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Telling the SAT Story: Aiken-Rhett House: Inspiration for Investment



Aiken-Rhett House 
Charleston, SC
Year of Award: 2004
National Park Service SAT Grant: $225,000
Matching Share Leveraged: $474,230

“When a work lifts your spirits and inspires bold and noble thoughts in you, do not look for any other standard to judge by: the work is good, the product of a master craftsman.” – Jean de la Bruyère

The Aiken-Rhett House Museum is a Charleston icon, contributing greatly to the aesthetic charms and sense of place that the city’s downtown is known for. However, just over ten years ago, the exterior of the house was in dire need of repair. Water had infiltrated between the masonry construction and its stucco cladding which resulted in twofold harm to the building: 1) The stucco cladding could completely lose its bond and begin to delaminate, or lose its bond from the masonry. 2) Moisture trapped between the stucco and brick had begun to leach inward through the brick, causing damage to the original plaster walls and 19th century wallpaper.

The main entrance to the Aiken-Rhett House, before restoration, with damaged stucco visible to the right.

The main entrance to the Aiken-Rhett House, before restoration, with damaged stucco visible to the right.

The National Park Service awarded a Save America’s Treasures grant to the Historic Charleston Foundation owner of the Aiken-Rhett House Museum House—allowing them to successfully  repair and rehabilitate the exterior of the building. Receiving funding from a national program at the level of Save America’s Treasures indicated how important the project was to other potential donors, which helped HCF raise the necessary matching funds.

The exterior façade of the Aiken-Rhett House, before (left) and after restoration.

The exterior façade of the Aiken-Rhett House, before (left) and after restoration.

Once secured, these funds were invested back into the community by hiring skilled local artisans and craftspeople to undertake the complicated architectural conservation and rehabilitation methods necessary. The first step in this work was to stabilize the exterior envelope of the building, preserving and repairing the historic stucco in order to protect the rest of the building. In this process, workers first sounded the stucco for areas of delamination, identifiable by a more hollow sound due to the gap between the stucco and the surface beneath. In areas of delamination, the stucco was removed, and tested for composition. Through this process, skilled craftspeople can determine the correct ratio of lime to aggregate (typically sand) so that the historic mortar can be matched by a fully compatible repair mortar with similar properties.

Diagram of stucco delamination,  based on an illustration by Cathedral Stone Products, Inc.

Diagram of stucco delamination, based on an illustration by Cathedral Stone Products, Inc.

Craftspeople pencil scored the stucco to match its historic faux-Bath stone appearance and applied a traditional 19th century limewash to the exterior of the stabilized stucco. Lastly, they gave the stucco a protective coating and tinted it back to its original yellow color.  Additionally, talented local artisans restored window sashes and painted decorative finishes on shutters and other surfaces. The grant project was also a learning opportunity, teaching valuable skills to local craftspeople such as a historical technique known as sandpainting, in which bellows blow sand onto the painted surfaces of the wooden exterior door architraves to give them the appearance of brownstone.

A skilled artisan adding a faux wood grain finish to some of the full-length exterior shutters.

A skilled artisan adding a faux wood grain finish to some of the full-length exterior shutters.

This project helped the Historic Charleston Foundation learn important lessons regarding the costs of large rehabilitation and restoration projects, said Valerie Perry, Aiken-Rhett House Manager. This new knowledge allowed the Foundation to adjust its maintenance budgets accordingly. In addition, Ms. Perry noted that the successful completion of the project enhanced the Foundation’s reputation as “good stewards of one of Charleston’s most significant properties.”

In addition to the direct community reinvestment that resulted from this project, it spurred additional community investment by example. Two neighboring properties undertook rehabilitation projects within a few years of the completed SAT project, citing the Aiken-Rhett house project as the inspiration for their investment in their properties.

A full view of the restored exterior of the Aiken-Rhett House.

A full view of the restored exterior of the Aiken-Rhett House.

Thanks to the funding provided by the Save America’s Treasures project from the National Park Service, the Aiken-Rhett House continues to be a vibrant part of the community in historic Charleston, South Carolina.

For more information on the Aiken-Rhett House Museum and the Historic Charleston Foundation, please visit their website, or connect with them on Facebook or Twitter.

Established in 1999, the Save America’s Treasures program is managed by the National Park Service, with the National Endowment Agencies, to preserve and protect nationally significant properties and collections for future generations of Americans.  Stories of saving those treasures will be shared through partnership with the American Architectural Foundation.

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Photos courtesy of the Historic Charleston Foundation.

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Posted in: Center for Design & Cultural Heritage, Creative Placemaking, Preservation, Print, Save America's Treasures

The American Architectural Foundation has been dedicated to advancing the role of architecture and design in American society since its founding in 1943 by the American Institute of Architects.

In its 75 years in existence the Foundation’s work has taken many forms — from educational programming and exhibitions in its early years to large-scale design initiatives and programs —all of which serve to create a rich legacy.

As the managing partner of the Mayors’ Institute on City Design for twenty years, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the United States Conference of Mayors, the Foundation helped move the needle on design and cities. And, through its other signature programs like Save America’s Treasures in partnership with National Parks Service, the Sustainable Cities Design Academy, and Design for Learning, the Foundation has provided critical design leadership training and technical assistance to hundreds of elected officials, education leaders, business leaders, and other key decision makers in the design process.

In recent years, cities and civic leaders have embraced design and design thinking in a way that could not have been imagined when the Foundation begin its work back in 1943 — and AAF’s role in this transformation is a source of great pride for the Foundation. With this increased interest in the role of design in shaping our cities came a proliferation of new organizations to support and facilitate this cultural shift. These advances in the role of design in American society and changes in the nonprofit design sector, coupled with the departure of the organization’s longest-serving CEO, prompted the Foundation’s Board to embark on an intensive and lengthy process to examine the ongoing role and work of the Foundation.

As the Board of Regents reflected on the positive changes of the cultural value of design, the accomplishments of the Foundation, and how the legacy of the Foundation’s work is being carried out by its former staff in new roles and organizations across the country, they reached the conclusion that the American Architectural Foundation had accomplished what it set out to do. As a result, the Foundation began to complete its remaining programs and wind down its operations in the Summer of 2018 and the organization’s endowments have been distributed to allied organizations. The Foundation’s research and reports will remain available on its website as a resource to the field.

The Foundation’s work would not have been possible without the incredible talents of its many staff over the decades, the generous support of its funders, and the tireless dedication of its civic & design partners across the country. The Board remains deeply proud of the significant contributions Foundation has made in its 75-year history and would like to acknowledge that this would not have been possible without the efforts, dedication, and support from so many of you.