Creating a Richer Visitor Experience at Drayton Hall

By Special Contributor posted 04-17-2019 17:00


By Trish Lowe Smith and Sarah Stroud Clarke

Preserve as is, never restore—that, in a nutshell, is the preservation philosophy at Drayton Hall, a historic site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Widely believed to be the first and best Palladian house in North America, Drayton Hall—which remained in the Drayton family for seven consecutive generations—is a remarkably intact 18th-century estate on the Ashley River in Charleston, South Carolina. Because of its architectural significance and rare state of preservation, its stewards decided not to restore the house to a particular time period, but to conserve it as it was received from the Drayton family in 1974. While we continue the constant work of maintaining the main house, new and exciting changes have transformed the visitor experience at Drayton Hall.

Aerial view of the new Drayton Hall visitor center |  Credit: Photo by Robert Oswald

In April we opened the Sally Reahard Visitor Center. Designed by Glenn Keyes architects and built by Hood Construction, the 7,500-square-foot complex includes the Charles H. Drayton III Orientation Hall, the Stephen F. and Laura D. Gates Gallery, The Shop at Drayton Hall, and Rudi’s Café. The visitor center is built around an interpretive courtyard garden with a grand oak tree in the middle. Opposite the visitor center is the new George McDaniel Education Center, and on the north side of the courtyard, the newly rehabilitated Caretaker’s House, built circa 1870, interprets the postbellum and early-20th-century history of the estate and its African American community.

Architect Glenn Keyes created a Palladio-inspired design for the visitor center with the buildings arranged in a five-part plan. Breezeways in the visitor and education centers create a line of sight to the main house and feature exposed timber frame construction inspired by the framing in the attic of the house. Conversely, when viewed from the historic core of the property, the complex is inconspicuous, nestled discretely in the tree line 100 yards north for those standing on the main house’s iconic portico. Although they are physically separate, the main house and new visitor center complex allow us to make dynamic new connections.

Interior of the Drayton Hall Visitor's Center
Visitors watch the new introductory video. | Credit: Photo by Leslie McKellar

For more than 40 years, visitors to Drayton Hall could tour only the unfurnished main house; the house’s open environment makes it impossible to display the furnishings and other decorative arts that once adorned it. The new Gates Gallery, however, finally affords Drayton’s curatorial staff the opportunity to showcase these objects—and engage visitors regarding more aspects of the site’s history, which isn’t possible on a 45-minute house tour.

The gallery was built as a changing exhibit space with the intent of introducing a new exhibition theme every 18–24 months. Visitors can return to the property and discover an interpretive story with new themes, periods, and people told through museum and archaeological collections. (Plans are already in the works for the second exhibition, which is set to open in spring 2020.)

New Drayton Hall Tour Start
New tour start area | Credit: Photo by Robert Oswald

The inaugural exhibition, “An Agreeable Prospect: The Creation of a Colonial South Carolina Palace and Garden,” focuses on the mid-18th century, when the property was first purchased, designed, built, and decorated using the earliest temporal objects to illustrate these topics. The 12 circa 1733 ornithological works from the Lenhardt Collection of George Edwards Watercolors displayed throughout the exhibition illustrate John Drayton’s connection to England as a very young man—since we know that Edwards never traveled to North America, we suppose that John Drayton may have become acquainted with the artist while studying abroad in Great Britain and purchased this set of watercolors. Pieces from a suite of mahogany furniture that took 12 years to build showcase the house’s original furnishing.


Objects on display in the Gates Gallery | Credit: Photo by Leslie McKellar

A silver slave brand, along with Colonowares from the archaeological collection, anchors the discussion of enslavement at Drayton Hall. In addition to the house tour and gallery spaces, the education center is used daily for our “Port to Plantation” program, which gives voice to the story of enslavement in the lowcountry, and specifically at Drayton Hall, using primary sources from the Drayton Papers Collection. The education center allows us to house this significant program and discussions that often follow in a comfortable, climate-controlled space for the first time.

The curatorial staff has also developed a program of informal gallery talks that debuted in fall 2018 at 12:30 p.m. on Fridays. The talks afford visitors the opportunity to hear members of the curatorial team speak in depth about one object. This is particularly helpful in engaging our local membership base, allowing them to enjoy a deep dive without having to tour the entire property on every visit. It also allows the curators to speak passionately about their work, bringing them together with visitors in an intimate setting.


Interior of newly rehabilitated Historic Caretaker’s House. | Photo by Leslie McKellar

We also use the classrooms for our seasonal educational programs, again providing a sheltered space for school groups that have previously had to postpone their visits due to inclement weather. We also partner with other organizations to conduct specialized programs, most recently teaming up with the Decorative Arts Trust for a one-day symposium: “An Agreeable Prospect: Rediscovering Drayton Hall in the 18th Century Atlantic World.” We also recently hosted Historic Charleston Foundation’s Art and Architecture group as they explored archaeological sites along the Ashley River.

View of Gates Gallery at Drayton Hall
Gates Gallery | Credit: Photo by Robert Oswald

Other efforts to enhance the visitor experience at Drayton Hall include thoughtful landscape design by Sheila Wertimer of Wertimer + Cline. A new parking loop accommodates more vehicles, a roadway shift has moved all vehicle traffic out of the historic core of the property, and a new approach to the main house allows tours to begin with an oblique view of the building rather than approaching it from the side.

Thanks to the many recent improvements, which allow both new and returning visitors to explore the site in greater depth and develop a richer understanding of its history, Drayton Hall is more engaging now than ever.

Sarah Stroud Clarke is the director of museum affairs and Trish Lowe Smith is the curator of historic architectural resources at Drayton Hall.


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