Built between 1738 and 1742, Drayton Hall is one of the finest examples of Georgian-Palladian architecture in America. Through seven generations of Drayton ownership, this National Historic Landmark has remained in nearly original condition and is the only Ashley River plantation house to survive the Civil War intact. Today the house is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Its unique state of preservation and rich, handcrafted details offer visitors a rare glimpse of a bygone Southern way of life.
Settling in Carolina in 1679, the Draytons quickly established themselves in the cattle and hide trade while developing plantations throughout the Lowcountry. Later generations would distinguish themselves as statesmen, physicians, and entrepreneurs, in addition to managing their agricultural interests. In 1738, 23 year old John Drayton purchased land next to his parents' plantation, now known as Magnolia Gardens. Winter editions of the South Carolina Gazette advertised the property as "containing 350 acres, wherof 150 acres of it is not yet clear'd with a very good Dwelling-house, kitchen and several out houses with a very good orchard, consisting of all sorts of Fruit Trees..."(sic). It took four years of construction by European and African-American craftsmen to build the grand dwelling that would become the home and center of John's plantation operations. By 1758, the house was described as "Mr. Drayton's palace" and was surrounded by 600 acres with formal gardens, fields of indigo, inland rice, and table crops. Unusual and highly sophisticated outbuildings included a seven seat brick privy and a brick and glass greenhouse. Through opportunity and four marriages, John Drayton acquired at least 30 other properties in addition to Drayton Hall and held more acreage than any of his descendants.
Primary documentation and archaeological evidence suggest that by the time John's son, Charles, owned Drayton Hall in the 1790's, the plantation may have had more than 25 other structures in addition to the main house and original outbuildings. Most were the homes and work sites of the African-American slave community who labored to establish and maintain the property. The number of enslaved people working on Drayton plantations varied from as few as 41 to as many as 181. It was common practice for Drayton slaves with specialized skills, such as carpentry or masonry, to be sent to different properties or lent out to other planters for work, so it is difficult to determine the primary residences of different family members. After the Civil War, a number of African-American families stayed at Drayton Hall and were part of a new community of people who lived on the property and worked mining calcium phosphate for the fertilizer industry until the early 20th century.
The physical and cultural landscape has changed considerably since that time, but the house has remained in remarkably original condition, enabling visitors today to easily imagine its appearance centuries ago. The building retains its early 18th century Georgian-Palladian features characterized by the classical use of order, symmetry, and bold detail. The native and imported materials used to construct the house are well preserved and document the high level of craftsmanship and trade available in early 18th century Charles Towne. The two-story portico on the landfront is believed to be the first of its kind in America and is constructed of individual sections of stone from England and of European iron, hand wrought on the property.
While the architect or master builder is still unknown, the house is an outstanding combination of English pattern book design and creative colonial craftsmanship. The overmantle of the first floor Great Hall fireplace closely matches plate 64 of William Kent's Designs of Inigo Jones, published in 1727, but includes floral motifs and a fox-like mask adapted by the builder. One of only five known early 18th century carved plaster ceilings in America survives in the Ionic Drawing Room, and all rooms retain their original wood moldings.
Major later additions include Federal period windows (six over six, instead of twelve over twelve) and Victorian era elements such as a tin roof, fish scale shingles, and a turned-wood balustrade on the portico. Through seven generations of Drayton ownership, the interiors were rarely repainted and the house was never modernized with running water, gas, or electricity. The changes that were made by the family have been left intact to interpret the evolving needs, tastes, and economic influences they represent. This layering underscores the National Trusts' philosophy of preserving the building rather than restoring it to one period of use. Consequently, the house is also shown unfurnished so as not to detract from the authentic historical and architectural statement of the building. Unencumbered by a variety of period furnishings, one can freely imagine how different people, both white and black, used the spaces in the house at different times. This unusual approach has been enthusiastically and consistently supported by visitors and museum professionals since Drayton Hall opened to the public in 1977.
A visit to Drayton Hall today is an opportunity to experience history in a rare and evocative setting. With its extraordinary architecture, informative landscape walks, and serene river views, Drayton Hall extends to you the excitement of discovery, a sense of timelessness, and a continuity from generation to generation.
The house is open to the public daily with tours offered on the hour from 10am to 4pm, March through October; 10am to 3pm, November through February. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day. Curriculum coordinated programs in architecture, archaeology and Lowcountry history are available by reservation for school groups grades K-12. The grounds, restrooms, museum shop and portions of the plantation house are accessible to physically disabled visitors. Written tours are available in English, French, German, and Spanish. For more information or group tour reservations, please call (803)766-0188, Monday through Friday, 9am to 5pm EST.
Drayton Hall is a museum property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and is accredited by the American Association of Museums.