Drayton Hall on Charleston’s Ashley River holds the distinction of being the oldest surviving example of Georgian-Palladian architecture in the United States. The home endured occupation of both Colonial and British troops during the Revolutionary War. For reasons still unknown, it is the only plantation home along the Ashley River that Union troops spared during the Civil War. It later withstood the Great Earthquake of 1886. In 1974 the National Trust for Historic Preservation purchased Drayton Hall to ensure its survival for generations to come.
In 1678 Edward Mayo received a land grant for 750 acres, a portion of which would become Drayton Hall. Mayo sold the land in 1680, and the new owner, Joseph Harbin, built the first house on the property. The land eventually was subdivided and changed hands many times. In 1738 John Drayton purchased the remaining 350 acres and immediately began construction on the current house, which was completed around 1742.
The land was valuable due to its location along the Ashley River. The river made Drayton Hall perfect for cultivating Carolina Gold rice, a crop dependent on tides for irrigation. Carolina Gold was grown only in the South Carolina Lowcountry and coastal Georgia and made rice growers in those regions very wealthy.
Yet the success of these crops required the forced labor of slaves. Census records show that an average of 45 slaves per year lived and worked at Drayton Hall. Slave women primarily worked in the rice fields, while enslaved men, women, and children worked throughout the property as coopers, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, and house slaves.
When the Draytons arrived in Charleston from Barbados, they brought a slave family by the name of Bowens with them. The Bowens family most likely helped build the house. It was highly unusual for slaves to have surnames, and several Bowens family members are buried in a cemetery near the main entrance. Many Bowens descendants still live in the area.
The architectural symmetry of a Georgian-Palladian home dictates that the main house be flanked by two identical outbuildings. A laundry flanking and a kitchen flanking completed the Drayton Hall complex; however, the 1886 earthquake destroyed the laundry building, while the Sea Islands Hurricane caused the demise of the kitchen structure in 1893. Only their foundations remain.
Once it purchased Drayton Hall, the National Trust decided not to alter or embellish any of the home’s architectural details. Thus Drayton Hall remains unchanged from the previous seven generations of Drayton owners. Students of architecture frequently study Drayton Hall because of its architectural purity.
Located beside the plantation house, the privy (or outhouse) is one of the few surviving outbuildings left on the property. Constructed around 1790, the interior once featured seven seats, two with armrests and two lowered for the use by children.
Drayton Hall is a National Historic Landmark and is listed in the National Register:
Drayton Hall is without question one of the finest of all surviving plantation houses in America. Its early date, 1738-42, makes its architectural sophistication all the more remarkable. It is far in advance of the great Virginia Georgian plantation houses for which those of South Carolina have a natural affinity. Because Drayton Hall has been barely touched with “improvement” in the ensuing 200 years, it remains for us one of the most treasured of eighteenth century structures. John Drayton, a member of the King’s Council, acquired the land on which Drayton Hall was built in 1738. Perhaps because of their relatively comfortable position in South Carolina society at this early date, the Draytons were able to invest in the house a degree of architectural elaboration very rare in America in the first half of the eighteenth century.
The house has a most distinctive monumentality achieved through its spacious four room plan and the somewhat vertical proportions of its two-story elevation on a high English basement capped by a double hipped roof. The land side (west) of the house features a carefully proportioned projecting two-story pedimented portico with superposed Doric and Ionic orders. The river façade lacks a projecting portico, but it has a classical central pediment to emphasize the main axis. Most of the rooms on the inside are fully paneled and the mantel pieces and classical cornices throughout are the highest quality. The house further features rich plaster detailing in the ceilings, and a remarkable fully paneled richly carved double staircase.
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