Looking Back—and Ahead—at Drayton Hall
How a House Museum Was Born
By Arnold Berke | Online Only | Jan. 4, 2010
Thirty-five years ago, the National Trust for Historic Preservation acquired Drayton Hall, one of America's most celebrated colonial houses, from brothers Charles and Francis Drayton. In early December 2009, Preservation Executive Editor Arnold Berke spoke with Charles—born in 1918 and a seventh-generation descendant of builder John Drayton—as he recalled a lifetime of association with the 1742 house, the land, and the lives linked closely to both.
You were born in Charleston and grew up there?
CD: Yes, and I lived downtown on Tradd Street. After I got out of college, five days later I was an ensign in the Navy. It just followed suit. I resigned from the Navy afterwards and went to work in insurance.
One of the primary players in the long story of the house was your Aunt Charlotta Drayton, the last of the family to live there. What do you remember of visiting her during your childhood?
CD: She would go out to the house every spring, and I'd often go, too, and spend a weekend or maybe as much as two weeks. I usually had a friend of mine go out with me. And of course, with no electricity, it was early to bed and early to rise. We'd climb trees, do some fishing and hunting. And often I'd have a bunch of us out and we'd play ball. Right in front of the house.
She loved tea, and she served it every afternoon. She always had a friend staying with her, and a lot of people would come out just for the afternoon to see her. She stayed from six weeks to two months, but would be out of there by early May, because of the heat and the bugs. She'd either go back to Charleston or overseas.
Did Charlotta specify in her will that the house be preserved?
CD: Yes. She always told us that. She didn't want it changed. I think she'd really be pleased with the way it looks now. There's no question about that.
What happened after her death in 1969?
CD: The caretaker still lived there, but after a few years, he left. That's when we started having break-ins. Some furniture was stolen, a mantelpiece, various things. It turned out to be high-school students, who learned the place was unguarded. I did insure the property, but taxes and maintenance were more than my brother and I could handle. We never put it up for sale. I got a call from somebody who I didn't know, wanting to buy it. I said, "What are you planning on doing to the house?" He said, "I'd like to make it a clubhouse and have a golf course built there." I didn't think much of that idea.
So I approached a friend of mine, Peter Manigault, head of the News and Courier paper in Charleston and a vice chairman of the National Trust, wondering whether the Trust would be interested. In 1971, the Trust had its annual convention in Charleston, and Peter suggested I open Drayton up for that. There were so many of them here; I held it for two days. They were very impressed, and made me an offer. I accepted, because I thought, in the interests of the family, and the house—the house particularly—it was a good idea. I've made two or three smart moves in my life, the first being my wife, and selling Drayton was certainly the second.
It's amazing that both your family and that of the late Richmond Bowens [who worked at the property for years] go all the way back to Barbados [where John Drayton's father had emigrated].
CD: That's correct, and that's incredible. Richmond Bowens was what I call a real gentleman. A wonderful guy. He worked for my father prior to World War II, then went to Chicago until after the war, when he came back. He told me how pleased he was with what we had done with Drayton Hall. He said, "I have a serious request. I was born there, grew up there, it's my home, and I'd like to be buried there." So I made arrangements for him to be buried. His was the first burial [in 1998] after acquisition by the National Trust. I got him a job [in his later years] as the gatekeeper, which he had for a long time. People loved to chat with him.
During your life, looking back on your visits, how has the landscape changed at Drayton Hall?
CD: Two big changes: When I was growing up, there were probably 12 to 15 houses where the people lived. They didn't work for Drayton Hall, but they lived there and worked elsewhere. But they kept their places cultivated. All those are gone now. Originally, they were servants at the house and field hands, but before my time, though. I remember the houses well.
Also, two hurricanes did a considerable amount of damage to the property between the house and the river. Those were drastic changes.
In terms of controlling development in the Ashley River corridor, what does the future look like?
CD: Well, it looked very dim up until recently because one family sold their property to North Charleston, and created a corridor across the Ashley River. And they were going go buy a very sizable piece of property and put thousands of homes there, and a golf course. It was further up the river, but nevertheless the traffic would have been fantastic. ... They're going to develop it, but on a much smaller scale. Read more
What is your vision of the future of Drayton Hall?
CD: I hope they can get an interpretive center built and display the furnishings, the record-keeping, and everything about the family. Right now, everything is under lock and key. I know some people who visit there are very disappointed that there's no furniture in the house.
I know there are plans now to bring in money now to build the interpretive center, which will be out of sight of the house. It's still my hope that it's finished in my lifetime, but I'm not sure it's going to happen. Right now, there are three phases to the story, and only two phases are available—the house itself and the grounds. But the family is really not visible, and I would love to see it visible.
Your family gathers outside Drayton Hall every Thanksgiving?
CD: It's closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's, so we have sort of the run of the old place. We go down by the oak tree. Had a perfectly beautiful Thanksgiving this time, and just to meet each other again, and have fun. … It's become a family tradition. We've been doing it for a number of years now. And Drayton Hall has always been great to the family.
Arnold Berke is executive editor of Preservation magazine.
Arnold Berke is executive editor of Preservation magazine.
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