greater detail in The History of Banking in South Carolina from 1712 to 1900 by George Walton Williams and George Sherwood Dickerson. George Walton Williams was born in 1820 in Burke County, North Carolina and, in 1822, moved with his family to a valley in northern Georgia. There his father was one of the most prominent farmers. When Williams was seventeen and having some experience working in the grocery business, the young man left home to walk across the state of Georgia to Augusta and pursue a career outside of agriculture; the trip took approximately a week by foot and he had only $10 to his name.
Once in Augusta, Williams began working as a clerk at the grocery business of Hand & Scranton. One owner, Daniel Hand, had a similar background to Williams, having been raised on a farm in Connecticut and, at age sixteen, traveled to Augusta to work for his uncle in the grocery business. The hiring of Williams by Hand began a lifelong business relationship between the two men and, at the age of twenty-one, Williams was able to purchase Scranton’s share of the business; the name of the business then changed to Hand & Williams. Williams, being temperate, convinced Hand to cease the sale of liquor, a large percentage of their profit. Though dubious, Hand agreed, and they saw a steady increase in profits over the next decade. In 1852, Williams made the decision to open a grocery business in Charleston, South Carolina.
In Charleston, Williams began the first city’s temperate wholesale grocery business known as George W. Williams & Co. Hand remained a partner. Hand moved to New York because of his opposition to secession by the southern states. In 1861, Williams remained in Charleston when the civil war began and, with the passing of the Sequestration Act, realized he needed to protect Hand’s interest in the business. Through an arduous journey, Hand’s interest remained intact in the care of William’s to invest. Williams later returned this investment to Hand, having at least tripled it to equal a sum of around $1.5 million. Following the return of this fortune, Hand set up a fund to benefit the elementary education of black students in the south.
In a quote from History of Banking in South Carolina, “at the breaking out of the War between the States we find Mr. Williams at the head of two of the largest commercial houses in the South, an Alderman of the City of Charleston, Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee…; director of the Bank of South Carolina, and also two railroad companies…” He also sat on church and education boards. A man well rounded in the interests of his business and personal life. During the war, Mr. Williams ultimately closed his grocery business, but was appointed by the State Legislature to procure supplies for confederate soldiers’ families and sold supplies to the confederate army in exchange for confederate currency. He also was put in charge of procuring food and provisions for Charleston. Through this endeavor, he secured and issued food to the people of Charleston and continued to do so even as the city changed hands from confederate to federal control. He played a part in that exchange of control. In his capacity as a city alderman, Williams and fellow alderman W. H Gilliland, conveyed a message from Mayor Macbeth to Lt. Colonel A.G. Bennett of the incoming federal army, releasing the control of the city to him in the wake of the retreat of the confederate army. The two men informed Bennett of the disarrayed state of the city and need for assistance in extinguishing fires set by the retreating army. Williams also asked for assistance in protecting food stores so that they could be issued to the people remaining in Charleston. His wish was granted; he was able to feed 20,000 people over the remaining three months of the war.
Williams saw the investment in confederate currency as a potential threat to the stability of his wealth and took measures to secure his fortune. He used sterling silver to pay his northern suppliers, invested in the profitable exchange of cotton, and later used profits to purchase real estate. Any ships containing imported goods were sent to his business partners in New York. Only one of Williams’s ships successfully ran the blockade in the harbor in Charleston. This ship made it through with 3,000 pounds of coffee from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and the coffee was sold to the confederate army.
Following the war, Williams procured a charter for opening a bank, reopened his grocery and import business, built new warehouses in destroyed areas of the city, invested in businesses necessary to the revitalization of Charleston, and, while simultaneously building the Carolina Savings Bank at 1 Broad Street, began plans to build a large mansion on a property he had purchased at 10-12-14-16 Meeting Street. Much of the following information can be found in various articles in Charleston newspapers and legal documents. The property (at the time known also as 10 Meeting Street) was purchased in 1863 for $40,100 in confederate currency from Henrietta Catherine Baker. The property extended from Meeting Street back to Church Street. Williams hired W.P Russell & Co. in 1875 to construct the Meeting Street residence. Russell had previously hired New York architect W.E. Speir, who likely designed the building. The carriage house and stables were erected and the cornerstone of the mansion was laid in April of 1875. Construction continued until completion in 1878. In a local newspaper article on December 20, 1877, the mansion is referred to as the “Williams Mansion” in a piece discussing the painting of the interior of the residence by Mr. A.L. Lankan, a well-known Baltimore fresco and encaustic painter.
