Those visiting Drayton Hall, one of South Carolina's premier plantation museums, should have a dramatically better experience today than a year ago.

And it's not just because they will have an easier time parking, buying a souvenir or relaxing in a new garden. It's because they can learn much more about the historic site and the first people who lived there.

Their stories are deep and diverse, as visitors will understand as they inspect some of the Drayton family's finest 17th-century Chinese dinner plates or a rare silver branding implement used to mark slaves. It is the first time those sorts of artifacts have been put on display here.

The new $6 million Sally Reahard Visitors Center is the most significant construction at Drayton Hall since the mid-18th century, when its surviving plantation home, considered the first and one of the finest examples of Palladian architecture in North America, was built.

Drayton Hall President and CEO Carter Hudgins says the center marks a new era of research, stewardship and site management.

"The heart of this project is the opportunity to display our collection," he says. "Visitors to Drayton Hall can now expect much more than a tour of the estate."

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Drayton Hall

Vistors prepare to tour the house at Drayton Hall Tuesday, April 24, 2018. Brad Nettles/Staff

Telling the larger story

Ever since the museum opened in the 1970s, visitors to Drayton Hall have experienced a 45-minute-long guided tour of the unfurnished house, and that's about it.

The Drayton Hall Preservation Trust, which recently took over the site's operation from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, set about changing that.

Today, a visitor's experience begins before they approach the house. They will walk down a wide brick path from a much-expanded dirt parking lot to reach the center, designed by Glenn Keyes Architects to harmonize with the house by use of similar materials (wood, brick and slate tiles) and classical proportions (its five-bay plan mirrors that of the house).

At the same time, it doesn't compete with the house, partly because its dark coloring makes it blend more with the forested landscape.

The entrance itself is open, a space defined by sizable timbers supporting the roof, designed by Moyer Fountain and built by Timber Artisans. Visitors' eyes will be drawn beyond the timbers toward a bright garden with a large live oak, believed to be about 200 years old, in the middle.

But it's what people find inside that will matter more. Part of that is basic visitors stuff, like the gift shop, restrooms and future cafe on the left. The more significant are the orientation hall and gallery off to the right.

That's where the story of Drayton Hall will be told in the larger context of the Atlantic World of the 18th century. It's the story of John Drayton and why he built one of the grandest homes ever built in North America along a meandering river several miles up from a Colonial port city.

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Drayton Hall

This sketch of Drayton Hall is believed to date from prior to the house's construction and shows two flanker buildings far larger than what was actually built. It hangs in a prominent place in Drayton Hall's new visitors center. Brad Nettles/Staff

'This object does exist' 

The orientation hall and Stephen and Laura Gates Gallery present new details and artifacts about the plantation.

The gallery's exhibit will change about every year and a half, says Sarah Stroud Clarke, Drayton Hall's archaeologist and curator of collections.

"We decided at the beginning, we would start at the beginning, with John Drayton's early 18th century life," she says.

One wall contains the earliest rendering or plan for Drayton Hall, one showing two flanker buildings far more imposing than the smaller structures originally built (and later lost in the 19th century). "We think that John Drayton probably did it," Clarke says, but that remains just an educated guess.

The exhibit also includes two stone columns reassembled from pieces stored for more than a century in the house's basement and re-erected, with new structural support, to frame the gallery's focal point.

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Drayton Hall

The gallery features artifacts recovered by archaeologists at Drayton Hall, including objects used by slaves, right, and more elaborate objects from the main house. Brad Nettles/Staff

And the new exhibit discusses how slavery made Drayton Hall possible. It will feature a silver slave brand that caused a chemical reaction with hot oil placed on a slave's body to create a mark that read, "I Drayton."

Clarke says such slave branding was more common in the Caribbean, but relatively rare in the Carolinas and Virginia.

"We believe it's the only known slave brand of its type in Colonial North America," she adds. "We don't have any documentary records of a Drayton slave being branded, but this object does exist. It's a dramatic object. It's a difficult object."

"This gallery lets us dive much more deeply into these stories."

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Drayton Hall

The new Drayton Hall gift shop is two or three times larger than its previous one and is expected to generate much more income to support the museum site. Brad Nettles/Staff

Other upgrades, too 

The new visitor center itself actually consists of two new buildings framing the garden.

The second building, closer to the house, has a similar timber-framed breezeway separating two rooms with ample windows and sparse furnishings, a flexible space for meetings or small events.

Those leaving this second building will veer to the right, then follow a path back around to the left, where they will get their first great close-up glimpse of the house.

The new visitor's center courtyard also is flanked by a relatively recent library building as well as a refurbished 19th-century caretaker's house, which was a gift shop but now interprets the property's postbellum life as a phosphate mine and an African-American settlement.

The shop's beams are left exposed to show the craftsmanship and whitewashing of its original construction.

The project also includes a larger gatehouse located farther from Ashley River Road, reducing the chance that incoming visitors will back up onto the road — and a new route for motorists approaching the house, keeping them a bit farther from the house.

The site has raised more than $5 million toward the center's $6 million price tag, says Drayton Hall advancement director Marsha Ray.

And aside from its thoughtful, sympathetic design and a significant step forward for Drayton Hall's educational mission, the project also marks a remarkable example of philanthropy.

Sally Reahard visited Charleston only once when she was a teenager back in the 1930s, but "Miss Sally," as some affectionately remember her, gave generously throughout her life to support several Lowcountry organizations.

A philanthropist whose family fortune came from the Eli Lilly Co., Reahard not only helped the National Trust acquire Drayton Hall in 1974, assuring its careful preservation while opening it to the public, but her continued generosity also helped get the visitors center project off the ground.

She died in 2003, a time when Drayton Hall's caretakers were focusing most all of their time and energy on preserving the house. Plans for a new visitors center remained on a distant wish list.

It's impossible to know exactly what she would think of her namesake center, but it's hard to believe it wouldn't make her smile.

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Drayton Hall

The courtyard of the new visitors center at Drayton Hall. The center's museum space is on the left, and its gift shop and future cafe are on the right. Brad Nettles/Staff

Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.