A mecca for historic preservationists all over the country, Drayton Hall (3380 Ashley River Rd., 843/769-2600, www.draytonhall.org , Nov.–Feb. daily 9:30 a.m.–4 p.m., Mar.–Oct. daily 8:30 a.m.–5 p.m., $15 adults, $8 ages 12–18, $6 ages 6–11, $8 for grounds only) is remarkable not only for its pedigree but for the way in which it’s been preserved.
This stately redbrick Georgian-Palladian building, the oldest plantation home in America open to the public, has been literally historically preserved—as in no electricity, heat, or running water.
Since its construction in 1738 by John Drayton, son of Magnolia Plantation  founder Thomas, Drayton Hall has survived almost completely intact through the ups and downs of Lowcountry history. Drayton died while fleeing the British in 1779; subsequently his house served as the headquarters of British General Clinton and later General Cornwallis. In 1782, however, American General “Mad Anthony” Wayne claimed the house as his own headquarters.
During the Civil War, Drayton Hall escaped the depredations of the conquering Union Army, one of only three area plantation homes to survive. Three schools of thought have emerged to explain why it was spared the fate of so many other plantation homes: 1) A slave told the troops it was owned by “a Union Man,” Drayton cousin Percival who served alongside Admiral David Farragut of “damn the torpedoes” fame; 2) General William Sherman was in love with one of the Drayton women; and 3) one of the Draytons, a doctor, craftily posted smallpox warning flags at the outskirts of the property. Of the three scenarios, the last is considered most likely.
Visitors expecting the more typical approach to house museums, i.e. subjective renovation with period furnishings that may or may not have any connection with the actual house, might be disappointed. But for others the experience at Drayton Hall is quietly exhilarating, almost in a Zen-like way.
Planes are routed around the house so that no rattles will endanger its structural integrity. There’s no furniture to speak of, only bare rooms, decorated with original paint, no matter how little remains. It can be jarring at first, but after you get into it you might wonder why anyone does things any differently.
Another way the experience is different is in the almost military professionalism of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which has owned and administered Drayton Hall since 1974. The guides hold degrees in the field, and a tour of the house—offered punctually at the top of the hour, except for the last of the day which starts on the half-hour—takes every bit of 50 minutes, about twice as long as most house tours.
A separate 45-minute program is “Connections: From Africa to America,” which chronicles the diaspora of the slaves who originally worked this plantation, from their capture to their eventual freedom. “Connections” is given at 11:15 a.m., 1:15 p.m., and 3:15 p.m.
The site comprises not only the main house but two self-guided walking trails, one along the peaceful Ashley River and another along the marsh. Note also the foundations of the two “flankers,” or guest wings, at each side of the main house. They survived the Yankees only for one to fall victim to the 1886 earthquake and the other to the 1893 hurricane.
Also on-site is an African American cemetery with at least 33 known graves. It’s kept deliberately un-tended and un-landscaped to honor the final wish of Richmond Bowens (1908–1998), the seventh-generation descendant of some of Drayton Hall’s original slaves.