If you’re near Charleston, go to Middleton Place

If you have time to visit only one place outside of historic downtown Charleston, go to Middleton Place, a site of staggering beauty.

Last year, I wrote about a trip to Drayton Hall near Charleston. I complained about the approach that the Drayton Hall preservation society took to their historic charge:

I’m actually of two minds about the society’s approach. It is indeed preserving it — in precisely the state in which it was left by the 1970s. The paint has the last vestiges of the old paint, the house has no furniture or wall decor, the floors are bare. I have no pictures from inside because it’s just a shell. You can see some of the original stucco and wood carvings, but overall, it’s not a home at all.

As I wrote in October 2018, I’m coming around to the point of view that there’s something to be said for allowing us to see things as they were meant to be seen by those who originally created them. John Drayton, who originally built the house, intended it to be a showplace, not a skeleton. It’s nice to see the construction details, given that everything is stripped to the bone, but it would be even nicer to see Drayton House as it was meant to be seen — and in which it was meant to be lived.

Middleton Place, which is North of Charleston, escapes that criticism. Although Union soldiers torched the main building in 1865, and an 1887 earthquake leveled the remaining brick shell, the family continued to live in and to use one of the flanking buildings for more than a century after the Civil War. Only in 1974 did they turn the entire estate into a historic preservation site. (It’s still in the same family, after 300 years!)

The preservation society has turned the flanking building into one of the most exquisite historic homes/museums I’ve ever seen. It’s not large, but it’s perfect. Every item in the home, but for a single folding breakfast table, is original to the family and the provenance can be traced back to the time of purchase or construction. There are Benjamin West paintings, extravagant European silverware, beautifully wrought furniture, and items of true historic interest. Because one of the Middletons signed the Declaration of Independence, there’s an original of the copies handed out to the signers back in 1776. And because another one of the Middletons was a fervent supporter of the Confederacy, there’s also an original of South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession, which was also given to the signatories.

I love seeing how people used to live, especially the people at the tiny top of the pyramid, who got to enjoy the best life had to offer. It’s like touring Bill Gates’ home if Bill Gates had settled into his house 300 years ago and his family had lived there ever since.

If you’re not a home touring type, there’s still something for you: Middleton boasts the oldest ornamental garden in America. We went today because the camellias are still in bloom. Middleton is the home of the first camellias in America and there’s actually one of the original camellias still flowering every year — dating back to the second half of the 18th century. One walks through lanes of exquisitely blooming camellias, wanders by an ornamental lake complete with swans, dodges alligators, watches herons fly, wonders at ancient oaks with Spanish moss draped all over. Really, I have no words for the beauty. I’ve got a few pictures below but I’m a poor photographer and the don’t come close to conveying how lovely it is.

Middleton’s gardens get even more beautiful as spring comes, so I bought a membership. This is the kind of place I can readily envision visiting every single weekend through the summer and fall. It’s ravishingly beautiful.

And yes, there’s no doubt that this beauty was built on the backs of slaves. Slavery is inimical to morality and decency. Moreover, it betrayed the fundamental promise of America’s founding on individual liberty. But I’m not foolish enough to cut off my nose to spite my face by saying, “Because slaves built this beauty, I must ignore it.”

Middleton also manages to straddle that line nicely. The tours and signs acknowledge the debt the place owes to slaves but makes no apologies for its beauty. Certainly, African Americans — at least some African Americans — are reconciled to the situation, for there were two African American people working there and they did not seem uncomfortable with working in a place that now pays them for their services. That, after all, is how the world moves forward, saving the best of the past while avoiding its mistakes.

Here are some pictures of this lovely place: