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One week in the Deep South

2 February 2019
Ben Pentreath
32 Comments

We’re back! We had a fantastic time… thank you to every single blog reader that we met who made us so welcome. Charlie and I are having the quietest weekend, banning alcohol, drinking only water…. eating fish and kale…. necessary measures given the excesses of our time in Atlanta, Savannah and Charleston.

Altanta was great. The Cathedral Antiques Show was a blast, a round of cocktail parties and dinners in extraordinary houses, of our talks, book signings, of zooming around town from one venue to the next in an ever-present fleet of Ubers, hurtling along the six-or-eight-or-ten lane highways that snake through the city and speed one from concrete canyons to the quiet, green and leafy hills (and mansions) of Buckhead.

I didn’t take a lot of photos, if I’m honest, because we were too busy rushing from one thing to the next.  But one magical trip was our time looking at three beautiful Philip. T. Shutze houses, of which the most remarkable was perhaps Swan House, where we were given the most brilliant private tour. Shutze was the supreme classicist of the early and mid twentieth century in Atlanta, creating sublimely beautiful houses that were effortless in their approach and unequalled in their detail.

Here is the sweeping staircase of Swan House….

The beautiful kitchens…

The plaster hall, 

And the extraordinary garden front, Italian baroque in extreme. 

The north facade is sober and Palladian and equally beautiful. 

Our two days in Atlanta flew by. Friday arrived, Charlie and I gave a talk all about the house and garden down in Dorset and we spun out of town on the long flat drive to Savannah.  Our friend Austin was with us (Spencer was flying down to Savannah to meet us there) and the stalwart driver (and epic partner in the Southern road trip) was renowned bookseller Kinsey Marable – who’d also been speaking to the crowds in Atlanta on the subject of English Country House libraries. I told Kinsey that I thought rule number 1 of a Country House library is that books are there to be seen, not to be read – a trait that I suppose is true on both sides of the Atlantic. When you buy books as rapidly as Charlie and me, I don’t think it would be possible to read very many of them, if the truth be told.

We arrived in Savannah as dusk was falling and had a brilliant first night. We woke, somewhat blearily-eyed, to a beautiful, crystal clear dawn.  We were staying, courtesy of the great kindness of the Savannah College of Art & Design, at their splendid Magnolia Hall. This was the view that greeted us every morning from the porch.  The Spanish Moss was extraordinary and beautiful – something I have always wanted to witness.

Early flowering Magnolia, despite the chill in the air. 

Savannah corners. One never feels too far from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. 

Our first stop was the Owens-Thomas House, where (as so many times on this trip) we were treated to a brilliant private tour of the building. We started in the hauntingly atmospheric enslaved quarters. The unsettling combination of extreme beauty and the extreme pain of history was ever present on this journey.

The house was faded and magnificent. 

Extraordinary interiors include insane early 19th century carpets, woven in England.

The cast iron balcony on the side of the house, from which The Marquis de Lafayette spoke in March, 1825. 

We moved to another extraordinary Savannah house, pwned by famous antique dealer, Alex Raskin.  I’ll be honest; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything like it.

The four floors of the building are filled with incredible, I mean, incredible treasures. Almost overwhelming.

In Alex’s office is this copy of a brilliant note that he wrote his mother when aged 7 (Danny is Alex’s brother):

We left, clutching a stack of rather rare and unusual architectural books… all we could fit in our suitcases.

We meandered on, via the Telfair Mansion

And then to the Green-Meldrim House, with its extraordinary high-Victorian Gothic interiors, for yet another brilliant tour:

And then to the sublime Mrs Connie Hartridge, one of Savannah’s finest. 

We dashed into the beautifully crumbling Sorrell-Weed House, which I think was my favourite building in the whole of Savannah, although said (by the tourist guides?) to also be the most haunted.  I didn’t feel that energy at all, I’ve got to admit. The house is currently closed but we somehow persuaded the young curator to show us around and give us a tour of its splendid interiors. 

Drinks (more drinks) as the sun went down. 

The following morning, after breakfast, we set off to Charleston, via Beaufort, Drayton Hall, and Mulberry Plantation.

I’ve visited Drayton Hall years ago, and the memory of its faded, empty interiors is seared on my mind for ever. It was as beautiful as I remembered it. 

Evocative, haunting; again, those contrasts of beauty and pain.

Mulberry was a dream; it felt almost like an English Jacobean House, with its four corner pavilions. The setting was sublime. 

