The gardens and grounds at Middleton Place in Charleston, South Carolina, are highly orchestrated. This is the first view you are treated to as a visitor to this National Historic Landmark today.
This very large, man-made pool is completely rectangular with crisp retaining wall edges and still water. Practically, it reflects the trees and sky but emotionally it slows the mind and brings quiet to the soul.
And if you look closely, you’ll see that directly across from this viewing point, there is an opening in the hedging marked by two tilting trees. Through it you’ll see a sundial as a distant focal point. As a result, the visitor is made curious and wants to see more. But first,
You look left:
And then you look right:
But it’s not until you see the pool from the side that it reveals itself totally …
And then, not to make too fine a point of it, if you’re like me, you get weak in the knees, steady yourself, catch your breath and continue your visit …
Because this place is not only spectacular in its vistas and open spaces, but also its axial pathways. They proceed in straight lines, edged with massed plantings of camellias and azaleas, a favourite in plantation gardens of the south.
Much like English gardens of the time (I’m thinking especially of Hidcote), long straight views are used repeatedly to draw the visitor into the experience…
And as I remarked, not all views are sheltered; many are open and geometric.
Even in the south, the winter months can still be cold and dreary enough to make evergreen hedging and clipped topiary a valuable structure in formal gardens.
In contrast to these formal constructions, the natural marshland along the river edge of the property belies the history of this plantation.
Much like Magnolia Plantation, which is actually just a stone’s throw away, the riches that this place produced came from its cultivation of rice during the 18th and 19th centuries.
The grounds at Middleton Place were first settled in the late 17th century, with the main house built in 1705. This home has since been destroyed, first by fire near the end of the American Civil War and then the finishing blows were dealt by a massive earthquake in 1886. The curved staircase at the rear and a segment of wall are all that is left.
The south flanking wing, however, was restored in 1870 just in time to withstand the rumblings of the earthquake that came sixteen years later.
The last resident of this southern wing was J.J. Pringle Smith (a Charleston lawyer who was cousin to the last direct descendent in the Middleton line, Lilly) and his wife Heningham who called it their off-season home (they lived in less hot and humid conditions during the summer) from 1925 onwards.
It was their rejuvenation of the original gardens over the next fifteen years that resulted in the Garden Club of America giving it their highest accolade in 1941, the Bulkley Medal, declaring the gardens there “the most interesting and important in America.”
More on my visit later…