Visitors to Drayton Hall, South Carolina’s oldest unrestored antebellum plantation will find it remarkably well preserved
Charleston SC— The walls at Drayton Hall are bare and the rooms unfurnished. Located about 12 miles from downtown Charleston, the house has no heating or plumbing. Yet visitors to South Carolina’s oldest unrestored antebellum plantation will find it remarkably well preserved.
Devoid of cosmetic restorations that can blur the signs of age, it offers a close-up look at the unvarnished materials and original workmanship of more than 275 years ago. Set on 350 acres with formal gardens, the plantation has housed enslaved workers and seven generations of the Drayton family.
Landscape historian Suzanne Turner called Drayton Hall “the most significant, undisturbed historic landscape in America.”
The stately main house, constructed with an estimated 362,000 handmade red bricks, took four years to build. It is considered a masterpiece of highly symmetrical, Georgian-Palladian-inspired architecture, the first of this type in America.
Our docent, Amanda Franklin, a Charleston native trained in architectural preservation, led a 50-minute house tour explaining the function of each room. She pointed out architectural details and recounted how owner John Drayton entertained Charleston’s upper crust, tying her stories to the colonial history of the South.
The most compelling portion of our visit, however, was the candid 30-minute African-American Connections program (scheduled twice daily), describing Charleston’s slave trade. Based on archival plantation records, slave lists, oral histories and old newspaper articles, Drayton Hall preservationists have fleshed out the stories of those who were brought from Sierra Leone in shackles to help cultivate Carolina gold rice at Drayton Hall and other nearby plantations, bringing wealth to their owners.
An African-American cemetery on the grounds consists of 33 graves of slaves and free blacks, purposely “left natural” in deference to Richard Bowens, one of those buried here. Born on the property in 1908, Bowens worked as a gatekeeper and oral historian on the grounds for more than two decades. Guests also can take self-guided river walks beneath live oak trees along the sandy soil of the adjacent Ashley River, which connects Drayton Hall to downtown Charleston.
The family sold the property to The National Historic Trust in 1974. During our tour, Franklin explained that the 20th century Drayton heirs loved the property so much that they ultimately decided to cede it to the public interest to ensure its continued preservation.
IF YOU GO
Drayton Hall is open daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Day, and New Year’s Eve and Day. Info: draytonhall.org
[This article by Irene S. Levine was published in the Chicago Tribune on February 11, 2015.]
This post is part of a Linkup with Noel Morata’s Travel Photo Discovery.
Read an excellent article on slavery in the plantations on Vox: