A National Historic Landmark, home to the oldest landscaped gardens in America and an enduring, vibrant, and essential part of the Charleston and American experience, Middleton Place is owned and operated by the Middleton Place Foundation. The Foundation, a 501(c)(3) educational trust established in 1974, uses historic preservation, documented research, and interpretation as a force for education, understanding, and positive change.
None of us enter Middleton Place the way many once did – by boat, with egrets as escorts, flashes of sunlight through trees, from the river. But we try to picture it.
We don’t wade through rice fields wrapped in August’s heavy, humid blanket. We can scarcely imagine it.
There are the Middletons, who strolled through the deep blush of camellias in bloom. The enslaved, who, stripped of their African names, tended children and livestock as their own, have long since died. But all of their spirits, stories, and the lessons they hold live on – here, with and within us, kept alive through meticulous research of history, architecture, and horticulture. They are known through the commitment of scholars who study agriculture and archeology, art, artifacts and journals. The stewards of today preserve the lush gardens, working stableyards, museum houses and precious lands.
It’s all done in the service of understanding the Middleton family and the enslaved people who made a way of life and an economic empire possible. It’s done to reveal the stories within the stories: the enslaved artisans who built terraces one bucket of earth at a time, the founder who led the Continental Congress and his son who signed the Declaration of Independence, the hands that harvested rice and bent iron, the descendants of families who meld race and place and age and occupation. All are invited to share the stories told here.
When we stand on the same land as generations of the enslaved and the free, take in its exquisite beauty and its inherent brutality, we understand that the stories of Middleton Place are American stories. Black stories. White stories. Essential, life-changing human stories.
Keeping those stories alive inspires our imagination, understanding, and empathy – and in so doing, they lead us all, together, to the next chapter, and the next.
There are always new stories to tell.
Most of Middleton Place was burned just months before the end of the Civil War. Twenty-one years later, in 1886, the Great Earthquake struck, destroying the walls of the main family residence and the north flanker building. From the end of the war until the early 20th century, much of the property lay neglected and overgrown. In 1916, J. J. Pringle Smith, a descendant of Henry Middleton, inherited the plantation, but it was only after the death of his father, Henry Augustus Middleton Smith, in 1924 that funds were available to begin the restoration.
Pringle Smith and his wife Heningham moved into the surviving South Flanker, and, after gradual further restoration, they lived there for the rest of their lives, every year from October through April.
Heningham led a pioneering effort in garden restoration. Over 15 years, she and helpers brought the oldest surviving landscaped gardens in America back to their former glory. Following the Great Depression, outbuildings were built to create a farming and maintenance headquarters. Completed in 1937, they are the centerpiece of today’s Plantation stableyards. At the same time, a guesthouse was built, which later became the Middleton Place Restaurant.
The Garden Club of America recognized the Smiths’ work by conferring on Middleton Place its highest award, the Bulkley Medal, for “200 years of enduring beauty,” and declared the landscaped gardens at Middleton Place not only to be the oldest, but also “the most interesting and important in America.”
A large nursery thrived at Middleton Place, and the Gardens that had been open only from fall to spring were now open to the public year round. By the late 1960s, the Smiths had died and the stewardship of Middleton Place became the responsibility of their grandson, Charles Duell.
Coinciding with the 1970 tricentennial of the founding of Charleston, the opening of the Plantation Stableyards broadened the appeal of Middleton Place. The family continued to live in the house and focused their attention on the survival of Middleton Place, hoping to keep the land under ongoing family stewardship.
In the event of his passing, Charles Duell knew he had insufficient liquidity to cover IRS estate taxes, which would result in the sale of Middleton Place. To ensure that Middleton Place, designated a National Historic Landmark in 1972, would survive, he established the Middleton Place Foundation in 1974. The 501(c)(3) educational trust allowed the house to be opened to visitors as part of Middleton Place Gardens, House and Plantation Stableyards.
Since its inception, the Foundation has operated with a mission to achieve the highest levels of historic preservation and interpretation. Ongoing research has attracted gifts and loans of Middleton family objects to its collections, and educational / outreach programs have inspired an increasingly large corps of volunteer interpreters. Additions to both exhibits and archival materials have provided a mecca for scholars of American history
After securing key gifts and loans of Middleton Family portraits, furniture, silver and china, the Middleton Place House Museum was opened for public visitation on February 22, 1975, exactly 110 years to the day after all three parts of the Middleton Place House were burned.
The entire National Historic Landmark was given to the Middleton Place Foundation. The decision was all about stewardship and preserving history. A young family member pointed out that Middleton Place was not being given to the State of South Carolina, or to the National Park Service, or any governmental entity where it could become a political football, but rather “Middleton Place was being given to itself.” It was really being given to the American people, not just to preserve Middleton history, but to preserve an important slice of American history.
The then-recently-opened Inn at Middleton Place won the highest national award of the American Institute of Architects. Built to support the preservation efforts of the Middleton Place Foundation, the Inn has 55 bedrooms, a dining room and conference center, and provides the headquarters for a variety of outdoor activities. More recently, the Middleton Place Restaurant and Pavilion have been expanded to accommodate growing visitation, groups and weddings.
Middleton Place undertook new initiatives – all based on extensive historic research and documentation, including the reintroduction of historic marble sculpture in the gardens, the restoration of the Plantation Chapel, a demonstration rice field of “Carolina Gold,” and a permanent exhibit on the history of slavery at Middleton Place, Beyond the Fields. In 2008, the Foundation published a well-received book of the same title. In April 2017, a documentary of the same name was also released.
The Plantation Stableyards were enhanced with historically correct Black Locust split-rail fencing for the colonial and antebellum era livestock at Middleton Place: Guinea hogs, Cashmere goats, Gulf Coast sheep and River Water Buffalo, as well as cattle and driving horses. The House Museum collections have grown through the generosity of Middleton descendants who have given and loaned family objects that authentically interpret the lives of Arthur Middleton, his father, his son and his grandson.
Looking to the future, the Middleton Place Foundation continues its dedication to responsible stewardship with a strong Board of Trustees, a dedicated professional staff and some 300 loyal and enthusiastic volunteer interpreters. The Foundation strives to operate on a balanced budget and continually seeks the support of grant-making foundations, corporate partners and individual contributors to develop an adequate endowment and reserve funds for capital improvements, ongoing research and new education programming. It’s all for the sake of preserving history – to keep stories and spirits alive – so together we can write a new chapter.