THE VERY DRAMATIC Drayton Hall
So gorgeous! Drayton Hall is easily one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to. But rather than feel exhilerated by this place, I left feeling a bit melancholy and reflective. Allow me to explain and also to give you some more reason behind this post. This doesn’t mean I didn’t truly enjoy my visit to this plantation home. It is just that Drayton Hall, like most of the plantations in the south, are steeped in a history of this country that isn’t really nice to think about. All that said, I am extremely thankful to have been directed to visit here by one of my friends who happens to be a Charleston local. Drayton Hall is indeed beautiful, but it is also controversial. I had the chance to visit Charleston this home while in town for the Southern Style Now conference. I have never been to that city nor have I ever been to a southern plantation home before so I wasn’t sure what to expect or how I would feel. We all know that plantation homes where built, run and in essence only exist because of slave labor. I have always wondered how I would feel when I finally saw a “real life” plantation home. In this case, I was moved in so many ways. Allow me to explain.
Drayton Hall stands as the oldest preserved plantation house in the United States that is still open to public viewing. Quite impressive fact, isn’t it? It is also the nation’s earliest example of Palladian architecture as it was founded in 1738. Because of the unique preservation philosophy of the current owners of Drayton Hall, it stands today still as it does and showcases all the building’s original imperfections. No glossy coatings or overdone refurbishments to be found here!
Let’s dive a bit more into the history. There proves to be little documentation about John Drayton’s life prior to purchasing the land in 1738 where he would later build Drayton Hall. Born in 1715 into one of South Carolina’s leading colonial families, there is no record of his early life before the purchase of the land.
Drayton’s wealth lies solely on the institution of slavery. (Here in lies the major reason behind my conflicted feelings…) The exact number of enslaved individuals from Drayton is still unknown, but he owned more than 100 commercial plantations which totaled to around 76,000 acres of land. The estimated number of slaves is estimated in the thousands. Thousands!
John’s second son, Charles Drayton, completed a degree in medicine from University of Edinburgh. He moved into the manor with his wife, Hester Middleton, in 1784. Charles kept detailed diaries, which is how we learned of the skilled artisans enslaved at Drayton Hall such as carpenters and blacksmiths.
Generations of families of slaves continued to live and work on the property at Drayton Hall until the 60’s. They painted the house and landscape while cooking, farming, gardening and raising their own children. This allowed Drayton Hall to never become abandoned, which ensured the property was preserved by the community.
Because Drayton Hall was never restored, historians are able to study the raw materials and design details in the house to infer how it was used, built, and learn about the history of the house all the way back from its inception over two centuries ago. They studied the house to gather stories and learn about the people who lived and worked there over the decades.
A family acquired the house in the 70’s, and a decision was made to stabilize the house and preserve as is, instead of restoring it to a particular period. This decision is really the reason that Drayton Hall allows its visitors to have a real sense when visiting of this historic building and what the families that have inhibited it over the years were like.
“Historic preservation is a broad discipline, but at its heart is the idea that old buildings enrich our lives and deserve our good stewardship.” I couldn’t agree more. And in the case of Drayton Hall, I am so glad I came here to visit and witness the history firsthand. I was truly moved. It is a special place and one that I recommend we all visit.