You can’t throw a rock without hitting a plantation or other historic home in Charleston. So when I was planning our itinerary for our Spring Break trip, I didn’t want us to tour just any old historic homes. I wanted the best ones and, in particular, the ones with something a little….different about them.
I’ve never been anywhere like Drayton Hall before. (In fact, right after I wrote that sentence, I opened up their website and found, “You’ve never seen anything like this” featured prominently on the visitor information page). As they explain on the tour, Drayton Hall is a preserved home, not a restored one. There’s no furniture, no reproduction rugs or carefully recreated wallpaper, and no plumbing or electricity. The goal is to keep the house structurally sound but make no aesthetic alterations.
This lets the masterful architecture take center stage and also creates a fascinating, almost eerie effect as you go through the house.
It feels less like a conventional historic home tour and more like you’ve stumbled on a beautiful, old abandoned house while out exploring somewhere and you’re not entirely sure you’re supposed to be there.
Drayton Hall dates to the mid 18th century and is the oldest preserved plantation house still open to the public. It stayed in the Drayton family, through wars and earthquakes and hurricanes and a tenure as a phosphate mining site, until it was sold to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1974.
The house went through some changes over the years, but, remarkably, it was never modernized (our guide told us the Drayton family used it for family retreats throughout the 20th century and referred to staying there as “camping”). The happy result for today’s visitors is a house preserved in near original condition, frozen decidedly in the past, but not at any one particular moment. As you go through the house, you see much that’s original and also catch glimpses of 19th century upgrades and 20th century family memories. Even the occasional signs of vandalism come complete with great stories.
The door here was stolen at some point….which means you can see that it was a door to nowhere, covering a brick wall.
Professionally guided house tours are given on the half hour, with the first tour at 9:30 (11:30 on Sundays) and the last at 3:30. Admission is $22 for adults, $10 for youth 12-16, $6 for kids 6-11, and free for kids 5 and under. The admission price includes the house tour plus the chance to explore the grounds and gardens, and a twice daily “Connections: From Africa to America” program, which we didn’t get a chance to see.
A new visitors center and museum (with, I understand, original pieces and artifacts from the house) is in the works, but for now there’s a small gift shop which also serves as an information center. The website says the tours are 45 minutes long, but ours lasted a full hour.
We arrived with nearly an hour before our tour, so we spent some time exploring the grounds first:
We originally planned for Dave to skip the tour and hang out outside with Abe, but then we found out there’s a scavenger hunt for kids to do while touring the house, complete with prizes if you complete it. It was early in the day and Abe was still in good spirits, so we decided to give it a try and it worked really well. It was very well suited for his level, and he had a great time looking for things on the sheet and using the stickers. Even putting the scavenger hunt aside, it’s a good house tour for young kids because it’s all big empty rooms instead of priceless antiques.
In case it’s not already clear, I found Drayton Hall and our tour of it utterly enchanting. Our tour guide was knowledgeable and clearly very invested in the house and its stories. And the house is just seriously lovely.
I’m excited about the new museum and visitors center, so that I have a perfect excuse to visit again next time we’re in Charleston.
Incidentally, this was also a fabulous place for me to break in the wide angle lens I got for my birthday right before the trip. It’s a GREAT house for photography. The tours are kept small (no more than 25 people) so that it’s easy to get shots without a crowd in them, and the lack of furniture means you’re free to move around the rooms to get good shots.
Thanks to the Charleston CVB for providing us with passes for some attractions on this trip. I was not otherwise compensated, and, as always, all opinions are my own.