Preservation for the Old South: Discovering a History in the Ruins

When the Old Sheldon Church was built in Beaufort, South Carolina between 1745-1755, it was one of the grandest churches in the nation. Today, it stands as a ruin – the embodiment of a romantic view of the southern past. Visitors looking at it may recall how it was burned by the British Army during the American Revolution, rebuilt, and finally burned again by General Sherman’s men at the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865. The church ruins are relics of some of the most significant historical events in the South’s past and are revered by visitors.

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Old Sheldon Church

Despite this initial view of the church as an artifact of 18th and 19th century life, a glance at the surrounding gravestones suggests a more complicated layering of history at the Sheldon site. Surviving gravestones around the church date to as early as the mid-eighteenth century, but have also been added as late as the 2000s. Though the church has been a ruin for over 150 years, it continues on with an active role in history through the memory of its congregation, which carries on in a newer building nearby. At this site and others, we were often struck by more modern accretions on and around “colonial” buildings.

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Gravestone, Old Sheldon Church

Throughout our week in the south, the class of 2017 encountered a similar idea in many of the institutions we visited. Both ruins and grand mansions are commemorated or promoted as evidence of an authentic and cherished Southern colonial past. While we are used to seeing historical buildings become a monument to a famous historical person or event, we found in the South that they were frequently preserving an idea of a romantic past that had not always existed. Visits to a number of colonial sites allowed our class to investigate how the South is remembered and what it reveals of the real people who used the buildings. Frequently done by preserving the structure to be architecturally “authentic,” sites used similar preservation tactics to reveal the memory of the people who once used them.

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Drayton Hall

Just outside Charleston, Drayton Hall preserves a structure in its original, unrestored state as a means of attempting to maintain the site’s authenticity. Constructed as an early eighteenth-century plantation site, Drayton Hall, unlike Old Sheldon Church, survived the American Revolution and the Civil War. Tour guides suggest that it remains today just as it was when it was built over three hundred years ago. Our class visited the building on a hot day and walked away with not only an impression of the grandeur of southern estates, but also an understanding of how the buildings functioned without air conditioning in the southern summer heat. As we observed just how important the interior construction of the building was to circulate air, we also noticed that Drayton was more then a time capsule of 18th century history. Through architectural repairs, family growth charts and layers of paint, the site offers a view of a site not frozen in a colonial past, but as a physical reminder of a continuum of family, community and regional heritage.

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Slave Cabin at Prestwould Plantation

One of our last stops, Prestwould Plantation, near Clarksville, Virginia, initially revealed a treasure trove of architecture and objects connected to the earliest owners of the house. Here too, though, time does not stand still. One of the most significant structures on the property, down a hill from the main building, is an example of 18th century slave quarters. While exploring the interior, we saw remnants of the original early structure paired together with shreds of early twentieth century newspapers being used as insulation. Here, more than anywhere else in the property, we could see evidence of multiple generations of families living at Prestwould. This remarkably intact structure, a notable contrast from the preserved buildings we had seen earlier, still provided just as strong a link to the past, and shed just a little insight into what it would feel like to live there.

What do these sites say about how we conceptualize the history of the South? I would say quite a bit. Tourists may visit one of these architectural relics to see an authentic snapshot of colonial life, but more times than not, they fall upon remnants of a real past complicated by diverse economies, races, and patterns of settlement. When our class stopped to take a minute to listen to what these preserved relics are trying to tell us, we found just how much we can be surprised.

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By Michelle Fitzgerald, WPAMC Class of 2017



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