Located up the Ashley River from Charleston, Middleton Place is an 18th century plantation that is known for having the first designed, landscaped gardens in America. Successive generations of Middletons lived here and modified the landscape (when they weren’t busy running the Continental Congress or signing the Declaration of Independence), but also lived resided in their Charleston townhouse. (Both Middleton Place and the Edmonston-Alston townhouse are owned by the same foundation, but despite the best efforts of the genealogy-obsessed docent, we couldn’t quite figure out the family relationships.) Our colleague Roxi Thoren has been doing research on its history for a while, so I won’t embarrass myself by trying to sound too knowledgeable about its history or meaning.
The original intent in the early 1700s was to have a country residence, which was transformed into a plantation later in the century. The main house was located on a long axis that stretched from the house to the main road on one side:
and to the river on the other:
There are a series of parterres stepping down to the river landing, with constructed lakes flanking the axis.
Upriver from the house are formal gardens – a gridded landscape of allees and outdoor rooms
one of which contains the Middleton family grave,
and culminating in a long reflecting pool. All of this would have been for the strolling pleasure of the Middletons and their guests, with many quiet places t sit and talk, similar to country houses on the continent.
Beyond this end of the plantation, a more natural swamp and lake area remains.
What I found most remarkable was the river’s edge, where the juxtaposition of the natural marsh landscape
with the formal built landscape is handled beautifully, allowing you to move along the edge and experience both:
The main section of the house was destroyed by Union troops in the Civil War, and after this the Middletons, in straightened circumstances, modified the remaining side pavilion to be the main house (so it is not situated across the main axis.)
The remains of the house were knock down by an earthquake, and were either used to build a new stable and farmyard, or were left in a pile:
Near the house are some remaining older buildings – the original spring house, which later had a chapel added above:
and a freedman’s double house from around 1870. (The original slave quarters no longer exist, and from what we’ve learned at other plantations, these freedman’s houses would be notably larger and better than what the enslaved people lived in.)
The other side of the axis from the formal gardens is a landscape more in the romantic tradition, with picturesque vistas and winding paths.
It’s a beautiful place, where the intelligence, complexity and importance of the planning is probably not explcitly apparent to the many visitors who come to see the plantings in the gardens. Greta enjoyed the relative lack of architecture (hooray for the Union, she cried), and even the time she had to spend appreciating the landscape was enhanced by a reasonable amount of interesting livestock.
An earthquake in South Carolina?
Apparently, in 1886: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1886_Charleston_earthquake
After our visit to Charleston last summer, I have mixed feelings about these places. (Actually very clear negative feelings) We chose to visit Drayton Hall, similar to the places you noted, but rather preserved than restored. Initiatly Louise and I were struck by the tour guides constant reference “construction by donated labor”. Now there’s a euphemism! Afterwards,,we walked the grounds and came upon a memorial that the current Drayton family members (the family is still locally active) had constructed to honor their ancestors. Included in that memorial was a representation of the Drayton family “brand”. It took both of us a moment to decode this. It was not their logo as in Coke, Pepsi etc. No, it was their BRAND, as in red hot brand. That was the last plantation we went to. And, what type of modern day 20th century family thought it a good idea to memorialize the mark that they branded upon their human property.
Yes, we’re with you on this. Middleton Place wasn’t so much a big functioning plantation, but we were just at Oak Alley in Louisiana, which was. We went through the reconstructed slave quarters, and as we walked up to the big house, it really hit us how bizarre this was. The analogy we came up with was that it would be like visiting Auschwitz,and focussing on how nice the commandant’s quarters were. We’ve only gone to a few plantations, as I think you should see real things that show how the world was. But I can’t imagine getting into it, as clearly a lot of the visitors are.
And as far as euphemisms go, we’ve had the opposite experience. At the two plantations where we’ve had guides (Oak Alley and the Kingsley Planation run by the NPS), they’ve said “enslaved persons”. Both places have really emphasized the range of people’s lives and experiences there.
We loved this place, the remarkable thing, as you point out, is that it has lasted pretty much intact except for the main house, but the stunner are the gridded organization of the huge site and the fact that those roads and walks have remained which is pretty amazing as they are a couple of hundred years old. The relationship to the River is really something and the trees are monsters and beautiful. Obviously the original organization of the plantation and the planting of the tree systems were done with remarkable skill and knowledge about how the trees would grow in the future. Glad to hear Roxi is doing some research on this place, it is well worth some major research and perhaps a book on the subject. Loved your photos….