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Architecture as Artifact

Is an empty house truly empty? Imagine visiting a iiouse museum where all you see is the house — no furniture, no fabrics, no art collection, no memorabilia — no kidding! What is there to see? What could we possibly learn? At Drayton Hall in Charleston, South Carolina, visitors experience architecture as a powerful artifact of history, technology, and culture. From foundation to roof, the elements of design, construction, and patterns of use provide unusual evidence of over 250 years of continuity and change within a family and community. Interpreters must use bricks, mortar, and spaces as touchstones to the people who built and used them.

Interpreting architecture as artifact is a matter of “reading” a building and its environment. In order to best comprehend the language of buildings, consider shapes and materials as “vocabulary,” with “grammar” reflected in craftsmanship and style. How a building reads depends on how all of these elements are composed.

Whether plain or whimsical, a building is the result of problem solving decision making, and cooperative effort between the people who design, construct, and use it. Reading a building for the sheer enjoyment of recognizing Palladian porticos and Gothic arches is not enough. The challenge is not only to explore the “art” of architecture, but also the social studies and sciences.

The size, scale, and basic geometric form of a building can make us feel comfortable or uncomfortable, depending on our personal experiences. Drayton Hall was spacious for its time and still is for most of us. Interestingly, a few members of the English aristocracy have said Drayton Hall “is nothing but a little farm house …” They are reading Drayton Hall in the context of their experiences.

A building’s design usually reflects a set of choices based on a combination of needs, use, cultural values, location, materials, technology, economics, and civic regulations. Think of it as the compromise between, “What do I want?” and “What can I have?” The builder of Drayton Hall was fortunate to have been wealthy enough to have the house of his dreams. His choice of location, floor plans, materials, moldings, paint schemes, and overall design style allow us to see what was necessary, popular, and possible in his time.

Like shards in an excavation, architecture must be seen in the context of its location. Geography, climate, natural resources, travel, and trade routes affect what is built, as well as how it is built. Unfortunately, few buildings are surrounded by their original landscape. Population shifts, urban growth, natural disaster, or changing economics may rob a building of its intended context. These changes, however, provide an equally important historical record.

Located between the oldest road in the state and a deep water river nine miles inland from the port city of Charles Towne, Drayton Hall was situated to take advantage of two major trade and transportation routes in the early 18th century. The semi-tropical climate supported an agricultural industry of indigo, rice, and cotton cultivation that generated extensive networks of trade, and which required mass enslaved labor. Viewing Drayton Hall in relationship to its location, visitors soon understand why the building has two entrances, a land front and a river front. We can also understand why Drayton Hall has a one story above ground “basement” supporting large, airy rooms on the next two floors. Why would a separate kitchen building be desirable? What other support buildings would you expect on the site? What conclusion might we draw from crumbled foundations, silted-in ponds, secondary growth trees, and Victorian-era garden mound?

The Basic Elements
Architecture can be overwhelming. It may be a new, challenging experience to look at a building from ground line to roof. What are your first impressions? What elements stand out? Architecture is an artifact composed of many elements, each an artifact that can be interpreted on its own. To help focus, consider the overall shape of the building. What other shapes do you see? Are these shapes symmetrical or asymmetrical? How are they used? How do they make up the basic parts of the building? How do they work? What are they called?

Drayton Hall is a rectangle composed of geometric shapes placed in accordance with the principles of symmetry. It is such an important part of the design that interior walls have false, or sham, doors to balance real ones. The house’s two story portico (porch) with a triangular pediment is its most prominent feature. It takes up over one-third of the land front facade, and was meant to be noticed. It is supported by columns and composed of rectangular spaces that open into the house.

Materials and Construction
Materials and construction provide evidence of natural resources, trade, craftsmanship, technology, as well as change. Drayton Hall’s portico is constructed of brick, stone, and iron to withstand the elements, with wood and glass for the windows and doors. The bricks are local, indicating a brick making industry, and they are laid in the Flemish bond pattern with lighter colored bricks around the windows and doors. The complexity of this design requires considerable attention to detail and highly skilled masons. Stone had to be imported from as far away as England. It was quarried, cut to order, and shipped in sections to be reassembled on-site. How many people might be involved with this process? How long would it take to request and receive an order by letter and ship?

The iron railings were also imported, though iron arrived in long bars and had to hand wrought by smiths, either at a workshop in town, or right on the property. The frames for the windows and doors were constructed without nails, using local wood. From forest to finished product, the wood went through several different stages and hands before it was joined to fit in the openings of the brick wall. The glass panes are wavy, but new to the house. Placed in a six over six pattern, they have slender mullions that seem to barely hold them in place. These “new” sashes are from the early 19th century, when technology and fashion allowed larger panes of glass for a less obstructed view. An 18th century visitor would have seen smaller, thick panes with thick mullions in a twelve over twelve pattern. This was the best you could expect with costly handmade glass.

A master builder would have been responsible for coordinating craftsmen and materials. Construction would proceed under his orders, but the design was the choice of the owner; how did they settle on the final plans? Why would this house have a portico? Is this building any particular style?

Size, scale, patterns, colors, textures, materials, construction, placement of the elements, and use of space in design creates style. Learning to recognize the evolution of style over time helps us date buildings as artifacts and to document change.

In the 18th century, the importation of pattern books brought the latest architectural designs to the colonies. Pattern books of the time show us that Drayton Hall’s owner was interested in the latest design rage in England — Georgian-Palladian, a style based on the current geometry of the Georgian period and classical ideas adopted by the 16th Italian architect, Andrea Palladio. Drayton Hall’s portico, with Doric and Ionic columns and massive pediment, reminds us of ancient Greek and Roman temples and reflects the migration and adaptation of classical ideas from Italy to the British Isles and on to the colonies.

Curiously, the pediment sports fish scale wood shingles and a tin roof. What do these Victorian era elements tell us about the house?

Drayton Hall’s portico functioned as a major entrance, a covered outdoor living space, and a place to look out over the property. Who might it have served, and how well did it work? We can think about the variety of people who would have used the portico over 250 years — mothers playing with their children, house slaves sweeping, soldiers delivering orders, guests watching the sun set. What furniture may have been placed on its stone floors? Was it ever lit up at night? What stories have been told on this portico? We may never know all who used it or how, but we can imagine how we may have used such a space.

As an artifact, Drayton Hall’s portico is thought to be the first of its kind in North America. Its value is not only in its rarity, but also in how well it functions as part of the building, the use of the materials, the quality of construction, the influence of style, and its evidence of the interdependence within a community and as a document of change.

As a teaching tool, architectural details are a connection to the craftsman who carved them, the designer who created them, the builder who chose them, and the people who have cared for them. As an artifact, architecture is a physical manifestation of the intersection of time, ideas, community, economics, aesthetics, and society.

Meggett Lavin is Curator of Education and Research for Drayton Hall, a property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Lavin, Meggett. “Architecture as Artifact,” The Docent Educator 3.1 (Autumn 1993): 10-11.


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