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Ten miles outside downtown Charleston and 267 years back in time lies Middleton Place, America’s oldest surviving landscaped gardens. As the earth stirs in April and colors erupt, it’s not just the return of spring the gardens are celebrating, but the rebirth of a dream envisioned by Henry Middleton when this land was still an English colony
The visionary was a young man named Henry Middleton, whose family was already entwined like a vine around the history of the Carolina colony.
His English-born grandfather, Edward, had served as a deputy for the ruling Lord Proprietors, while his father, Arthur, helped overthrow these proprietors to establish a Royal Colony. Arthur sent his eldest son, William, to school in England; upon his return, he emulated what he had seen in the mother country at Crowfield, his Berkeley County estate. Eliza Lucas visited William’s plantation in 1743, one year prior to her marriage to Charles Pinckney, and marveled at the “walk a thousand feet long” and lawns “ornamented in a serpentine manner with flowers.” She rhapsodized over the sunken bowling green, the fishponds, and the decorative mound with its Roman temple. Beyond that, Eliza said, were “the smiling fields dressed in vivid green.”
The scene also made an indelible impression on William’s younger brother, Henry. He, too, wanted a beautiful estate to impress his guests. When he married Mary Williams in 1741 and came into the Williams family property, he had a perfect place to work out his version of sibling rivalry.
To reach Henry’s house by boat, visitors came round a bend in the Ashley River. It stood dramatically high on a bluff—very unusual in the flat Lowcountry—and someone had very wisely lined up the central hallway axis with the river bend to take advantage of the prevailing breeze.
In this baronial setting, Henry thought like a lord. Nothing was more appealing then than the designs of André Le Nôtre, who had helped transform Louis XIV’s Versailles into one of the most famous spots since the mythological Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Le Nôtre combined the lush beauties of nature with the strict discipline of geometry. He favored long allées lined with tall trees standing erect as soldiers at attention and boxwood hedges almost surgical in their precision. Paths crossed at right angles and diagonals, and the eye—as well as the visitor—was drawn along sloping terraces and across parterres to a statue or fountain in the distance. Long, verdant walkways opened to sunny garden “rooms” wherein each bloom took its proper place like a stitch in a tapestry. Like an intricately woven oriental carpet, Le Nôtre’s designs featured circles and octagons held in rigid and elegant balance.
No one knows who helped Henry design his dream, an undertaking unparalleled in the New World. The labor was focused not to create wealth or to fortify, but to magnify his name and make a lasting impression on his guests as well as on the land and time itself.
As a visitor, you would have arrived by river. At a bend in the Ashley, you would spy the mansion high above, but the house would sink from view once you docked at the landing. Proceeding up the dazzling stepped terraces with butterfly-shaped lakes on either side, the house would materialize, roof first, until finally, as you ascended, you’d see your host standing at the entry awaiting you. Through the open door, you would have seen straight through the center hall, across a field to the land entrance.
Guests arriving in this manner were made welcome in the three-story mansion that, by 1755, had separate flankers, wings separated from the main house, on either side—one to the right for the conservatory and library and one to the left serving as lodging for visiting gentlemen.
When the time was ripe, you would be taken to tour the 40 acres of grounds, watched over by the centuries-old Middleton Oak, with its trunk circumference of more than 30 feet and branches making a circle three times as large. Washed in moss and lost in memories, it still stands like a wise grey beard.
The first garden you would enter in Henry’s time is the same one you enter today—as if the centuries have passed in a wink. It’s a sunken octagon, sheltered from the afternoon sun, where men once bowled across the lawn and women took tea. Beyond that lies the circular rose garden with beds radiating out like spokes of a wheel.
From any of these locations, you can detour down long narrow walks bordered by trees, their branches filtering sunlight and shadow. These maze-like walks lead to secret gardens that appear as suddenly as epiphanies. Sounds carry in the warm air like scents in the breeze, and you can almost hear the ghosts of laughing gentlemen and ladies. Beyond the rose garden rise the remains of a mound from which past generations stood to gaze over the garden, river, and rice fields. It would take a bird’s-eye vantage point to observe the pleasing symmetry sensed when you’re enmeshed in the design itself.
All the walks and gardens of various shapes are held in precise alignment. The sight lines are such that, standing at the end of the walkway on the terrace above the river, you can enjoy an uninterrupted view that diagonally bisects the sunken bowling green, travels down a central path in the rose garden, crosses the top of the mount, and ends at the reflecting pool. Garden historian James R. Cothran, noting these and other wonders, called Middleton Gardens an example of “genius and geometry.”
Its maker, Henry Middleton, served as president of the Continental Congress, and his son Arthur signed the Declaration of Independence. When Arthur died (he is buried in the family tomb in the gardens), Middleton Place passed to the oldest son, another Henry and a scion of his grand-father, who took an active role in the enhancement of the garden.
Henry knew the famous André Michaux, who in service to Louis XVI was charged with bringing back native plants to France. But Michaux, working from his own estate near the present-day airport, also brought plants from the Old World to the New. Tradition states that the first camellias brought to America were planted at four points on the highest terrace above the Middleton Place lakes; one prominent example, the “Reine des Fleurs,” still blooms, and other descendants populate the gardens. Henry also planted the “Champney’s” rose, a local variety, and he loved exotic plants, which he maintained in a hothouse.
