Driving up the approach road to Drayton Hall, a beautifully preserved estate just outside Charleston, South Carolina, is one of the great pleasures of life. The road, a ribbon of sand, slopes gently through a massive oak allée into a swampy bottomland. As it curves left, your eye is drawn upward across an expanse of grass to a house so perfectly symmetrical it would make Vitruvius weep: Drayton Hall, the eighteenth-century estate of the Drayton family and the oldest unrestored historic site open to the public in America.
The estate’s original owner, John Drayton, made a bold move erecting a mansion on 350 acres of what was effectively colonial frontier. The nearest road was still an ancient and well-trod Native American trading path. Construction of a house of this magnitude required tremendous amounts of skilled labor and was largely dependent on highly trained enslaved people. No records survive detailing the construction nor the lives of the enslaved at Drayton Hall in the eighteenth century, as it was never a working plantation (instead, it was the family seat of a much larger operation), but archaeological evidence suggests people of West African descent lived and worked on the property in the eighteenth century. More than 366,000 bricks were used to construct the house—all of them shaped by hand by enslaved people and fired nearby. Stray fingerprints left in the bricks are their signatures—something to look for at any historic place in the South.
Thanks to a technology called dendrochronology (a tree-ring dating technique), historians know that the enormous timbers used to support the roof were felled in December of 1747 or January of 1748. Palladianism, a style of architecture based on the principles of Venetian architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), was wildly popular in Europe in the eighteenth century. Inspired by the temples of ancient Greece and Rome, Palladio applied symmetry, proportion, and the classical orders to Renaissance design, inspiring a movement of architecture that still defines modern cities.
Drayton Hall’s survival from 1748 to the present day is a testament to seven generations of the Drayton family who safeguarded it through hurricanes, the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, the earthquake of 1886, and, most recently, the steamroller of development. Acquired by the National Trust in 1974, the site is now operated by the fine people of the Drayton Hall Preservation Trust. If you’re ever fortunate enough to visit, here are five sights to see:
#1 Mystery Animal in the Overmantel
The decorative carving throughout Drayton Hall is a triumph of eighteenth century craftsmanship, but one of those woodcarvers might have been having a laugh when he completed the overmantel cartouche in the Great Hall. Look up and find two beady eyes staring down at you. What IS that? Possum? Weasel? Nobody knows for sure, but Trish Smith, Curator of Historical Architectural Resources, likes to say it is either “a bad fox or an okay boar.” (When the light is right, it looks 100-percent anteater to me.)
#2 The Wonders of Archaeology
Sarah Stroud Clarke, Drayton Hall’s Curator of Collections, is not exaggerating when she says she is in charge of a million artifacts. The number is actually closer to two million. Alongside active digs, she and her enthusiastic volunteers are steadily washing, analyzing, and cataloging a backlog of artifacts uncovered in digs carried out on the property as far back as the 1970s. Their most exciting finds? Six small—and impossibly rare—fragments of black delft. If you are familiar with blue and white delft ceramics (think windmills and wooden shoes), consider black delft its exotic cousin. Made in response to the seventeenth century demand for Japanese lacquerware, black delft was extremely popular for a very short period of time (between the late 1600’s and early 1700’s), but only 67 pieces survive intact today in the world.
Before Sarah and her team discovered these fragments, there were no known examples of black delft in North America, and none had ever been found archaeologically. This tiny handful of broken ceramics proves what we’ve known all along: the South has been impossibly elegant and ahead of its time since the beginning. The fragments discovered by Clarke and her team are from a teapot belonging to Drayton’s earliest inhabitant, Francis Yonge. Yonge was elected to represent South Carolina’s colonial interests with the Lord’s Proprietors back in London between 1718 and 1734. He had the means and sophistication to acquire black delft, carry it with him to the colonies, and then—one assumes—accidentally smash it into pieces and toss it in the trash. We are glad he did.
#3 Hidden Graffiti
Guides will not necessarily show you this on a tour, but you might whisper nicely and ask to see the graffiti under the stairs on the main floor. Pop your head through the closet door and look carefully for a an image of a man driving a carriage; this is the only surviving illustration of anyone using a carriage at Drayton Hall in the 1700s. Scratched carefully into the plaster with a sharp object, this curious graffiti was only discovered a short time ago. The hidden location and low position on the wall suggests a child did it—whether it was an enslaved child or one of the Drayton family remains a mystery.
#4 Feats of Engineering, Old and New
Drayton’s staff recently completed a lengthy stabilization project, which led to a creepy discovery. In order to stabilize the columns and structure, engineers designed a truss system that lifted the entire portico up one one-hundredth-and-twenty-fifths of an inch—in other words, the height of two pieces of printer paper—and held it aloft for two weeks to complete foundational work. While preparing for the move, staff discovered a secret room underneath the main stairs. When you are in the basement facing the approach road, look for a few exposed bricks in the wall—they pull out to reveal the secret room. I am sorry to say Drayton’s staff found the hidden room to be entirely void of treasure.
#5 New Visitor’s Center Highlights Original Furnishings for the First Time
After years of planning, Drayton’s Sally Reahard Visitor Center is preparing for its debut in April 2018. The visitor center includes an exhibition gallery where fine and decorative art from the Drayton family are on full display, beautifully preserved in air-conditioned perpetuity. The new exhibit explores the contributions of the enslaved to the construction and ongoing running of the house during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for the first time. Look for the English side chair from an original suite of furniture imported by John Drayton in the 1750s. The chair and matching settee are sporting new upholstery based on microscopic fragments of the original fabric found embedded in the seat frame. All of the original furniture was conserved by Chris Swan of Cignet Conservation in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Bonus Legend (Because It Isn’t Truly Southern Unless There’s Also a Legend)
The plantations on either side of Drayton Hall were burned by Union Troops during the Civil War, so how did Drayton Hall survive? This is hotly debated, but the legend is that a quick-thinking doctor working at the house and hung small yellow flags at the end of the drive to signal smallpox. Not terribly keen on contracting that dreaded disease, the troops passed on by.
Lauren Northup is Director of Museums at Historic Charleston Foundation