J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Did Drayton Hall Have Colonnades?

I’m sure there are other people in greater Boston who own Drayton Hall T-shirts, but I haven’t met any. When people see me in mine, they ask if that was my college dorm. It’s actually a National Trust for Historic Preservation property in Charleston, South Carolina, built in 1742. It’s now being preserved rather than restored—meaning it looks a lot better from the outside than from the inside.

The latest issue of Preservation contains an article by Arnold Berke titled “Searching for Palladio”, which starts off with a Drayton Hall mystery:

In September 2007, a mysterious photograph arrived at Drayton Hall, the extraordinary 18th-century brick mansion that rises along the Ashley River near Charleston, S.C. Mailed anonymously from Winchester, Va., the photo showed a subtly tinted watercolor of the house and two flanking pavilions, elegantly connected by a pair of sweeping colonnades.

No one had ever seen the watercolor or even heard of anything like it, so the scholars at the National Trust historic site were stunned: The earliest drawing of the house dated to 1845, but showed no colonnades at all—only low iron fences connecting the house and “flankers.”

By his own admission, Executive Director George McDaniel was among the skeptics. The image was “folded up and had ‘Drayton Hall, S.C.’ on the front and ‘1765’ on the back,” he says, “and the sender penciled in ‘Att: Back in the day’ on the envelope ... The thought that came to me was, ‘Is this a forgery?’”
And yet the painting led to an archeological dig that found brick foundations consistent with colonnades rather than just those “low iron fences” appearing in the earliest confirmed images. Of course, the image in the photograph could be accurate without being authentic. And still no one knows where the original painting is.

The Preservation article is about the larger topic of Palladio’s influence on American architecture in the late 1700s. It comes with an online slide show of other Palladian buildings, including the 1750 Redwood Library in Newport, Rhode Island, and Christopher and Rebecca Payne Gore’s 1806 mansion in Waltham, Massachusetts.