The Historic District in Charleston, South Carolina is home to antebellum mansions, 18th-century row houses, beautiful courtyards, wrought iron gates, a French Quarter, one of the United States’ oldest theater locations, and historic churches and buildings. It is also a nationally designated Historic District. No wonder photographing architecture in Charleston’s Historic District is a goal of so many photographers from all over the world.
Photographers, however, who are unfamiliar with Charleston may quickly find themselves overwhelmed by the City’s abundance of camera-worthy architecture and miss opportunities to photograph its’ top spots in the Historic District. For this reason, I have written this Road Trip Friday post about “Photographing Architecture in Charleston’s Historic District.” Not only do I share what I have learned about photographing Charleston as a visiting photographer but also include a map of my top photo locations in the Historic District.
First let’s start with a brief overview of Charleston’s Historic District.
Map of Charleston:
About Charleston’s Historic District
Looking at the above map, it’s easy to see that Charleston is made up of many areas besides its downtown. Heck even Charleston’s downtown has several distinct areas. Within Charlestons’ downtown lies the Historic District which is one of Charleston’s prettiest areas and the focus of this post.
Interestingly, in writing this post, I searched for an actual definition of the areas within Charleston’s downtown that qualified for the Historic District designation. I quickly discovered that there were several different answers. Not wanting to quote inaccurate information, I gave up and decided to leave the definition to Historians. Instead, I took some liberties and defined the Historic District area based on my list of “Must Photograph Locations” that fell within most of the Historic District boundaries identified on the internet. After all this post is about “Photographing Architecture in Charleston’s Historic District.
The blue lines on the following map identify the area of Charleston that is covered in this post. Upcoming blog posts will address photography opportunities for other locations within Charleston including the City Market, Waterfront, Plantations and other locales. I do encourage everyone to read the short : Charleston Historic District before visiting the City. It provides an understanding of the city as well as the architecture found in its homes and buildings.
Charleston’s Historic District Top Photo Areas
The Battery – The Battery is a section of the downtown Charleston peninsula where the Cooper and Ashley Rivers meet. The main streets on the Battery are S. Battery, E. Battery, and Murray Blvd, and it is also the location of Charleston’s largest antebellum mansions. Although the Battery today is synonymous with mansions, the area originally served as a defense site for Charleston. In how many other U.S. cities can one find mansions with cannons next door?
Directly across from the mansions is White Point Garden Park which offers beautiful views of both rivers as well as Ft. Sumter and other sites.
Rainbow Row – Rainbow Row is located on E. Bay Street within easy walking distance to the Battery and features 13 brightly colored 18th-century houses. To learn more about the exciting history of this row be sure to view: Rainbow Row . For photographers, I recommend spending significant time in this area as there are numerous gates, alleys, doors, windows and other features to keep one’s camera busy for days.
French Quarter– The French Quarter is a small area in Charleston shown on the map below. The area derives its name from the large number of French Huguenots that left France in search of religious freedom and settled in the area. Not only is the French Quarter one of the oldest parts of Charleston but it is also one of the most romantic parts of the City. This is a great part of town to photograph historic churches, old homes, and cobblestone streets. (By the way, I am a descendant of one of Charleston’s earliest Huguenot families.)
Neighborhoods South of Broad Street– The Historic District south of Broad Street has a wonderful collection of historic homes that have interesting window shutters and planter boxes, colorful doors, alleyways, courtyards, and beautiful wrought iron gates that are well worth a photographer’s time. In fact, a couple days could be spent capturing all of its amazing architecture.
Photo Guide to Charleston’s Historic District Architecture
Now let’s look at places to photograph architecture in Charleston’s Historic District as well as tips for each location.
1. Charlestons’ Rainbow Row
Rainbow Row is located between 79 and 107 E. Bay Street and is one of the most photographed views in Charleston. However, the 13 colorful homes in this popular area can be challenging to photograph.
Photos from Rainbow Row
Rainbow Row Photo Tips
- Be sure to photograph homes in a group of at least four to capture the area’s array of colors. A picture of three homes just does not fairly depict the rainbow of colors on the row.