In March of 1878, an article appeared in the Charleston News & Courier citing the Williams house as “A Magnificent Mansion” and naming it “the handsomest and most complete private residence in the South.” Indeed, it was the largest residence in the city – approximately 24,000 sq. ft, including a grand music room, observation tower overlooking the harbor, and an indoor greenhouse under the piazza in addition to the one to the rear of the property. The Williams family, including Mr. Williams, his wife, Martha, and his four children, Sarah (sometimes known as Sallie), George Jr., Martha, and Henry, moved into the mansion. Williams was dedicated to his family and had previously tragically lost his first wife Louisa, their seven children, and two of his children with Martha to yellow fever epidemics. As they grew older, Mr. Williams’s wealth allowed him to aid his children in the procurement of houses near his own, south of Broad Street. The eldest, Sarah, was the last to obtain such a house.
Following George W. Williams’s death in 1903 and Martha Williams’s death in 1905, Sarah Williams Calhoun, shortly thereafter was conveyed the Williams Mansion on Meeting Street. She was married to Patrick Calhoun, one of many grandsons of the late John C. Calhoun. John C. Calhoun, having died in 1850, was never associated with the property on Meeting Street in any way. Sarah was living at the time of her inheritance in Atlanta. She continued to own the property in her name, but the following years saw financial hardship for Sarah and her husband. Patrick Calhoun’s business attempts in Ohio and later California were met with a lack of success and a myriad of legal troubles. Sarah’s house, the mansion, had to be rented out to travelers. The Villa Margarita, a nearby luxury hotel, leased it as part of its offerings to guests. An article in 1917 mentioned it as the “Calhoun Mansion” in a piece referring to U.S. army officers staying in the residence at the time. How and where that name came from is not clear. Over the next several years, the property was leased to traveling guests, local civic groups, charity art exhibitions, and even for the sale of antiques. Upon Sarah Williams Calhoun’s death in 1928, a series of lawsuits over debts of the estate and ownership of the mansion ensued. Shortly thereafter, the family being unable to pay Sarah’s debts, the mansion was foreclosed on and transferred to a creditor, R.S. Manigault. The contents, which appeared to include some of the remaining Williams family possessions, were sold at public auction. Portions of the property also were subdivided and later sold to create 17-19 Church Street and 10 & 12 Meeting Street.
In 1933, after renovations, the mansion was reopened, and the next year sold to Veta McClure Findley. Findley in turn sold it to Daniel Huger Jr. in 1941, who sold it to Charles Rausch in the same year. Rausch reopened the house to tourists for room rentals (the house was cited as housing men of the Army and Navy in 1942. In fact, the house was distinct in also having housed a female officer during this time). The house remained in the Rausch family, eventually passing to Dorothy Rausch Ayers. Ayers sold the property to Gedney Howe in 1976 at a time when the house was in great disrepair. Over the next twenty years, the Howes significantly restored the property before selling it to Howard Stahl, the current owner. Stahl, in 2004, placed the property under a preservation easement and used his significant Gilded Age art collection to continue the use of the mansion as a museum showcasing the beauty of the time period, while also providing an insight into the lens through which the wealthy, like the Williams family, lived and viewed the aesthetic world in the late 19th and early 20th century.
This residence, while previously called the “Calhoun” Mansion, had its origin and life as the Williams Mansion, built by a man who amassed his fortune through his own enterprise, hard work, and integrity. Williams and his family-owned and lived in the mansion for a period of fifty years. Williams, who left home at the age of seventeen with $10 to his name, accumulated a wealth of $25 million over his lifetime, not only for himself, but also for his family and business partners despite the era being one of difficulty, strife, and unrest. The structure at 14-16 Meeting Street stands as a testament to the legacy of Mr. George Walton Williams, a man who, virtually unaccompanied, reconstructed the economy and commercial life in Charleston following the civil war. He was a man of compassion, charity, and decency giving much of his wealth and time to the people of Charleston. Indeed, Williams’s role in the city’s history was one absolutely essential to the survival of Charleston, the welfare of its people, and that of its commerce. The name has now been returned to the original name of the Williams Mansion, as it properly should be.