And we arrived, exhausted, in Charleston, by nightfall.  Another hectic night of tomfoolery.

We went to see my friends Christopher Liberatos and Jenny Bevan, brilliant and dedicated young architects, in their amazing townhouse office. 

The Market Building:

We arrived at the Nathaniel Russell House, where we were shown around by the excellent Lauren Northup, Director of Museums for The Historic Charleston Foundation

The recreated interiors are rich and vividly coloured….

Wallpaper by Adelphi Paperhangings…

The view from the roof across the spires of Charleston. 

More walking:

And home after the longest day!  Dinner at Leon’s Oysters, which we loved.

The following morning, no rest for the wicked.  We had a 9am start at the Aitken Rhett House, also owned by the Historic Charleston Foundation.  Here we were shown around by Valerie Perry, who manages this incredible place, with its faded interiors that rest like a distant, faded memory of a rich past.

Again, we began in the empty, still, enslaved quarters.

Before moving into the mansion itself. The decay is poetic, and powerful. 

We stopped briefly at the extraordinary Miles-Brewton House, a piece of England dropped in to Charleston. 

Almost my favourite interior was the superb, simple summer-house in the garden, lined with Delft tiles.

We zoomed up town for a hurtling tour of the extraordinary American College of Building Arts, which teaches students drafting, joinery, carpentry, plasterwork and ironwork.

Brilliant. Then back downtown…. 

Drinks at the Gatewood House – beautifully restored by my brilliant friend Gil Schafer

The next day, early, everyone left. Charlie and I had a last quiet walk around town that morning.

The gatehouse and interiors of the Joseph Manigault House, now owned by the Charleston Museum after an unbelievably ropey 20th century history. 

We had a last lunch and made our way to the airport, back to Atlanta, and home. We arrived in freezing, snowy London almost overloaded by so many things seen, so many conversations spoken, and so much to think about.

We are having the quietest weekend imaginable….Except that tonight, Charlie is on his way to Wales to pick up our new puppy – another corgi, who is called Enid. Watch this space….!!!

32 comments on this post

John Hazard Forbessays:

I know many of these locales well; never, though, have I seen them more beautifully photographed.

An aside: No portion of a structure can be “enslaved.” The correct form for these areas is “slave quarters.”

Very best wishes,

JOHN HAZARD FORBES / Thomasville, Ga

meghasays:

nice article

Barrysays:

I am an American currently living in the American South. The beauty of Charleston takes my breath away and Savannah and New Orleans are close seconds. As an American, I am ashamed of my country for having created such beauty through the most despicable of human enterprise. I am ashamed of my own ancestors for having participated in it. And, I feel some guilt for valuing these a spots of beauty in the United States. Still, I’m glad we have them and will continue to return. Ben, I love your books and refer to them over and over. Thank you for sharing.

Edwardsays:

Unfortunately too many Americans can no longer appreciate their own history because of the rise of “Offense Archeology”. The puritanical social justice being promoted today cannot possibly account for the motives and morality of people who lived in the past. But we can admire the beauty of historical buildings which were, essentially made by hand.. We have lost touch with “human scale” which Ben is very patiently trying to teach us through his brilliant photo essays as well as through his own built work. Let us concentrate on the skills being taught at places like the American College of Building Arts which once again celebrate the hand-made, rather than on so much one-dimensional book-learning which is not serving us well.

Diane Keanesays:

I’ve been following your American South sojourn on IG (I see you never made it to Furlow Gatewood’ s place) but seeing all these incredible house photos all together is stunning! I too have enjoyed the thoughtful comments to this post. With a racist in the White House, a lot of creeps have come crawling out from under their rocks, and it’s good to be reminded of the terrible tragedy in our country’s past, which they’d revive if they could. But there’s no denying the beauty of the mansions. And why not? They were built on European patterns. Alex Raskins place reminds me of Malplaquet House, without the bones.

A big welcome up little Enid! Will be interesting to see what effect (if any) her arrival will have on the fur-people dynamic.

Hugs from Diane

Michelesays:

As a resident of South Carolina, I was delighted to read of your travels in our state. The modern South is vibrant and dynamic with such a rich, diverse culture. So glad you and Charlie were here.

Ceciliasays:

Beautiful and inspiring!

Whitsays:

Didn’t take many pictures? The ones you did take showed off that wonderful part of the world perfectly.

