Sunday, April 9, 2017

Timeless Drayton Hall Mysteries--The Surreal And The Real

Originally a fruit orchard, Drayton Hall was built somewhere around 1738, thus making it over 265 years old. Considered one of the earliest and finest examples of Georgian-Palladian architecture in the United States, it is part of the most significant, undisturbed historic landscapes in America--of course use of the word undisturbed is dissolved in a glass of salty brine and consumed with a grain of rice. Inside, the amazing and timeless wood and plaster carvings are a testimony to the artful skills of the master craftsmen of the day and the soul of its owners. To us, the house is a surviving relic to look at in curiosity and wonderment, but to the people of the era, every nuance incorporated into its design had a very special meaning.

With a history reaching back hundreds of years and filled with the lives of many generations, some visitors have presumptuously asked whether Drayton Hall is haunted. Unlike many old landmarks in and around Charleston, ghostly sightings are found no where in the solitary Ashley River estate's narrative. In my overactive imagination, viewing the darkening house from under one of its old oaks near dusk reminds me of Edgar Allan Poe's commentary when coming upon the House of Usher. Lending validation to my optic, if you were to ask prior visitors and staff members that haunting question, they will say with firm conviction, "Absolutely yes." In 2003, Drayton Hall was featured on an episode of America's Most Haunted Places that aired on The Travel Channel with the claim "original family members are said to still walk" through the house supported by interviews it had with staff members. Still, with equal conviction, there are others who will say otherwise.

Drayton Hall is unquestionably not without its mysteries, both surreal and real. The most recent and famous occurred in 2007 when one of its staff members received an anonymous package containing the photograph of a watercolor painting of Drayton Hall purported to be date back to 1765. The envelope it arrived in was simply postmarked 22602-6754 with the words ATT: Back in The Day. The numbers were found to be a Winchester, VA zip code.

Up to that moment, no 18th-century image of Drayton Hall had ever been found. The earliest dated to c. 1845. The mystery was deepened further by what they saw depicted in the watercolor. It presented an image of Drayton Hall never seen before. It showed the Palladian brick building surrounded by low colonnades. Inspired by this revelation, archaeologists dug into the museum's lawn, where 18th-century foundation marks were found, suggesting the 1765 drawing of a U-shaped colonnade was an accurate portrayal. The question still remained as to the authenticity of the watercolor's dating. Now, locating the sender to examine the original became critical.

A staff member called the post office in Winchester to ask if they could identify the exact location of the 9-digit zip code, but do to privacy policies, they politely refused. A Drayton family member became involved and soon after, a friend found that the "6754" referred to Bedford Drive in Winchester. Names of the Bedford Drive residents were acquired through research and a trip to Winchester was made. Handing out Drayton Hall brochures and copies of the watercolor, several residents were contacted and given the material, but some were not at home and the owner was not found. A few days later, one neighbor showed the paperwork to a heating and cooling contractor who turned out to be the watercolor's owner.

In an interview with the New York Times, the contractor explained he had been surfing for Web information about a dozen watercolors he had inherited from his grandparents. He typed in the handwritten caption from one image, "Drayton Hall," and realized that the plantation still stood. He called Drayton Hall on a Sunday afternoon to tell them about his discovery, but a volunteer answering the phone refused to believe him--a decision that would eventually come back to haunt the receiver. So, he sent the package anonymously, just on a whim, which is where the mystery began.

The contractor did finally meet with staff members of Drayton Hall and the watercolor was authenticated. The mystery was solved. It was part of a collection of 18th-century watercolors depicting American and Caribbean landscapes and buildings. The Swiss-born painter, Pierre Eugène Du Simitière, traveled in the West Indies and settled in Philadelphia just before the American Revolution. As to how they ended up in the hand's of the contractor's grandparents was not discussed and still remains a mystery.

Time unrelentingly changes things, both virtuous and unpleasant. With that being said, something virtuous is coming to Drayton Hall. A Visitor Center is presently in the works and due to open in 2018. At present, all of the plantation's original artifacts—including furniture, are in storage. The new Sally Reahard Visitor Center will include an orientation hall, education center, and exhibition galleries.

Whoever may still be walking the empty rooms of the grand old house will find this news uplifting, if a place to sit is what they are looking for. All the original artifacts will be moved from storage and displayed in the Visitor Center's exhibition gallery where visitors will be able to view them for the first time since Drayton Hall first opened to the public.

There will also be a area called the Interpretive Gardens, which will feature historically accurate botanical plantings evoking the Drayton family's scientific and international connections during the 18th and 19th centuries. The visitors center will be screened off from the house by the stand of mature trees to the left of the house with a few new ones added. Another important design element is a new pathway mapped out by landscape architect Sheila Wertimer. The path will give visitors a more dramatic first glimpse of the house.

If you are looking for the complete southern experience, from the moment you enter the gate and drive up the narrow causeway toward the columned portico's of the front entrance, you sense a change in time, a transference of today into yesterday. And when you climb the stone stairs facing the Ashley River and step through the door, the sudden rush of air carries you back to the era of English gardens, rice fields and plantation living. You will treasure the tour and the pictures. Be careful not to bump into anything, real or unreal.

For more tour information and pictures go to A Day At Majestic Drayton Hall By The Ashley River--Preservation At Its Best
For the complete story of the watercolor go to Drayton Hall: Watercolor Mystery Solved! (So Far.)

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