When Ruth and I left Drayton Hall on November 1 around 1 pm, the temperature was 41º and it was raining. The South was experiencing a shockingly unusual early winter day and you might think that we were miserable. Not at all. Drayton Hall, a 5 Compass experience, is a must-see attraction if you are anywhere near Charleston, South Carolina; and we were lucky to get Amanda, a historian who has been telling people about it for 10 years, as our guide.
Drayton Hall is well-known among historians. Perhaps you’ve seen documentaries about it on the History Channel, etc. However, seeing it on TV doesn’t prepare you for the majesty and authenticity of this singular landmark.
John Drayton started it all. He arrived in what almost everyone now calls the Lowcountry via Barbados. Being the youngest of 3 sons, he had to emigrate to find his fortune. He succeeded, marrying 4 times.
The family was eventually in control of 145 properties covering 76,000 acres of land, 350 of them around Drayton Hall. Draytons mostly grew cotton, rice and indigo. Wealthy enough to desire a plantation manor house on their Ashley River estate about 15 miles north of Charles Towne, which became Charleston in 1883, John reportedly studied Andrea Palladio’s Four Books of Architecture. The actual designer is said to be unknown, but Drayton Hall’s perfect architectural balance and symmetry are so stunning that it’s usually the only non-Italian Palladio building shown in books about his works.
The current house was completed in 1738 and is now the oldest unrestored plantation house in the United States opened to the public. The key word is unrestored. This was the Drayton’s business center and main residence until the Civil War. Subsequent residents didn’t add electricity, running water, etc. This conscious decision not to modernize now gives us a real glimpse into a couple of centuries of aristocratic living and causes visitors to almost freeze to death, even inside, when the temperature drops to 41º. I can’t imagine what it’s like to tour it in steamy summer. Drayton Hall has held up well because it was constructed of 360,000 bricks. Even the interior walls are brick. Its grand staircases, 27 foot ceilings, and formal gardens were designed to impress and still do.
Of course, to maintain this property required the work of an average of 50 slaves, and Amanda spent the 1st half hour before the house tour telling us about them. They came from Africa’s West Coast where rice was common and people were skilled in its cultivation. Amanda told us that the most valuable slave was a 20-year-male who could tolerate tending 4-feet-tall rice stalks under water frequented by snakes and alligators.
John’s son, William Henry, was one of the first men to call for the break with England. He fathered a South Carolina governor. Seven generations of Drayton’s ultimately lived here. After the Civil War phosphate mining kept Drayton Hall going and the mines gave employment to ex-slaves. Charles and Frank sold Drayton Hall to the National Trust in 1974 after almost 250 years of continuous family ownership.