Searching for Palladio

How did one Italian architect shape some of America’s greatest houses?

Archaeologists at Drayton Hall discovered bricks and soil conditions suggesting that long-lost colonnades, visible in the watercolor shown opposite, once flanked the imposing house.

Credit: Regis Lefebure

What's Palladian?

The First Starchitect 

Online Extra: Hitting the Palladian Trail


UPDATE, November 2009: George McDaniel continued his search in Winchester, Va., and—aided by local residents and The Winchester Star—found the person who had mailed the image to Drayton Hall (who wishes to remain anonymous). McDaniel and Carter Hudgins inspected the original watercolor. The artifact, now believed to be an accurate depiction of what was in place in 1765, and the archaeological excavations imply the structure was an ornamental screened wall rather than a true colonnade used as a passageway. Its primary function was probably to shield the view of the formal gardens beyond.  

In September 2007, a mysterious photograph arrived at Drayton Hall, the extraordinary 18th-century brick mansion that rises along the Ashley River near Charleston, S.C. Mailed anonymously from Winchester, Va., the photo showed a subtly tinted watercolor of the house and two flanking pavilions, elegantly connected by a pair of sweeping colonnades.

No one had ever seen the watercolor or even heard of anything like it, so the scholars at the National Trust historic site were stunned: The earliest drawing of the house dated to 1845, but showed no colonnades at all—only  low iron fences connecting the house and "flankers."

By his own admission, Executive Director George McDaniel was among the skeptics. The image was "folded up and had 'Drayton Hall, S.C.' on the front and '1765' on the back," he says, "and the sender penciled in 'Att: Back in the day' on the envelope ... The thought that came to me was, 'Is this a forgery?'"

Researchers and archaeologists investigate tantalizing clues all the time, but this one held particular promise. If authentic, it showed Drayton Hall as it looked in the 18th century (before a large oval vent was installed in the pediment in 1791). It also would tie the mansion more closely to the houses of Andrea Palladio—perhaps the most influential architect in the history of the western world.

John Drayton was a minor planter of rice and indigo who amassed lands along the Ashley, hoping to prosper further. The size and elegance of Drayton Hall, completed in 1742, testify to his success. If you stand in the sea of grass surrounding the house, the harmony and order of its design are obvious. But what lies beneath the surface of the soil here—the trace of a foundation—is equally noteworthy, because it could authenticate the existence of the typically Palladian colonnades.

When considering designs for his residence, Drayton looked to British country houses, many of them inspired by Palladio and his famous 1570 treatise, The Four Books of Architecture. Did Drayton own the Four Books? We don't know. "Carolina planters were very well read and sophisticated in architecture, material culture, and landscape," says George McDaniel. "They were part of the intellectual currents of the transatlantic world, and the Four Books would have been part of that." Perhaps the planter found an architect or a craftsman skilled in Anglo-Palladian design; certainly many craftsmen had immigrated to Charleston.

Drayton Hall's most obvious Palladian feature is the two-tiered, pedimented portico on the west front. Palladio used porticoes on most of his buildings, including the remarkable Villa Cornaro, to which the house is often compared. The porch at Drayton Hall uses Doric columns on the first level and Ionic on the second, hewing to the ancient (and Palladian) prescription that the classical orders progress from "lower" to "higher," a sequence culminating in the Corinthian mode of the noblest room, the second floor's Great Hall. The highly figured wood paneling there and throughout the house, as well as the red-brick exterior, show how much the inspiration from Italy was filtered through English sensibilities.

Like most Palladian designs, the house is symmetrical in form, facade, and floor plan, a balance originally reinforced by two outbuildings that stood nearly perpendicular to the main block. These "flankers" were meant to be tied to the house by curving structures, like outstretched arms, to form a classic Palladian ensemble. We know what the flankers, destroyed in the late 19th century, looked like. What about the arms? What did they look like? And what happened to those consummate Palladian flourishes?

Enter the mysterious watercolor painting. The arms, or colonnades, visible in the watercolor intrigued the historians and archaeologists at Drayton Hall. Previous evidence had led them to believe that railings atop low brick walls flanked the house, but the tinted image clearly showed more substantial, covered connectors distinguished by rows of columns.

Once archaeologists began excavating last fall, more evidence came to light supporting the watercolor's veracity—and the existence of colonnades. A dig at the northwest corner of the main house revealed a short row of bricks, extending outward. "These suggested a colonnade on top of a brick foundation," says Carter Hudgins, Drayton Hall's archaeologist and director of preservation. Its walls, roof, and columns may have been wood, perhaps plastered to look like stone. Artifacts from the 1720s and 1730s—pottery shards, mainly—imply that the structure rose about the same time as the house.

Hoping to prove the colonnades' existence more conclusively, Hudgins peeled back the soil near the north flanker's footprint. There he found bricks he believes are a continuation of the row near the house. Tying them definitively to a colonnade is difficult, but Hudgins did find another crucial piece of evidence: The earth directly below the bricks was darker than the surrounding orange clay, indicating a builder's trench from the period when the colonnade would have been built. "This is our most important find," says Hudgins, "Above-ground evidence of the colonnade has been lost, yet the construction footprint is still visible from [this] organic material."

