This National Trust for Historic Preservation property is significant to historians and preservationists for its history, its rarity, its condition and its architectural style. It is the last surviving complete plantation house on the Ashley River, which in its heyday was lined with many splendid houses of South
Carolina’s most prominent families. In 1802 John Drayton explained the genesis of these homes – “…gentlemen of fortune were invited to form these happy retreats from noise and bustle; the banks of the Ashley, as being near the metropolis of the state was first the object of their attention.”
Drayton Hall has survived two and a half centuries in almost its original condition. Built between 1738 and 1742, the house was owned by seven generations of the Drayton family and was never modernized with central heating, electricity, or plumbing. Its interior was repainted once. Historians consider the house one of the finest and earliest examples of Georgian Palladian architecture in America – the sophistication of its design is far ahead of any other work being built in the American colonies at the time.
John Drayton built the house as his family’s main residence, for occupation in the winter season from mid-November to mid-May. It was among the first products of a so-called “rice prosperity.” The successful cultivation of vast plantations of cash crops brought sudden wealth to men who may not have been members of the upper classes in the Old World. Family records leave the impression that Drayton Hall was the business and administrative
center of the Drayton empire. As such, Drayton wanted to express his position in society and the ideal way to accomplish this was to copy the current styles in the Mother Country, England. Georgian Palladian architecture was at its height in England.
I first visited Drayton Hall the spring after Hurricane Hugo had blown through. The damaged landscape was evident by the many downed trees. Even so I found the starkness enthralling. Years later, on a cloudy March day, I visited again and was happy
to see that nature was rebuilding and the holes from Hugo were filled with new growth. Once again I was transfixed by the isolation. The august house sits several hundred yards back from the river and while the river side was considered the front (since guests arrived by boat), today visitors drive over from Charleston on highway 61, the Ashley River Road. Their first view is a two-story portico with Doric columns on the first floor and Ionic columns on the second.
Most visitors to historic homes expect to see a furnished house. Drayton is completely empty. Its story focuses on the fine craftsmanship of its architectural details, and its use over time. A grand staircase dominates the huge entrance hall and the rooms feature rich paneling, ornately carved plaster ceilings and carved marble fireplace mantels. The stories of the occupants echo off wooden floorboards and paneled walls. One family legend is a testament to the house’s endurance. Civil War general William T. Sherman’s Union’s troops burned every remaining home on the river during their march north from Georgia. The story maintains that the house was saved because its occupant, a doctor, posted yellow flags around the property signaling its use as a smallpox hospital. Another tradition suggests that a northern cousin in the Union navy blockade nearby used his influence to save his relative’s property. According to my tour guide, relatively little is known about the Drayton family’s life at the house. No inventories exist. Many of the family’s papers were lost during the Civil War and few pieces of original furniture remain. Yet, little by little, the secrets of the past are uncovered as staff continues to do research, a staff determined to tell the whole story of the people who lived on the property.
Check out the Drayton Hall blog to see the latest research.
Do you have a favorite historic house? Tell us about it. Why is it your favorite?