- Pay attention to what house features are in the foreground of your pictures. Yes, I once had to delete a number of images that started with a gutter and I knew better!
- Shoot the homes both from at an angle and also looking straight on at the homes.
- Begin by photographing the row in the early morning hours, then move on to gates and other features when the light becomes too bright for the wider views.
- Rainbow Row faces east so as the sun rises, the homes can quickly become unevenly lit.
- Watch for your reflection in windows and move as needed to remove it. I once had to delete some very good images due to reflections of the person I was shooting with that overpowered the shots.
- In early morning and later in the evening you may encounter photographers setting up for wedding, engagement and other photo shoots that can block access to large portions of the row. Try and visit during weekdays to reduce the possibility of these encounters.
2. Charleston’s French Quarter
The French Quarter is filled with too many spots for me to possibly cover in this post; in fact, days could be spent photographing subjects here. However realizing that many visitors may have limited time, I narrowed down my list of photo locations to the “Do Not Miss” spots. Before I start the photo list, though, here is an interesting fact about the French Quarter. A portion of the Historic French Quarter was once an actual Walled City although the wall has been covered by pavement today. The Wall’s history is fascinating and well worth reading: Wall City.
French Quarter Photographs
St. Phillips Church-Located on 142 Church Street, St. Phillips Church was established in 1681 making it the oldest European-American religious congregation in South Carolina. Although it was originally built on the present-day site of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, the Church was destroyed in a hurricane and rebuilt in its present location. An interesting fact is that its tower once served as one of several lighthouse beacons for the harbor. Photographing both the interior and exterior of this Church should be on every photographer’s list however, please respect the Church’s request to refrain from photography during services. Both early morning and late afternoon offer good photo opportunities from different perspectives.
St. Michaels Church– Built between 1751 and 1761, this is the oldest existing religious building in Charleston. St. Michaels is located on the corner of Meeting Street and Broad Street at the very edge of the French Quarter. Although the outside of the Church is quite photogenic, I do not recommend spending time photographing the Church’s interior.
Huguenot Church – The Huguenot Church on 136 Church Street, aka, the French Huguenot Church or French Protestant Church, is a Gothic Revival church that is independent of any specific religion. The church has a unique organ called a tracker organ described in the attached article: Tracker Organ. The exterior of the Church is not as photogenic as its neighbor, St. Phillips Church but still worth a click of the shutter. If you are able to go inside the church, the ceiling is quite photogenic.
Pirate House– This Do Not Miss home on145 Church Street was built in 1740. The house was known as a haven for pirates and other scallawags; even Blackbeard was rumored to spend nights in this house. Read about this home’s history here: Pirate House. Today this home’s lurid past is symbolized by an anchor on the home’s exterior.
Dock Street Theater– Located at 135 Church Street in the French Quarter, the current building was originally a hotel and then converted to a theater. However, prior to the current building, the site contained the first building ever built in the country for performances. When it was built this Country only had Thirteen Colonies which is hard to imagine today. Although, both the front and side of the theater are photogenic, I have a preference for the stage entrance side of the building. The stucco walls as well as the blue stage door, are wonderful photographic subjects.
Broad Street– There are so many photo opportunities are Broad Street that I recommend committing a couple of hours either in the early to mid-morning or later afternoon to walking and photographing this street. However, here are a couple of places to be sure to put on your Photo Hotspots: the Confederate House on 60 Broad Street( now an assisted living facility) and the City Hall Stairs. Both are marked on the google map below.
Red Door and Window Shutter Home– I don’t know the history of this home, only that the red door, window shutters, planters, and alley make it very photogenic and hence on my French Quarter Photo List. The house is on Queen Street just past the intersection of Church Street putting it in a very busy area. For this reason, I recommend arriving early in the morning to photograph the home so that you don’t have to deal with a constant flow of tourists.
Philadelphia Alley – This alley is a great pedestrian path from Queen Street and Cumberland between the blocks of Church Street and State Street. Although the path can be photogenic, the uneven lighting makes it a very challenging location to photograph. I recommend either visiting on a mostly cloudy day or only photographing one section of the Alley. Since I only have photos of portions of the Alley due to the contrast, I have attached the following link. Here you can see additional pictures as well as learn more about th Alley: Philadelphia Alley. Since the Alley is mere steps from the Red Door Home, I had to include it in the Do Not Miss Photo Locations.