Other questions remain about the colonnades' function, and when and why they might have come down. "Since the property was occupied by the British during the Revolutionary War," says Craig Tuminaro, Drayton Hall's director of museum interpretation, "they may have cut them down for firewood. Then they may have been replaced in the early 19th century with the railings, typical of the landscape approach of that period."

Tuminaro and other experts hope to learn more when excavations resume this fall. Subsequent research may lead them to Winchester, Va. "If we find the person who has the watercolor …" says McDaniel hopefully. "Another piece of sleuthing will be to see if the paper itself has a watermark or other feature showing it to be from the 1760s." Who knows what may surface next, under the grass or in an archive? "That's what history is so much about—trying to solve mysteries."

  If Drayton Hall is the polished gem—a beautifully preserved Palladian building where archaeology helps to illuminate the past—the house called Battersea in Petersburg, Va., is a rougher diamond.

At first glance, Battersea seems entirely different from Drayton Hall. It is smaller, longer, lower, and whiter, and wears an almost fragile air—as if someone had gently set a line of little boxes onto this 37-acre site along the Appomattox River. Yet Battersea, like its Carolina cousin, was born into the Palladian family.

John Banister, an early industrialist who ran flour and lumber mills at the nearby falls of the Appomattox, completed Battersea in 1768. Banister was the first mayor of Petersburg, a growing commercial center, and rose in colonial politics, signing the Articles of Confederation in 1778. His house, at the west end of town, is an Anglo-Palladian five-part villa—a two-story central block flanked in a straight line by one-story "hyphens" and end pavilions. It is mostly one room deep. "Rather than build a huge house," says John Zeugner IV, a board member of Battersea Inc., which plans to restore the property, "he wanted something more suited to his needs—like Italy in the late 1400s when they started to cautiously move out into the countryside."

As with Drayton Hall, the architect is unknown, but the plan resembles that of Palladio's Villa Barbaro. It was also influenced by a plate in a 1755 pattern book of modest-sized houses by Robert Morris, a British Palladian, which shows a similar seven-part house. "The clarity of its use of the scheme is special," says Calder Loth, senior architectural historian at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, "more elegantly proportioned than any other, even many of Palladio's." Later owners made Battersea yet more Palladian—with larger windows, redesigned porticos, and stucco walls—but much original fabric survives, like the fine latticework railing of the main staircase. "There must have been some great craftsmen united in putting the place together," says Zeugner. "The detailing inside is like a fevered imagination pushing out wonderful work."

After Battersea's last resident died in 1980, the city of Petersburg acquired the property, with plans to restore and open it. A solid start, however, soon melted into inactivity, and the house sank into decay. Today the interior feels a bit gloomy, with room after room of flaking paint, fallen plaster, worn woodwork, and other signs of invasive weather and inattention. But Battersea Inc., formed by locals in 2006 and armed with new research funded in part by the Richmond, Va.-based Center for Palladian Studies in America, aims to change all that. In partnership with the city, it is taking a fresh approach.

"We don't need another house museum," says Battersea Inc. President Barbara Moseley. "People visit but don't come back. We have to work toward sustainability." This means, she says, creating a "campus for civic, cultural, and educational activities" that will engage the community at large. Invite the craftsmen doing the restoration to explain their work to the public, for example, and enlist the latter to pitch in. Sponsor talks by historians on the entrepreneurial exploits of John Banister, and by archaeologists on Battersea's Native American and African American histories. (Recent archaeological surveys shed light on how people have used the site since pre-colonial days) Open the house for events and conferences, and the spacious grounds for fairs, concerts, and plays. Already, amateurs have joined professionals for archaeological digs and a lime-wash workshop.

"There are so many ways to involve people, from volunteering to writing a check," says Moseley. "But the participation has to have relevance, because then you have ownership. When people come by, it's not 'Oh, look at that nice house over there, but 'Look at our house.' It becomes theirs, and they want to protect it."

The group also wants to physically link to the city via the nearby riverbank, with its rich vein of natural and human history. A conservation organization is building a recreational trail there that connects to the heart of Petersburg. "Battersea is perfectly positioned," says Zeugner. "A hike-and-bike hookup with the path would give people another way to come explore the villa." 

Conservator John Greenwalt Lee has now begun to administer the cure for years of water damage—gutter and drain improvements, window and roof protection, brick and mortar repairs. After this wraps up comes the restoration itself, but not before further fundraising. "That is critically important, to make our visions a reality," says Battersea Inc. Executive Director Tempy Barbru. "When you have that much history wrapped up in a single place, it's only fitting that this treasure once again becomes a center for modern life."

Battersea's restoration will salute Palladian form as well as its spirit of innovation. Just as Palladio broke new ground by adapting ancient architecture to contemporary needs, so did John Banister (and John Drayton) adapt the Palladian ideal to new uses at the edge of the American wilderness. And so will Drayton Hall and Battersea, as they find new ways to discover and share their stories. 

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