The Charleston Slant – or Why We Sometimes Walk Uphill in Our Houses

I frequently work with clients who are not from Charleston, who have never set foot inside an historic Charleston home until they have done so with me.  One of the first things they notice once inside, besides the gorgeous fireplaces or detailed molding, is that occasionally, and sometimes dramatically, the floors slant.

Slanting floors?? Ack! Alarm sets in. “Could the house be falling down?” they wonder with a furrowed brow.

I soothe their fears.  While ‘falling down’ could be a possibility (and a slant should always be investigated to the fullest extent of an inspector’s capabilities), more often than not, the Charleston Slant is just one of the delightful idiosyncrasies about living in a Downtown Charleston historic home.  Remember, most of these homes have been here for more than a century, maybe more than two!  They’ve survived wars, hurricanes, termites, and even a massive earthquake.  After enduring all that hardship, I think they deserve to be forgiven for a little imperfection.

So if you would, allow me to illuminate all the different ways a Charleston home can slant, and to explain why we sometimes walk uphill in our houses.

1. The whole house or part of the house leans back, forward or to one side or the other.  This indicates that part of the the land the house is sitting on is settling at a faster rate than the surrounding area. (oh, a whole half of a millimeter a year!) Check out these two houses.  How sweet! They are leaning toward each other.

Despite the glare of the sun, you can see how the gap near the roof is much smaller than the gap near the ground.

Despite the glare of the sun, you can see how the gap near the roof is much smaller than the gap near the ground.

2. The floors slant toward the fireplaces.  Remember, two or three story chimneys of solid handmade brick are very heavy and so they can settle at a faster rate than does the rest of the house.

3. One room or set of rooms slant. Generally when you see this type of slant, it is because the room was not originally part of the main interior of the house. It could have been added on, it could have been a piazza or other outdoor space and enclosed at some point in its history. Check the floor boards for a good indicator of this. They may lie in a different direction than those of the main house, or be of a different width, or both.  In my condo, both the guest room and bath slant toward the back of the house, though the rest of the rooms are flat as a pancake.  See how those boards are of a different width?

The left side with the smaller boards is the guest room.

The left side with the smaller boards is the guest room.

4. Just a corner or two slant. Usually this means that at some point in time, either that tiny part settled, or the pier wasn’t constructed correctly and no one noticed it for decades.

5. There’s a slant on two sides with a hump in the middle.  That hump is usually the center joist, which in old homes can be as big as a tree trunk.

6. The windows or door frames are cockeyed and maybe a door won’t shut unless you actually latch it because it is working against gravity.  This is a combo of any or all of the above.

7. The piazza slants away from the house. Ahem. This is how they are supposed to be. 🙂  If you have a level piazza, you have a problem called inevitable rot. Piazzas are slanted so the rain runs off away from the house.

Now, I must caveat this explanation and fear-allaying by admitting there ARE some homes that frighten even me.  I’ve been in homes where walking up the stairs feels like I am falling backwards. I’ve seen homes that have all the different kinds of slants under one roof, plus the piazzas were slanting TOWARD the house. In these kinds of cases, you can either live with it, repair the foundation to improve the structural integrity, or call a company like Ram Jack to make it completely right again.  Check out this doozie below.

The entire house (all 4500 square feet of it) was lifted off its feet and put to settle on huge steel beams as they rebuilt the foundation.

Even the columns on the piazza look a bit askew.

Even the columns on the piazza look a bit askew.

So I hope you feel better about the Charleston Slant and know that the next time you go into a home with me, if it is all perfectly level, you’ve found a rare one indeed.  And dear readers, if I have left out a style of slant that you have come to love, please enlighten me!

One Response to “The Charleston Slant – or Why We Sometimes Walk Uphill in Our Houses

  • charleslpearson
    5 years ago

    Great article. I noticed that the floors were slanted in blue single house, esp. the second floor piazza (very scary and so slanted I thought it was going to fall down)  in backyard of Notso Hostel on Spring Street…but it was still charmingly Charleston.
     
    While staying there I tried not to drink too much to keep my balance.

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