Conceived as a showplace and management hub at the center of a vast commercial plantation empire, Drayton Hall passed through seven generations of the Drayton family before being transferred to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1974. The estate is now operated by the Drayton Hall Preservation Trust, and its architecture, collections and landscape survive in a rare state of preservation reflecting the evolution of early American society. In 2018, Drayton Hall will celebrate the opening of new facilities intended to improve the visitor experience, enhance the stewardship of historic resources, and expand interpretation and public programming.
Completed in the 1750s by John Drayton (1715–1779), Drayton Hall’s main house is the nation’s earliest example of fully executed Palladian architecture and the oldest preserved plantation house in America still open to the public. Despite wars, natural disasters, economic hardships and three centuries of ownership, the house has remained remarkably intact as it was never altered with the addition of electricity, plumbing, heating or air conditioning.
Drayton Hall’s iconic double portico is the only one of its kind in the world as it both projects from, and recedes into, the front of the house. While most early American houses of the period were built with centered gables to simulate a pedimented portico, Drayton Hall’s portico was fully executed in the Palladian fashion, representing a sophisticated understanding of classical architecture.
The portico offers a sweeping view of the estate’s grounds, which reflect centuries of occupation, adaptation and preservation. Vestiges of John Drayton’s picturesque 18th-century landscape survive to the present and serve as a backdrop for the 19th- and 20th-century adaptations made by the Drayton family.
The 27-foot-high stair hall provides an impressive entrance for guests arriving at Drayton Hall. Carved from mahogany and stained with vermillion, the railing and brackets are examples of the overwhelming attention given to architectural detail within the main house.
John Drayton’s guests would have retired to the first-floor withdrawing room for conversation, games and other social interaction. The ornate ceiling is the only one in the house that is original to the time of construction and considered the oldest hand-carved plaster ceiling in North America.
As evidenced by its elaborate Corinthian pilasters, the upper great hall was the most important room in the house and would have been used to entertain the most esteemed guests. The original firebox is surrounded by imported marble, while the 19th-century heraldry element over the mantel may have been painted by a Drayton family member.
Within a first-floor room, a growth chart marks the heights of generations of Draytons from the 1880s to the present day. Charlotta Drayton (1884–1969) also kept a growth chart for her dogs, including her beloved bull terrier, Nipper.
The final resting place of at least 40 individuals, enslaved and free, Drayton Hall’s African American Cemetery is one of the oldest documented African American cemeteries in the nation still in use. In keeping with the wishes of Richmond Bowens, a descendant of the enslaved at Drayton Hall, the cemetery has been “left natural,” not manicured or planted with grass or decorative shrubs.