History in the Making – Drayton Hall
A $5 million project is in the works at one of the South’s most significant plantation homes.
For the scores of people who have visited Drayton Hall since the National Trust for Historic Preservation acquired it in the 1970s, the winding paths through the grounds and stately home quite likely all led to variations of a unified thought: if only these walls could talk. Built between 1747 and 1752, Drayton Hall is the oldest stabilized plantation home still open to the public in North America, the only plantation house on the Ashley River to remain intact after both the Revolutionary and Civil wars, and the site of one of the oldest documented African-American cemeteries still in use. For decades, Drayton Hall visitors have often found themselves using a bit of imagination to fill the gaps between what is presented on site and what life at the home was truly like over the centuries; typically, they listen to an orientation talk outside the home before being led on a tour of the empty house. While visitors have always been able to ask questions and explore the property, without a true visitors or interpretive center, important artifacts and stories have never had a dedicated place to be showcased. But soon, thanks to the passionate drive of recently appointed CEO Carter Hudgins and his dream team of talented staff, all that is about to change.
Carter Hudgins began his relationship with Drayton Hall in his teens, spending his high school years working as a member of the grounds crew. Later, he spent time in Virginia, attending and graduating from Hampden-Sydney College and working as a site supervisor and archaeologist for the Jamestown Rediscovery Project in Jamestown. He went on to gain further education in London, focusing his studies on history and material culture, often recalling Drayton Hall, the place that made such a strong impact on him as a young man. After returning back to the United States, Hudgins contacted a former mentor at the historic site, George McDaniel, who told him about an employment opportunity at Drayton Hall. Hudgins applied for the job and became a part of the Drayton Hall team once again in December of 2006. The organization had recently received an endowment for the creation of a preservation department, enabling it to hire people with the skills to ensure the longevity of the property. Hudgins, armed with education, experience, and passion for the site, quickly set to work, helping to build immensely talented teams, organize initiatives, and plan for Drayton Hall’s future. Time and again, he and many of his coworkers came back to the same conclusion: Drayton Hall had so much more to offer than visitors were currently receiving. Hudgins made it his mission to come up with a solution.
Over the years, Hudgins moved up the ranks at Drayton Hall, switching titles and responsibilities along the way. All the while, he gained further knowledge and insight about the home, the land, the family, and the enslaved people who lived at Drayton Hall. In 2015, following a national search, he was named President and CEO of Drayton Hall, taking over the position of former CEO George McDaniel. During his illustrious 26-year tenure, McDaniel led the charge for protecting the home and telling its stories, and he was particularly dedicated to the cause of building an interpretive center on the site, a mission that was fraught with challenges along the way as funds continuously needed to be redirected for more pressing matters. After McDaniel’s retirement, Hudgins and the Drayton Hall team continued the quest for a place where the broader story of the historic site could be told, and they finally succeeded in securing enough funding for the project. Now, the dream long-held by many who are passionate about Drayton Hall will be realized.
“This is the most significant construction since the main house was built in the 1740’s,” says Carter Hudgins. “It is an extensive project encompassing new roads, parking areas, a new gate house, bathrooms, and all of the crucial components of an expansion. But what is really exciting is the new visitor’s center, which we made a priority, and the exhibit galleries. For the first time ever, visitors will be able to connect with historical objects significant to Drayton Hall.”
Recently, the preservation department at Drayton Hall established an initiative to identify objects that originated at the site with the intention of bringing them back. Working with museums, private collectors, and descendants of the people who called the land home, they have been able to build an impressive collection of artifacts, ready to share with the world. There is a steamer trunk belonging to Dr. John Drayton, found all the way in Mexico. There is an arithmetic book from the 1730’s belonging to the original builder, John Drayton, which includes lessons on plantation economics. There are antique architectural pattern books, wallpaper samples, and an early blueprint of Drayton Hall itself. There are a few dozen pieces of furniture, hundreds of smaller items, and well over a million pieces of archeological finds. Photographs will be on display depicting the changes the site underwent over time, and one of the first exhibits will tell the story of the construction of Drayton Hall. For the dedicated preservation staff, presentation is everything.
“I firmly believe that you can’t understand the complete history of anything without delving into multiple perspectives,” says Hudgins. “In the new interpretive center and exhibition galleries, just as we do on our house tours today, we will examine the lives and contributions of the Drayton family as well as the enslaved people who lived here for so many years. We will also emphasize how we know the things we know: for instance, when we place a chair on exhibit, we want to discuss how it was constructed, what it might tell us about Drayton Hall, and what it might tell us about the person who made the chair. We want to bring an enjoyable and comprehensive learning experience to our visitors.”
The $5 million project is set to be officially unveiled in the spring of 2018, just in time to be surrounded by the beautiful blooms of the Lowcountry. Designed by architect Glenn Keyes, the new experiences at the Sally Reahard Visitors Center are expected to double the amount of time visitors stay on-site, providing guests with a wealth of new knowledge and increased understanding. Additionally, the staff hopes that the quieter features of the project, including gardens featuring historically relevant plants, new and improved pathways moving visitors through the property appropriately, and an updated gift shop will enhance the overall enjoyment of the visitor experience. Most importantly, Hudgins hopes that everyone who comes to Drayton Hall leaves with a renewed sense of cultural and historical understanding.
“There is real power to seeing objects in context,” Hudgins says. “Drayton Hall represents the full spectrum of the history of the Lowcountry, and these tangible elements of the past can help people to achieve a greater understanding of our present. We can’t wait to share them with the world.”
he Drayton Hall expansion will be unveiled in the Spring of 2018. For updates, visit draytonhall.org, or find the organization on social media sites.
By Jana Riley
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