Violettesays:

It was lovely…more than that, to see those atmospheric pictures of Savannah anc Charleston. It doesn’t look like”America”!! What charm and beauty; Thank you so much. Violette

Nicolasays:

Thank you another wonderfully informative and moving tour of southern American historical architecture. (PS.Enid is a cool name. What is the collective noun for two Welsh corgis?!)Best wishes, Nicola

Helensays:

It’s good to read some of the thoughtful responses to this particular blog. As I commented on your Instagram feed, captions such as ‘dream house’ not only ignore the nightmare of enslavement on which they were built, but also the persistence of white privilege in the Deep South (and elsewhere, of course) today. I know this isn’t a political blog, but good design history and practice is surely always informed by social context – however uncomfortable or remote it may seem when you’re enjoying a cocktail on the verandah. Your representation of this trip on social media was bound to demand a more challenging critical position than your customary fare of giant marrows and new puppies.

Susan Fergusonsays:

I can answer John Revill’s question: slaves lived a good distance from the house – usually behind a plethora of tall green plantings in order not to be seen from the “Big House”, in the wrecky old shacks with no plumbing, heat or any of the basic necessities. I once met a woman who had started an antiques business in an old slave shack (they are now very rare) on her family’s property. She was very proud of the fact. I walked out in horror. If one was lucky, one became a house slave (also called “house n*&^$s”) wherein you were on 24 hour duty to the woman or young girls of the house but got to sleep on the floor in their beautiful room. They took care of everything including washing the rags they used for their periods. Very little was kept private. A “good” master was a rarity. Whippings were commonplace and it scarred men and women for life. There was nothing good about being a slave, despite what a number of Southerners want you to think. I was married to an 11th generation Virginian Scots-Presbyterian who was raised by the maid – still a common practice with those with enough money. Ora did everything in the house then George would come over to handle the outside work. The “n” word is still used. Richmond VA is a fine example of segregation. It made me ill as I am a Yankee who was raised so differently. The South that these people idolize was built on the backs of human beings who had the horrible misfortune to be born the wrong color. Do you know that people still argue that the War was based on “states’ rights?” To own other human beings? I cannot believe the ignorance, even among educated people. I have been lucky to visit Charleston and Savannah several times and loved those cities and the old homes, not to mention the antiques. But I will never return.

Elspethsays:

Ben, I absolutely adore you and Charlie and so appreciate your coming to regale us with stories and information at the Cathedral Antique Show. Thrilled to see and hear about your adventures in Savannah and Charleston! Y’all, Austin and Kinsey definitely lit up the South! XOXO

Sally Leonardsays:

I loved this post and especially enjoy seeing the homes left in their original state.
The demise of the South has always saddened me, but it had to happen. Society should not be able to survive based on the suffering of others.

Elizabeth Knollsays:

Glad to see that these Southern house museums now acknowledge the system that built them. Some 45 years ago when I was a teenager and went to Williamsburg on a family vacation, my father disrupted a tour of all the charming mansions by asking the guide where the tours of the slave quarters were. I was mortified. But he was right. Maybe we’re making some progress toward honesty….

Elizabeth

Joaniesays:

So close, yet so far away. Ah well. I was following on Instagram and both yours and Charlie’s posts were healing salve to the Great Lakes Polar Vortex experience. The details were lovely. History always seems to have its good share of painful realities, especially “colonial” in all its aspects. Thanks for sharing the views and and it sounds as if the tour experiences all incorporated some reality with the beauty.
Welcome Enid!!! Looking forward to hearing about her adjustment and adventures. Have seen her on Instagram. She is adorable. Now off to enjoy my faux spring Chicago.

David Sanderssays:

Nothing evokes the essence of the Old South, Antebellum era more than Spanish moss hanging from Magnolia trees, and of course, the gracious old mansions in their state of faded grandeur have a sublime beauty all of their own.

This appreciation cannot, of course, escape history.

Debrasays:

Incredible photos Ben it must have been a very thought provoking trip.Amidst the beauty of the houses and gardens a harrowing history of the slave trade.There can be no beauty or gain if it causes pain suffering and exploitation.The house owners obviously were creative and very clever at building mansions and becoming wealthy.The sad thing is they were a shameful disturbing part of slavery and lacked compassion and the inhumane behaviour towards mankind.Sorry that’s all l could think of when l saw your photos.
Happy news that you have a new puppy how wonderful for you all.