When Henry died, he left Middleton to his son Williams, who had been born in England and served as minister to Russia before becoming governor of South Carolina. He, too, stamped Middleton with his own mark. In the 1840s, azaleas were first introduced to America at Williams’ neighbor’s plantation, Magnolia. It’s possible that’s where Williams obtained his. He planted them profusely in informal arrangements along meandering walks he had cut through the woods and along irregular, naturally shaped ponds. The effect this gave to the garden would have been similar to a great lady loosening her stays and relaxing from the stiff formality of the period. The reds, magentas, pinks, and violets also introduced a whole new palette.
Like winter and spring intent on undoing each other’s missions, so it went with the Middletons. Arthur had signed the Declaration of Independence, effectively creating the United States; his grandson Williams tore it asunder by signing the Ordinance of Secession. Just a few days after the anniversary of Arthur’s death, Williams sat at his desk in 1863, noting his wealth and assets. What he listed that January morning were the camellias at Middleton—those in borders, circles, the bowling green, the rose garden, and what he could see from his study window. He counted 941.
Ironically, they would have been in peak bloom when the moment came that seemed to signal the place’s apocalyptic end. Two years later, in February of 1865, marauding Union troops spied Middleton through the trees and ransacked the house, torching the early 1700s mansion and one of the 1755 flankers, while sending soot and ash like sinister petals of death into the deserted gardens.
After the war, Williams returned to Middleton in search of his “pets”—that’s what he called his favorite plants. Here he met a former slave, Anthony Alston, who had also been lured back by the beautiful neutrality of the gardens. Together they worked the land to see what they could salvage of the lost grandeur.
Williams died without a will in 1883, as if he could not bear to put into words the passing on of his land. Three years later, disaster struck as the earth opened up in a fault line just beyond Middleton. In the great earthquake, the last remaining ruined walls of the 1741 plantation house tumbled. After the noise and dust settled down, the gardens lay bare. Steadily, nature reached back in to claim her own: Trees grew beyond their borders, and camellias were swallowed in the undergrowth. In the shade, azaleas burned like dim embers. Every now and then, a flower would bloom, and a color would flare like an old lady blushing, remembering her life as a girl. It was the Middleton Oak that served as exemplar in these years, admonishing the garden not to vex itself with spring, but to be patient and endure.
While the gardens slept, poet Amy Lowell visited. “Step lightly down the terraces,” she wrote in her poem “The Middleton Place,” “they are records of a dream.” Recognizing their French origins, she compared the lost shrubs and trees to lords and ladies toppled from the Palace of Versailles into prison and taken to the guillotine.
Middleton, to her, was a sunset garden of a civilization lost and set: “The afterglow is haunted and nostalgic/Like the ostrich fans of palsied dowagers/Telling one another contentedly of the deaths they have lived to see.”
After Williams’ death, the land needed another Middleton. In 1916, Henry’s direct descendant John Julius Pringle Smith took title to the place and moved here in 1925. As determined as Henry who originally laid out the gardens, Smith and his wife, Heningham, became intent on salvaging them. In the coming years, a trunk would be found in an outbuilding, and from it would emerge the clothes worn by the original Henry in his portrait by Benjamin West, miraculously vivid and fresh. So, too, the old garden pattern of diagonals, circles, and geometric patterns would slowly reappear, cleared of the choking fog of foliage.
But the Smiths did not just restore, they made things new, too. They planted 35,000 azaleas on one side of the house, making the garden slope by the mill pond a whirl of frenzied colors. At the same time, undeterred, on the other side of the house the 18th-century garden moved along as stately as powdered men and ladies dancing a minuet. In 1941, the Garden Club of America bestowed the Bulkey medal on Middleton “in commemoration of 200 years of enduring beauty.”
Today, Charles Duell is the eighth generation of the family to take the helm of the plantation and its gardens. Middleton Place is now a not-for-profit foundation, and the public is welcomed throughout the year. Tourists pour through the narrow walkways once graced just by the Middletons and their aristocratic friends, but the magic of that time returns as the staff works to keep the gardens at their prime each day of the year.
“As in past centuries, everything revolves around the gardens,” says Duell. “The house, the stableyard and animals, and the craftspeople are all part of the synergy created by the gardens.” In recent decades, in an effort to tell as complete
a story about the plantation experience as possible, the staff added an African American Focus Tour, carriage rides, and a restaurant that specializes in Southern foodways. They’ve also begun hosting some of the Lowcountry’s most well-known events, such as the Spoleto Festival Finale and the Charleston Garden Festival.
There is always something in bloom, with something wistful in the wind. The gardens are as ancient and new as spring itself, as wisteria, azaleas, roses, hyacinths, tulips, and camellias each take their turn in their seasonal debut. The flowers differentiate the seasons, the family marks the generations, and the Middleton Oak counts the centuries in a triangulation of time and place that maintains the gardens’ ageless beauty.