Chris Schwarz's Blog

Drayton Hall: A Brick and Cypress Time Machine

Drayton Hall in Charleston, S.C., is a time capsule of architecture and joinery. It also is a mighty beautiful place to get killed.

The first time I visited this antebellum plantation on the Ashley River I was a completely stupid tourist. I landed at the Charleston airport in near-hurricane conditions. My dad picked me up in his truck and we ate lunch at a restaurant that no longer exists.

Then, as the wind began to howl, we made the trek up Ashley River Road to this astonishingly untouched plantation. We pulled up to the gate. The wind sounded like Andre the giant was using our truck to play in a jug band.

No one was at the front gate. I yelled “Hello!” and a hand appeared in the window. The gate attendant was crouched under his desk.

I looked at the hand and pretended it was a hand puppet with great authority.

I asked for two tickets to see Drayton Hall.

No can do, the voice from the hand insisted. There was a hurricane afoot and no one was allowed into the plantation.

“Dang,” I said, as I turned dad’s truck around and drove back out. We hit the Shell station on the road to fill up. It was deserted. I filled up, looking around for zombies. Then we went inside the station to pay. The whole staff was huddled under the counter.

Lightning stuck the transformer outside the gas station and the world went dark…¦.

Today was a gorgeous day, and I decided to revisit Drayton Hall for a third time with my family and a clear blue sky as harmless accompaniments.

Visiting Drayton is as close as you can get to time travel in my book. The home was built by John Drayton starting in 1738 and remained in the family for seven generations until it was sold to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The Draytons made very few changes to the Georgian Palladian-style house. They never modernized it with plumbing or electricity. They made very few alterations to the woodwork. And unlike the other plantations on the Ashley River, Drayton wasn’t burned by federal troops after the Civil War.

In fact, one of the things I love about Drayton is that they have taken a path of preservation instead of restoration. And the preserved state is very close to original. And the small changes that were made to the house only add to the charm. One of the Draytons added a door in the stairwell to the attic to lock up his Maderia wine, which was stored in the hot attics of Charleston. Then a later Drayton cut a cat-sized hole in the door to allow the local felines to dine in the attic.

The library has a growth chart of all the Draytons that goes back generations (one of them even measured the dogs). And two doors are missing from the rear rooms. Vandals had pried them open, thinking they were locked and hiding treasure. If only they understood the brutal symmetry of the Georgian Palladian style. The doors were fakes and opened onto the masonry wall.

For a woodworker, the home is a delight of design and detail. Here are some of the interesting points to ponder:

– The house uses three different classical columns for different spaces in the house. Common areas use Doric columns. More important areas use Ionic. And the most important spaces use Corinthian columns.

– All the walls are frame-and-panel construction using bald cypress, a local wood that looks like yellow pine to my eye. What was interesting was how different profiles were used in different rooms. On some private and not-so-important rooms, the craftsman used an astragal moulding on the rails and stiles. In the showier rooms the craftsmen used a Roman ogee profile on the rails and stiles and even beaded the fillet on the fielded panels.

– The interior is bald cypress, yellow poplar, yellow pine and mahogany, which was used for the jaw-dropping staircase at the back of the house. The mahogany was stained red, which interpreters said was an attempt to make it look like Cuban mahogany.

– All of the doors I examined had beveled edges, which allowed the doors to close with ease. This looked deliberate and original to my eyes , and the beveling was significant, about 7Ã?° on the top edge and the strike edge of each door. It also was oddly beautiful.

Despite all the beauty of the land and building, it was impossible to forget the slaves who built and maintained the house and land. Though the Draytons’ had a lot of work to do to maintain the building, the mostly unnamed slaves had a heck of a worse time. The Draytons owned more than 76,000 acres at the peak of their power (which is a little smaller than the entire state of Rhode Island).

The biggest mystery for our family was the identity of the animal at the top of the mantle in the front room. It looks like a fox to me. But the staff that was excavating a section of the collonade on the property insisted it was a foxboar (which doesn’t exist). Then one of the bigwigs heading up the excavation insisted the animal was based off a plate in a design book that showed a hog.

Then this week my dad and I found an identical animal engraved on the pull of an early 19th-century English chest. They said it was a fox (yes!). What do you see?

– Christopher Schwarz  

7 thoughts on “Drayton Hall: A Brick and Cypress Time Machine

  1. Rick Simpson

    Several of the really old plantation mansions still survive. The oldest is Shirley Plantation in Virginia, not too far from Williamsburg. It began as a plantation in 1613 (!), six years after Jamestown was first settled. That’s 396 years ago, and it’s still owned by the same family: the oldest family-owned business in North America.

    The current mansion building wasn’t begun until 1723, so the house isn’t too much older than Drayton Hall. It’s been added to and subtracted from (involuntarily, due to fire) over the years, so it doesn’t have the unmodified character of Drayton Hall. The woodworking isn’t as fancy, although they do have an impressive staircase: it’s not that it’s so spectacularly carved, but part of it is cantilevered so it appears to have no support. They call it the Flying Staircase.

    I’ve been to several of the plantations, including Drayton Hall, which is just as Chris describes. All of them are well worth a visit.

  2. Kris

    In a previous life, I was an Air Force pilot stationed at Charleston Air Force Base. We had a local restriction that we were not allowed to fly within a mile of Drayton Hall. This was so that any vibration caused by our flying overhead would not damage the building. The building is right in the middle of the traffic pattern of the Air Force Base, so it was an easy way to bust a checkride.

    Kris Ingmanson

  3. Bill

    The drawer pull is a fox, no doubt. The thing on the mantle (sounds like a cheesy horror movie) looks more like a wild boar. Hard to tell from that photo, but I almost expect to see tusks.

  4. Jack Mazzuchelli

    The top animal relief on the mantle looks more Peccary or pig like, it’s ears are different from the other which indeed looks like a fox.

  5. Sean

    I think the animal on the pull is definitely a fox, but the animal on the mantle does not look the same. It does indeed look more like a peccary or maybe an opossum. Could also be a raccoon? All that said, it may be that the artist was trying to make a fox, but ended up with it looking like a more ambiguous mammmal. Do you have any more close up pictures of the animal releif?

  6. Christopher Schwarz

    David,

    The family preserved the house and used it as a place to stay on weekends in later years. The docent said the Draytons viewed it as "roughing it."

    They also had several buildings on the property with modern amenities. But not this one.

    Chris

  7. David

    That’s truly incredible – that any house in America could survive in its 18th century form right up until the 1970’s unmodfied. And in Charleston, no less, with no running water or air-conditioning! I take it the family didn’t actually live there in the 20th century?

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