The following article was published by the Post & Courier on December 26, 2014.
Written by Adam Parker.
Original article here: https://www.postandcourier.com/features/arts_and_travel/steward-of-middleton-place/article_1333e681-5970-5af8-b709-76df5de38489.html
The symbols of a slow success are many, but the eight candlesticks – beautifully made silver heirlooms – might best illustrate how the efforts of Charles Duell have paid off.
The set was made by John Carter in 1771 and soon after took up residence at Middleton Place. After the Civil War, the candlesticks were scattered, along with many other objects, including furniture, paintings, documents. The main house and the north flanker were burned to the ground by Union troops, and the exterior walls collapsed in the terrible earthquake of 1886. Only the structure that housed the servants remained intact enough to be restored decades later. The candlesticks were long gone when Duell’s grandparents settled into the house and began the slow work of reclaiming the property.
In 1974, when Duell established Middleton Place Foundation, the whereabouts of the candlesticks were unknown, and when the house museum opened the next year, many heirlooms were on display, but the dining room table remained bare of those elegant fluted columns.
What transpired in the decades that followed was indicative of Duell’s vision and his determination to preserve Middleton Place for posterity and keep its history alive.
The foundation regularly organized family reunions. At these events (which now include blacks with links to the plantation), Duell and his colleagues would ask descendants of the Middleton brood (and its relations) to return objects in their possession to the House Museum: a form of restitution considered by official government moneymen as a tax-deductible gift.
Thus the first pair of candlesticks were restored, gifted by a family from Green Spring Valley, Md. Later, another pair made its appearance, also hailing from Maryland. The third pair was recovered from a Charleston institution. And the fourth pair found its way back to Middleton Place just last year, thanks to the generosity of a family from Mamaroneck, N.Y.
Today, Duell gazes at the meticulously set dining room table, with its stunning silver epergne centerpiece laden with fake fruits, the fine china and various accoutrements, and he marvels at how this grand project – the protection of Middleton Place – he embraced more than 40 years ago has achieved its own momentum and taken on a significance larger than he could have known.
Duell himself exudes purpose and belonging. For most of his life, Duell has been committed to this property, working to secure it and to make it available to anyone interested in antebellum history.
Along the way, he has internalized every aspect of the place and speaks comfortably about the flora, garden design, slave labor, rice culture, tourism in the Lowcountry, the demands of historic preservation, the objects in the collection, the family’s connections to England, Russia and Italy, and much more.
He will tell any visitor willing to listen that the main house was built in 1705 and featured a ballroom on the second floor and bedrooms on the third floor, that the gardens’ classical beginnings gave way to a little Romantic influence, that the Sundial Gardens are populated with holly, sweet bay, magnolia, quince, camellia japonica and more.
He’ll point out the new path through the small French formal garden and explain how the wooded patch contrasts with the carefully sculpted and manicured garden segments nearby. Every path, he’ll explain, was designed to feature an open vista at its far end.
Inside the house, he likes to admire the four Benjamin West paintings (one of which the foundation hopes to purchase soon) and remember the 20 or so paintings stolen after the war. He delights in the collection of porcelain and furniture and, of course, those candlesticks. He never forgets who precisely acquired these heirlooms and how they were likely used. He never fails to discern the personality within the object.
“The trend in interpreting history via house museums is to talk less about the objects and focus on the people,” he says.
This is how he keeps the candle lit. For Duell, Middleton Place has been, and continues to be, a locus of discovery and rediscovery.
“I think Charlie has had a very clear and almost relentless vision of what the foundation and Middleton gardens could do and contribute to a greater community,” says Nella Barkley, a longtime friend of Duell’s, career consultant and advocate for the arts. “The lovely thing is, as knowledgeable as he is about the 18th and 19th centuries, and Middleton Place’s history, he never got stuck there and sees it as such a center for education and understanding and building people’s skills based on history. I think that he has done a remarkable job with this, and the task before him is to create a way for his legacy to be sustained in a sufficiently ambitious way.”
Duell was born on June 10, 1938, in New York City. His father Charles Halliwell Duell helped start Duell, Sloan and Pierce, a small, prestigious book publishing company that worked with Archibald MacLeish, Anais Nin, Wallace Stegner, E.E. Cummings, Benjamin Spock and others.
At Christmas and in the spring, young Charles came to Middleton Place to visit his grandparents, who had moved to the old plantation in 1925 and spent winters there (during the summer they occupied 21 East Battery, also called the Edmondston-Alston House).
Middleton Place had been neglected since the Civil War; Pringle and Heningham Smith worked hard to reclaim it from the gathered years and encroaching nature, Duell says. “They were pioneers in landscape restoration,” he says.
His grandmother would spend hours on her hands and knees searching for the brick remnants that indicated the property’s pathways. The couple took a machete to the gardens. They paid Depression-era laborers $1 a day to help put things in order.
People in the silk stockings trade, traveling from New York to Florida, would stop to visit the grounds, paying $1 for entry. It was the beginning of Middleton’s transformation from a private landscape to a public heritage site.
Duell’s early impressions were of smells – pluff mud, flowers in spring. When he was 5 years old he was asked upon arrival to open the entrance gate by lifting the lever-latch, a task he considered a great thrill and privilege, he says.