Deborah Karlsensays:

We went on almost exactly the same trip ten years ago. I did delight in the rocking board, which you have a photo of on a porch in Charleston, it dips and is designed to bring the suitor and young woman close to each other as they rock as if by accident! To answer John Revill, the slaves lived in basic low, barn like houses away from the main house and out of view of any formal gardens. That aspect of these beautiful places permeated our whole trip. That there could be such beauty and yet more than 3//4 of the people associated with these places were treat worse than the animals affected me so badly that I just stopped taking photos.. still such a dilemma.

DEBRAsays:

Ahhh, traveling with the Americans is always ZOOM, ZOOM, ZOOM!

This American brings fellow citizens annually to my beloved Dorset for gardens, gardening and houses. My British partner and I intentionally encourage a relaxing journey, encouraging all to slow down, observe the details, and relax. our mantra takes a few days before they settle in and savor.
Sorry you were not offered the same, but thoroughly enjoyed your images
Cheers
Debra

Marcia Catessays:

Ben and Charlie, thank you for this so, so generous photographic tour. Though some of it familiar, your informed perspective heightens its tragic beauty.
MC

Jacqueline Anthonysays:

We hear about slavery in the American South, but your photos really bring home the reality of so much elegance and beauty: built mainly by slave artisans and cared for by house slaves. And everything resting on the institution of slavery for the benefit of the Colonial English and then the new USA. But so beautiful!

Sarasays:

Thank you so much for sharing these wonderful photos, and for all the photos you post on your blog. You always capture the spirit of the places you record. Many of the southern plantations in the countryside of Alabama and other states have also restored the slave quarters and include them on the tours. In the cities, the slave quarters for household staff would have been the rooms you showed. Your photos document a way of life that has faded like the buildings. Even when the houses have been restored, the life now lived in them must be quite different.

Elizabeth Baileysays:

Hi guys
These photos are amazing. You can virtually smell the damp houses and aged wood. What a great trip.

JOHN REVILLsays:

Where did the slaves live?

Annsays:

WOW! Even just looking at your wonderful photos is overwhelming. You must be exhausted from it all. I was also reminded of that smell of old, musty buildings that one always encounters in the South and surely you must have encountered it too? It’s probably caused by the rainy, humid weather but every time I’ve ever toured an old home while visiting southern states the smell is there.

Andreasays:

This is a gift. I visited Charleston, Beaufort, and Savannah on my honeymoon 36 years ago; it seemed a counter-intuitive choice for this Northerner, but the beauty was searing. The pain was more obscured then. Have been intending to return forever because we didn’t make it to Drayton Hall. Thank you for revealing the many other places we must experience when we return.

Lori Rowlandsays:

This is an enchanting post. Thank you for sharing.

John Hawkinssays:

Dear Ben,
I have been an admirer and follower of your posts for years and
so much appreciate the little mini vacations your photos and text provide. Coincidentally, I was visiting these beautiful cities whilst you were and after leaving the Rhett Aitken house drove down Alexander Street and spotted house number 79. I had seen it years ago was very taken with it’s jewel like proportions. When you have a free moment, Google the address. You can find thirty photos of the house which show the previous owner’s interiors. The current owner and his girlfriend ( a decorator ) have since added their own lovely stamp. I think you’ll get a kick out of how grand design can come in a compact package!!!
So glad you had a wonderful trip and thanks again for all the beauty you two share with us!! Your posts are always a treat!!!!

Tamisays:

I love Charleston and definitely need to go to Savannah especially after seeing your take on the two. Lordy, did I ever need to see an upbeat post on the American South in these crazy, chaotic and sobering times in our history. Congrats on the new puppy.

Birgitsays:

Dear Ben & Charlie,
how amazing is your blog with such beautiful photos ! Thank you for sharing this very busy & interesting days with us . I enjoy it very much ( and did your IG pics too ! ). You have experienced so much and now at home in your beautiful house a little relaxation, this sounds very well 🙂 A new Corgi puppy will coming to you, how lovely ! Wish you a quiet & lovely sunday and have a good week back in England !
Best wishes, Your Birgit from Germany 🙂

A&Jsays:

Ben and Charlie,

We stumbled upon this site a few years ago and think of it as a mini-holiday whenever you post. Our favorite Christmas present was a signed copy of your Alphabet Book from our dear British friend. We are so looking forward to meeting Enid!

Warmest regards,

A & J

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