A Short History of the Middleton Place Foundation
After sixty years of neglect following the burning of Middleton Place only two months before the end of the Civil War, and then the Great Earthquake twenty-one years later, the restoration of Middleton Place began in 1925. J. J. Pringle Smith, who was thrice descended from Henry Middleton, had inherited the plantation in 1916, but it was only after the death of his father Henry Augustus Middleton Smith in 1924 that sufficient funds were available to undertake the work.
Pringle Smith and his wife Heningham moved into the surviving south flanker that had been sufficiently restored in 1870 to survive the 1886 earthquake that felled the walls of the main family residence and the north flanker. And, after gradual further restoration, they lived in the south flanker for the rest of their lives, every year from October through April.
Heningham, having grown up among gardens along the James River in Virginia, became the leader of a pioneering effort in garden restoration that, over a fifteen-year period, saw the oldest surviving landscaped gardens in America brought back to their former glory. Following the depression, with its abundant inexpensive labor, outbuildings were rebuilt to create a farming and maintenance headquarters completed in 1937, today the Plantation Stableyards. At the same time a guest house was constructed, that later became the Middleton Place Restaurant.
In 1941 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.” In the 1950s a large nursery thrived at Middleton Place. And the Gardens that theretofore had been open only from fall to spring were opened 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.
The Tricentennial of the founding of Charleston coincided with the 1970 opening of the Plantation Stableyards that successfully broadened the appeal of Middleton Place. The family continued to live in the house while focusing attention on the survival of Middleton Place, the land having been under the same family stewardship since the late 17th century. Realizing that if he were “hit by a truck,” Charles Duell knew that insufficient liquidity to cover IRS estate taxes would result in the sale of Middleton Place. Devising a plan 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 would allow the house to be opened to visitors as part of Middleton Place Gardens, House and Plantation Stableyards.
Since its inception, the Foundation has begun implementing its 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 obtaining a grant sufficient to make it possible and securing key gifts and loans of Middleton Family portraits, furniture, silver and china, the Middleton Place House Museum was opened for public visitation beginning February 22, 1975, exactly 110 years to the day after all three parts of the Middleton Place House were put to the torch. By the early 1980s, the entire National Historic Landmark was given to the Middleton Place Foundation with the family totally convinced this was the best course. The decision was all about stewardship, all about 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.
In the late 1970s visitor parking moved from the Greensward to an area just north of it where decades earlier rows of pine trees had been planted to provide shade for the nursery’s young Azalea plants. Fortuitously, the trees had been planted about a dozen feet apart and today provide perfect screened and shaded parking spaces. During ensuing years the new visitor parking area has been enhanced to encompass the Museum Shop, kiosks for orientation and ticketing, the Garden Market & Nursery and a small office building for Special Group Services.
In the late 1980s the then-recently-opened Inn at Middleton Place, guided and controlled by the Middleton Place Foundation, was given 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. During more recent years, the Middleton Place Restaurant and the Pavilion have both been expanded to accommodate growing visitation, groups and weddings.
Additionally, Middleton Place undertook new initiatives that have all been based on extensive historic research and documentation. They include the reintroduction of historic marble sculpture in the gardens, the restoration of the Plantation Chapel, a demonstration rice field of “Carolina Gold,” and the opening of a permanent exhibit on the history of slavery at Middleton Place, Beyond the Fields (the last three are part of daily African American Focus Tours). In 2008 the Foundation published a well-received book of the same title, incorporating into the text most of the images in the exhibit on slavery.
Most recently the Plantation Stableyards have been rejuvenated with historically correct Black Locust split-rail fencing to contain the well-documented colonial and antebellum livestock at Middleton Place: Guinea hogs, Cashmere goats, Gulf Coast sheep and River Water Buffalo, as well as Jersey cattle and driving horses. Concurrently, the House Museum has vastly enhanced its collections through the generosity of Middleton descendants who have given and loaned family objects of extraordinary quality and impeccable provenance that authentically interpret the lives of Arthur Middleton, his father, his son and his grandson, who collectively represent a microcosm of American history from the Colonial era through the Civil War.
Looking to a future full of both challenges and opportunities, 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 freshly-new education programming. It’s all for the sake of preserving history. It’s all about history – from the past, in the present, for the future.