Drayton Hall legacy Charleston may have paved way for Palladian features in U.S.

The trim around the upper middle three windows on Drayton Hall’s riverside facade features aediculae, a classical detail revived in Palladian architecture. Some say these could be the first examples of this form in America (Drayton Hall was built around 1738-42).

Many know Drayton Hall as a beautiful building, one of the nation’s best examples of Georgian Palladian architecture, but just how cutting-edge was it?

Maybe a lot more than even experts appreciate.

For instance, College of Charleston architectural history professor Ralph Muldrow says the most ornate three windows on its riverside façade may be the first of their kind in America.

The architectural term for them is aediculae (plural of aedicule), a Latin word that translates roughly as “little temple.” Each of these three Drayton windows features a set of pilasters on each side supporting a roof-like structure. The outer two have a triangular pediment, while the middle features a segmented arch — a common alternate rhythm.

No one knows who designed or built Drayton Hall, but historical records do show the Drayton family had architectural pattern books that could have been used as a prime design source. One of them, “The Work of Inigo Jones” by William Kent seems near certain to have been the inspiration for the over-mantle in Drayton Hall’s first-floor drawing room. Muldrow says the book also contains a pattern for aediculae similar to those facing the Ashley River.

“Those certainly were used in ancient Rome and were rediscovered by (Renaissance architect Andrea) Palladio and others,” Muldrow says. “To my knowledge, they were never used in America earlier than Drayton Hall,” which was built around 1738-42.

This architectural feature would become only more common: It can be found on the White House and hundreds of other neoclassical buildings. Even the new skin of the Gaillard Auditorium features aediculae.

Muldrow’s idea was just one of several discussions that recently took place in Charleston during a special symposium organized by the Center for Palladian Studies, Drayton Hall, the College of Charleston and others.

Carter Hudgins, director of Preservation and Education at the house museum Drayton Hall, says he can’t confirm it’s the first American building with aediculae, but it’s exactly the kind of intriguing question that shows why Charleston architecture merits more attention.

Calder Loth, architectural historian and editor of The Virginia Landmarks Register, attended the symposium and says Muldrow might be right.

“There may be some earlier in New England I don’t know. I’m looking,” Loth says. “I hope we can do more research on Drayton. It’s an endlessly fascinating house.”

Other topics at the Vitruviana symposium included the remarkable design of the first St. Philip’s Church at its present site; Fenwick Hall’s architecture; Palladio’s influence in Jamaica and the influence of Philadelphia’s (now demolished) William Bingham House, an 18th-century home that might have inspired the design of the Joseph Manigault House in Charleston.

Carl Gable, a Charleston native and chair of the Center for Palladian Studies, helped organize the symposium and hopes to schedule a similar one next year. Gable says the Lowcountry’s earliest architecture, strongly influenced by Palladio, deserves more study.

“We’re trying to emphasize that it’s not only intrinsically beautiful but historically important,” he says.

For instance, other questions are whether Sheldon Church, now a set of ruins outside Beaufort, in fact was one of the nation’s first buildings based on a Roman temple? (It precedes Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia state capitol by 75 years) And how architect James Hoban’s work in Charleston influenced his design of the White House? Was Charleston’s Pinckney Mansion (destroyed in the 1861 fire) this nation’s earliest Greek temple motif?

Some may see these questions as purely academic, but many who love the Lowcountry know their answers shed light on the soul of this place.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.