Chalmers Street- Cobblestones and Old Homes including The Pink House. To learn more about the Pink House check out this site: The Pink House. Definitely put this street and home on your list of places to photograph and be sure to work the cobblestones into our composition of the homes. Warning this street is very uneven so be sure to wear good walking shoes (not sandals).
The Battery is rich with historic homes including the Edmondston Alston House which offers a tour with the purchase of a ticket. Otherwise, I found all other homes along the Battery to be equally majestic and each worthy of exploring.
Although not architecture, I also recommend visiting White Point Garden Park for its history, cannons, and beautiful trees. The trees here are difficult to photograph but worth the effort. To learn more about Charleston’s Battery Area please visit: The Battery
Unless something has changed the Battery also has some non metered areas for parking between the waterfront and White Point Garden Park. In fact, I found this to be a great place to park and explore many historic areas in Charleston. Be sure to arrive early to get a spot.
4. Charleston’s Broad Street and South
The streets between Broad Street and W. Bay Street contain so many beautiful homes with courtyards, doors, windows, and gates that I have trouble narrowing down the best photo locations. If possible, allocate as much time as possible to walking the entire area and photographing all the sites that captivate your interest. However, for those with limited time or who are not able to walk distances, these are my “Must Photograph Locations.”
Random Photos from the Area
The Sword House– Located on 32 Legare Street, this is one of the oldest and most expensive homes in Charleston. For photographers its main draw is the famous sword gate, designed by Christopher Wren, which is a stunning piece of wrought iron work deserving of a shutter click.
Red Door Home – Located on 8 Legare Street, this Italian style home features two massive pillars and a wrought iron gate that is believed to be designed by the same man, Christopher Wren, who designed the gate on the above Sword Home. To photograph this home’s entrance I believe the afternoon light is best. Photograph the entrance and door both in vertical and horizontal formats to showcase different aspects of the entrance to the home. Do not miss this location!
Nathaniel Russel Home– This house is located at 15 Meeting Street and offers self-guided tours with the purchase of a ticket at : Tour Information. Although this home has a very photogenic staircase, no photography is allowed in the home at the present time.
John Rutledge Home– This house is located at 116 Broad Street and has a beautiful green wrought iron railing by its stairs and well as its fences making it a destination for photographers.
Legare Street- In addition to the homes mentioned above, Legare Street is a great destination for photographers since it contains some of Charlestons’ oldest and most beautiful homes. Take time to walk this street twice, once in the morning for the homes facing east and again in the evening to capture the homes that face west. You won’t regret it.
Tradd Street– This is another one of my favorite streets to walk in the Historic District area south of Broad Street. My advice is the same as on Legare Street.
Meeting Street– Although I do not find as many interesting homes here as those on Legare and Tradd Street, there are still a number of homes that are great photo locations. Of course, some of you will be there anyway when you tour the Nathaniel Russell home.
I could keep going but the purpose of this post is to get you to the top spots. If time permits this entire area is chocked full of architectural photography subjects for those with adequate time. I should mention that there are a number of historical buildings that I have not listed since I don’t find them that photogenic. However, for history buffs, you may still want to explore those sites.
To help you locate the photo spots discussed in this post, please refer to the map below. Blue car symbols indicate parking, red house symbols indicate historic homes with tours, and the camera symbols indicate locations of the rest of the photography destinations I recommend visiting when in the Charleston area.
Map of Charlestons’ Historic District Photography Spots
I hope the above map combined with photos provides you with a brief idea of the architectural beauty that awaits photographers in this southern city.
As previously noted, this post focuses solely on the homes and buildings that I believe are the most photogenic in Charleston’s Historic District. Also, areas such as Charleston’s Market, Waterfront Park and surrounding areas deserve their own dedicated posts to properly discuss all the photo opportunities in each area so stay turned for more Charleston photo guides coming soon.
As always thanks for joining me on a Road Trip Friday photo adventure and I hope to see you back in a few weeks when I leave downtown Charleston to photograph the Mt. Pleasant area.