Warning…long post ahead! With a subject like Drayton Hall, what did you expect?
At first glance, Drayton Hall appears to be a stark and unembellished house free from furniture, lighting, wallpaper, and decor. It is a historic home unlike others, for its purpose is to preserve, not to restore. Drayton Hall is to be kept as inherited by us, completely conserved and intact. To appreciate its significance, you must take a deeper look into its historical and architectural roots. Once these secrets are unveiled, you see that the beauty of Drayton Hall is in its bareness. Its size, materials and architectural details are revealing as a celebration of its maker’s wealth.
Drayton Hall was founded in 1738 by John Drayton, a son of one of Charles Towne’s first colonial families. Never to inherit Magnolia Plantation, the family residence, Drayton instead became a career politician and built his fortune by raising cattle, sugarcane, rice, and indigo, which he used to purchase land to build his own estate. Like any well-heeled Englishman, he was classically trained in all subjects, including design and architecture. Drawing upon his education, he designed Drayton Hall himself, without the help of a professional architect. Built in the symmetrical and balanced Georgian Palladian style, it was the first of its kind to be erected in North America. It is incredible to think that the first and finest example of Georgian Palladian architecture in North America was designed not by an architect, but by merely a well-educated statesman.
Set atop an enormous plot of land, Drayton Hall was built to showcase the finest materials. A monstrosity compared to surrounding homes, its exterior is made of handmade brick, the most costly material of its day. Drayton Hall utilizes upwards of 360,000 bricks laid in the extravagant Flemish bond style, a jenga-like formation that, because of its nature, creates a deeper framework. Drayton also imported glass window panes from England. Glass was a rare material at the time; its chance of arriving unbroken was nothing short of a minor miracle. Typically, merchants imported glass in smaller segments; however, in his endless pursuit to showcase his wealth, Drayton called for panes that were double or triple the size of neighboring homes. He also imported mahogany wood from the West Indies to be used in staircases, molding, and pillars. The wood was hand-carved not by slave labor but by skilled craftsmen, an additional expense. The size and materials chosen provide insight into John Drayton’s incentives. Though centuries old, Drayton Hall’s composition personifies its designer as a man who wanted to show off.
Perhaps one of Drayton Hall’s most fascinating aspects is the architectural clues discovered within its walls. It is not a cookie-cutter building, for there are intentional design details scattered throughout that constantly remind Drayton’s guest of his position. Each room was purposefully designed using the classical orders of architecture to designate which guests are welcome. The Doric style is reserved for the simplest, the Ionic for the more sophisticated, while the Corinthian is reserved for the most elite guests. The first hint of these clues is visible on the building’s exterior. Doric capitals support the first level, while more elegant Ionic capitals embellish the second level, indicating that it is reserved for the higher class. Further clues are revealed upon entrance into the first floor’s Great Hall, where a Doric pilaster adorns the walls with Ionic molding atop, a taste of what’s to come. The privileged guest may then wander into the first floor ballroom, or, if he’s truly esteemed, the second floor ballroom, the crown jewel of Drayton Hall. This ballroom, designed with Corinthian style accents, was reserved for the finest of guests and therefore utilizes the most intricate dental work and molding in the house. The architecture speaks for itself; Drayton Hall’s design implies societal designation.
Not all rooms were created to show off, however. Drayton incorporated several basic rooms to serve other purposes. For example, his office, which was used solely for business, remains architecturally bare. Its three doors accommodate several types of visitors: one to the building’s exterior for the lowliest of guests, one from the Grand Hall for the higher class, and one from the ballroom for the more comfortable business confidant. The family quarters are simple as well, an indication that Drayton saw no need to put on airs for his kin. Drayton Hall’s architectural detailing reveals social cues from its designer and landlord. Visiting Drayton Hall, one is awestruck by the intention behind Drayton’s composition. Its architectural design is humbling to the modern eye.
On the second floor sits a “Withdrawing Room,” closed off from public tours due to the fragile ceiling beneath it (luckily, my dear friend works at Drayton Hall, and has graciously given me a behind the scenes tour). Without the constant foot traffic, this room is strikingly more well-preserved than the others. Of course, public tours are integral to the building’s financial survival and are a celebration of its heritage and significance. However, they provide further wear and tear to the almost three hundred year old structure. We can only wonder what will become of Drayton Hall over the centuries to come. The “Withdrawing Room” is a cautionary warning of the building’s future.
With its size, materials, and architectural details, Drayton Hall continues to be a monument to John Drayton’s wealth, education, and self-importance. Setting foot inside Drayton Hall is an enlightening experience; you become so captivated by the building’s compositional details, that you entirely forgets its absence of furnishings. It is bare, yet breathtakingly beautiful. Today’s homes may rival Drayton Hall in square footage, yet few can compare to its grandeur and significance. As it approaches its three hundredth birthday, Drayton Hall continues to be one of the finest examples of Georgian Palladian architecture in North America, an amazing feat for a home built by a non-career architect. We can only hope that its current mission, to be kept completely conserved and intact as inherited, will be strictly adhered.