He remembers how Pringle Smith would smoke his pipe before the fire and listen to the radio while Heningham Ellett Smith sat across from him writing polite answers to guests who had signed the visitors’ book.
“Many evenings she would spend writing visitors thank yous,” he says. And during the day, she was never without a pair of clippers, “pruning things that weren’t right, ordering the gardeners around.”
Pringle Smith would take money from a safe in his office (today’s dining room), engage the day laborers in conversation, then pay them their small share, counting out the money like a banker.
When he was 9, his parents divorced and Duell came to Charleston with his mother, Josephine Scott Smith. He attended Porter Military Academy, but that didn’t last long. A Colorado uncle convinced him to forego a summer camp in Maine and experience life on the ranch instead.
Duell overcame a fear of horses during five formative years out West. He learned the wide ways of the rancher. He learned the value of hard work. By the end of that first summer, Duell was feeling pretty good. “I thought I was the greatest young cowboy that the state of Colorado had ever confronted,” he says.
Upon his return to the East Coast, he entered 8th grade at the Riverside School in Connecticut, eventually going on to study at the Phillips Academy in Andover (where he excelled in math) and then at Yale (where he excelled in English and history). He made lasting friends, including Charles Hall Page, who became an architect and, years later, served with Duell on the board of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “He’s the most delightful man I know,” Page says of Duell.
Soon, Duell was on a career path. He flirted with the Foreign Service, married his first wife Carol, contemplated working on the Hill, then landed a job at a New York bank. The couple had four children, Josephine, June, Holland and Caroline.
Then came the fork in the road. His mother was to inherit Middleton Place, but she died of larynx cancer when Duell was 16, a blow from which he would never fully recover. Even today, Duell marks her birthday and chokes up at her memory.
His banking career in New York was showing promise, but destiny intervened. In 1965, Duell had provided his grandfather with financial advice that helped the older man – a “life tenant” of Middleton Place but not technically its owner – to secure the property. Four years later, Pringle Smith died and the property, both the plantation and the house downtown, went to Duell.
He was ready for it. He and Carol had decided they’d rather not raise children in New York City. And Duell’s interests in history, finance, horses (he became an avid fox hunter) and family combined to provide him with the necessary devotion and acumen.
Two things smoothed the way. The life tenancy arrangement and generation-skipping inheritance came estate tax-free. All estate taxes had been paid in 1924. And a $500,000 bank loan enabled Duell to begin the process of transforming Middleton Place into a foundation-controlled one that would result in drastic improvements, stable finances and a cornerstone spot in the Lowcountry’s heritage tourism trade.
It was around this time in 1968 when Duell first met Dick Jenrette. Jenrette’s banking firm had been managing some of Duell’s money, and mutual friend Charles (Pug) Ravenel, who worked with Jenrette, suggested a trip to Charleston to see clients.
That trip prompted Jenrette to buy the Roper House (where he still lives) and, in partnership with Duell and Ravenel, the Mills House Hotel, which would become Charleston’s first luxury hotel after extensive renovations.
Duell’s efforts to protect 21 East Battery and Middleton Place is nothing short of heroic, Jenrette says.
“I think Charlie is a great figure in preservation,” he says, referring to Duell’s fights with developers and efforts to secure conservation easements not only for Middleton Place but for the marshland across the Ashley River from the old plantation. “He’s really an inspiring figure when you look at it.”
Tracey Todd, the foundation’s chief operating officer, says Duell is equally concerned about the way history is presented.
“He’s very interested in the theater aspect of programming,” Todd says. “You have to be able to get in that same mindset and work with him on the details. You’ve got to go the extra mile to get the product, whether it’s the program or exhibit or piece of written material, to be the absolute best it can be.”
Now Duell is stepping back a little, slowing down, contemplating the future, all that still needs to be done, how to ensure that the foundation he started 40 years ago can last in perpetuity, how Middleton Place can thrive and thrill.
“One of the things that was so impressive to me was what he did as a young man, inheriting this property, making sure it was sustainable, and not to his financial benefit,” says June Bradham, another friend and a nonprofit consultant. “Not everyone would have made that decision.”
No. He could have sold it. He could have donated it to the National Trust or Park Service. He could have divided his 7,000 acres into disparate parts. He could have developed on the land and made lots of money.
But none of that was in the cards.
He is happily married to Sallie Duell, a friend from his youth whose path he crisscrossed over the years until, both divorced, they got together in 2006. They live on the third floor of the Edmondston-Alston House, in a self-contained apartment above two floors open to tourists.
Bradham says it’s a fruitful partnership. “Charlie is really the history and bearer of the family flag and historic interpretation,” she says. “Sallie has a lot of strategic ideas about funding and building relationships that can help Middleton Place Foundation along the way.” (Sallie Duell serves on the foundation board.)
At Middleton Place, Duell walks through the gardens admiring the careful symmetry and long vistas. He speaks of past and future interchangeably, of what his ancestors accomplished and what the foundation must still do.
“What’s important about this place is its history,” he says. “The whole story of Colonial South Carolina is embedded right here. History is important, and history doesn’t belong to me, it belongs to the world.”
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.