Not only the first landscaped garden in America but still one of the most magnificent in the world, Middleton Place (4300 Ashley River Rd., 843/556-6020, www.middletonplace.org, daily 9 a.m.–5 p.m., $25 adults, $5 ages 7–15, guided house tour additional $10) is a sublime, unforgettable combination of history and sheer natural beauty.<
Nestled along a quiet bend in the Ashley River, the grounds contain a historic restored home, working stables, and 60 acres of breathtaking gardens, all manicured to perfection. A stunning piece of modern architecture, the Inn at Middleton Place, completes the package in surprisingly harmonic fashion.
First granted in 1675, Middleton Place is the culmination of the Lowcountry rice plantation aesthetic. That sensibility is most immediate in the graceful Butterfly Lakes at the foot of the green, landscaped terrace leading up to the Middleton Place House itself, the only surviving remnant of the vengeful Union occupation. The two wing-shaped lakes, 10 years in the construction, seem to echo the low rice paddies that once dotted this entire landscape.
In 1741 the plantation became the family seat of the Middletons, one of the most notable surnames in U.S. history. The first head of the household was Henry Middleton, president of the First Continental Congress, who began work on the meticulously planned and maintained gardens. The plantation passed to his son Arthur, a signer of the Declaration of Independence; then on to Arthur’s son Henry, governor of South Carolina; and then down to Henry’s son, Williams Middleton, signer of the Ordinance of Secession.
It was then that things turned sour, both for the family and for the grounds themselves. As the Civil War wound down, on February 22, 1865, the 56th New York Volunteers burned the main house and destroyed the gardens, leaving only the circa-1755 guest wing, which today is the Middleton Place House Museum. The great earthquake of 1886 added insult to injury by wrecking the Butterfly Lakes.
It wasn’t until 1916 that renovation began, when heir J. J. Pringle Smith took on the project as his own. No one can say he wasn’t successful. At the garden’s bicentennial in 1941, the Garden Club of America awarded its prestigious Bulkley Medal to Middleton Place. In 1971 Middleton Place was named a National Historic Landmark, and 20 years later the International Committee on Monuments and Sites named Middleton Place one of six U.S. gardens of international importance.
In 1974, Smith’s heirs established the nonprofit Middleton Place Foundation, which now owns and operates the entire site.
All that’s left of the great house are the remains of the foundation, still majestic in ruin. Today visitors can tour the excellently restored Middleton Place House Museum (4300 Ashley River Rd., 843/556-6020, www.middletonplace.org, guided tours Mon. 1:30–4:30 p.m., Tues.–Sun. 10 a.m.–4:30 p.m., $10)—actually the only remaining “flanker” building—and see furniture, silverware, china, and books belonging to the Middletons, as well as family portraits by Thomas Sully and Benjamin West.
A short walk takes you to the Plantation Stableyards, where costumed craftspeople still work using historically authentic tools and methods, surrounded by a happy family of domestic animals.
The newest addition to the Stableyards is a pair of magnificent male water buffalo. Henry Middleton originally brought a pair in to work the rice fields—the first in North America—but today they’re just there to relax and add atmosphere. They bear the Turkish names of Adem (the brown one) and Berk (the white one), or “Earth” and “Solid.” Meet the fellas daily 9 a.m.–5 p.m.
However, if you’re like most folks you’ll best enjoy simply wandering and marveling at the gardens. “Meandering” is not the right word to describe them, since they’re systematically laid out. “Intricate” is the word I prefer, and that sums up the attention to detail that characterizes all the garden’s portions, each with a distinct personality and landscape design template.
To get a real feel for how things used to be here, for an extra $15 per person you can take a 45-minute carriage ride through the bamboo forest to an abandoned rice field. Rides start around 10 a.m. and run every hour or so, weather permitting.
The 53-room Inn at Middleton Place, besides being a wholly gratifying lodging experience, is also a quite self-conscious and largely successful experiment. Its bold, Wright-influenced modern design, comprising four units joined by walkways, is modern. But both inside and outside it manages to blend quite well with the surrounding fields, trees, and riverbanks. The Inn also offers kayak tours and instruction—a particularly nice way to enjoy the grounds from the waters of the Ashley—and features its own organic garden and labyrinth, intriguing modern counterpoints to the formal gardens of the plantation itself.
They still grow the exquisite Carolina Gold rice in a field at Middleton Place, harvested in the old style each September. You can sample some of it in many dishes at the Middleton Place Restaurant (843/556-6020, www.middletonplace.org, lunch daily 11 a.m.–3 p.m., dinner Tues.–Thurs. 6–8 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 6–9 p.m., Sun. 6–8 p.m., $15–25). Hint: You can tour the gardens for free if you arrive for a dinner reservation at 5:30 p.m. or later.
© Jim Morekis from Moon Charleston & Savannah, 4th Edition