The President's House

Bishop Robert Smith House

The oldest building on the College of Charleston campus, the President’s House was the site of the school’s first classes.

Today this handsome Georgian mansion with the garden around it serves as the President’s House; it was also the home of the College’s first president over 200 years ago.

The land on which it stands was granted in 1672 to one of the colony’s original settlers, John Coming, whose name is remembered in nearby Coming Street. In 1698, his widow Affra Harleston Coming donated 17 acres of the land to St. Philip’s Anglican Church. The church soon after built a parsonage for its ministers about a block south of this site (approximately where Memminger School stands today).

Around 1770, as this area, known as Harleston Village, was developed, St. Philip’s decided to erect “a new parsonage house” with “a garden, orchard and pasturage,” and received approval and funding from the Royal legislature. A “brick building 48 by 44” with four main rooms on the main floor, two larger ones in the front, smaller ones in the rear, with “Kitchen and other Offices underneath” was agreed upon, with minister Robert Smith and contractor Daniel Cannon empowered to sort out the details. Construction had yet to begin by May of 1774, and although the details are vague, it is likely that the house was finished by 1778. For years, the house was dated  “circa 1770."

The front faced south onto Wentworth Street, with no obstructions to it, unlike today. As St. Philip’s Church developed the area and laid out more lots, the size of the minister’s garden and yard (with its outbuildings no longer standing to the north) was reduced. More land was lost to the laying out of other lots. What is now known as Glebe Street was cut through the church’s lands, very close to the west side of the house. Although this new street was referred to as Glebe Street by the mid-19th century, City Council did not officially name it that until 1902. “Glebe” refers to land associated with a clergyman or a parish church.

The first occupant of this house was Rev. Robert Smith, who had been a party to its construction. A Cambridge-educated Englishman, he sided with the patriots during the American Revolution, after which he operated a small private school on the premises. Being so learned and living so near the lands owned by the newly chartered College of Charleston, Smith was an obvious choice for the College’s first president; its first classes were taught in the house, possibly in the ground floor basement, although it is not known for sure. Smith eventually became the first Episcopal bishop of the state. While professing liberty for white people, Smith owned over 200 human beings of African descent at his death; certainly enslaved people helped construct this house, yet another of many of Charleston’s “unsigned masterpieces.” Another important occupant was Smith’s daughter-in-law’s father, John Rutledge, South Carolina Governor, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and an associate justice of the Supreme Court. Rutledge (also a proponent of liberty who enslaved people) died at 6 Glebe St. in 1800.

Thomas Frost, another minister from St. Philip’s, used the dwelling as his parsonage, but by 1805, the house became rental property, with income used to support the church. By 1843, the original four-acre plot had been reduced to its current size. Time took its toll on the building; a wooden wing with bathrooms for each floor was added; the yard often just used for parking. The church turned down offers to sell it to those who wanted to tear it down. In 1961, with funding provided by descendants of Bishop Robert Smith, the original occupant, the College purchased it and hired the distinguished African American contractor Herbert DeCosta to help restore and rehabilitate the structure, which housed a dental laboratory in the basement. DeCosta worked on many College properties, including 4 Green Way, and his papers are housed at the College’s Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture. In 1965, College President Walter Raleigh Coppedge was in residence. The house, with its cypress paneled main rooms, pine flooring and many original features, has since been the home of all College presidents.

The fence was built by the College, and the distinctive gate, with its bishop’s miter and crossed crosiers, was designed by Charleston historian Samuel Gaillard Stoney to pay tribute to Bishop Robert Smith. The gate is also a nod to the design of western cemetery gates of St. Philip’s Church a few blocks away. Immediately inside the gate, as one approaches the front steps are the tabby (oyster shell and lime) remains of an old cistern. The gardens have been redesigned and redeveloped a number of times, most recently in 2007-2008 by Jane Benson, wife of past President P. George Benson. Many College functions are held in the courtyard and in the house.

Audio

Audio version of this essay The audio version of this essay was voiced by Joy Vandervort-Cobb, associate professor of theatre at the College of Charleston.

Images

The President’s House
The President’s House The home of Bishop Robert Smith, the College’s first president, this circa 1778 Georgian mansion again houses presidents of the College of Charleston. Courtesy of the College of Charleston.
6 Glebe Street
6 Glebe Street This early 20th century postcard shows the house when it was still part of the glebe (church property) of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church. Courtesy of the South Carolina Historical Society.
Bishop Robert Smith
Bishop Robert Smith This portrait of the first President of the College of Charleston hangs in the President’s House. Courtesy of the College of Charleston.
Rear of 6 Glebe St
Rear of 6 Glebe St Before renovations in the 1960s, the house, shown from the rear, had been divided into apartments with wooden additions, and stood vacant for a while. Courtesy of College of Charleston Libraries, Special Collections.
Plan of lots of land in Wentworth Street
Plan of lots of land in Wentworth Street This 1797 plat of lands owned by St. Philip’s Church shows how its parsonage, now the President’s House, once had a lawn from its front door to Wentworth Street. Now several buildings occupy the space. McCrady Plats? Courtesy of the Charleston County Register of Mesne Conveyance.
Tabby Cistern
Tabby Cistern Fringed by ivy, the remains of a tabby cistern near the front door of the President’s House recall a time before plumbing. Courtesy of the College of Charleston.
Interior of the President’s House.
Interior of the President’s House. President Andrew Hsu addresses a gathering in 2019; the house is often used for receptions, dinners and events with students, staff, faculty and the larger community. Courtesy of the College of Charleston.
Garden of the President’s House
Garden of the President’s House The grounds are used for many events such as the farewell reception for College of Charleston Interim President Steve Osborne in 2019. Courtesy of the College of Charleston.
Bishop Robert Smith Inventory, 1802.
Bishop Robert Smith Inventory, 1802. Among the “assets” listed in his estate at his death were 122 men, women and children of African descent. More are listed on another plantation, all with dollar values noted. Charleston Probate Court, Estate Inventories Book D, pages 117-118. 
Painting of 6 Glebe St.
Painting of 6 Glebe St. Emma Gilchrist (1862-1929), "The Glebe Mansion, 1770", 1925, oil on canvas board, 13 1/8 X 11 inches. Gilchrist painted the house when it was still owned by St. Philip's Church and the building date was still thought to be 1770. Courtesy of the Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina.
1840 Plat of the President's House and Glebe Street
1840 Plat of the President's House and Glebe Street Glebe Street began as a small alley south of George Street. In 1843 it became a public street belonging to the City of Charleston. In the drawing, the house still has access to Wentworth Street and the stables associated with the building are still standing. "Robert Q. Pinckney, Map of Lands belonging to the incorporated Episcopal Church named St. Philip’s, surveyed for the purpose of dividing the vacant ground contiguous to the Parsonage into lots, showing a street from Wentworth to George. September 1840." Courtesy of Charleston County Register of Deeds, McCrady Plat Collection #223.
Bishop's Gate
Bishop's Gate The wrought-iron gate features a miter and crossed crosiers, symbols of a bishop's position. Courtesy of the College of Charleston.

Location

6 Glebe St, Charleston, SC 29424

Metadata

Harlan Greene, “The President's House,” Discovering Our Past: College of Charleston Histories, accessed March 1, 2024, https://discovering.cofc.edu/items/show/3.