For the first time in more than 300 years, Middleton Place will be led by someone who’s not part of the family.
Charles Duell, 80, has retired to an office on the second floor of the Rice Mill, a short walk down an oak-lined path from the historic house. He has moved to this spot to get out of Tracey Todd’s way, to work on a book project and to remain available as a resource should Todd or the rest of the staff need one.
As of July 1, Todd replaced Duell as president and CEO of the Middleton Place Foundation, and he plans to reinforce all the good things his former boss set in place over four decades of stewardship, he said.
“We’ve had a long and close relationship,” said Todd, who has been employed at Middleton Place for nearly 28 years. “His continued involvement is welcomed. I cherish all of our time together. I would not look forward to the day when he’s not out at Middleton Place.”
Duell is a fount of institutional knowledge. He explains the gardens in detail — when they were created, what foliage they feature, what mathematical formula guided their layout, what psychological effect they have on visitors strolling through — and he can tick off dates, names, milestones, historical figures and their contributions, the achievements of those enslaved on the property and much more.
He remembers visiting his grandparents when he was a child, and he recalls with ease the many improvements he oversaw since 1969, the year he inherited the property from his grandparents.
Duell is a descendant of Henry Middleton, who established Middleton Place as a rice plantation in 1741 and served in the Continental Congress. Henry's son, Arthur Middleton, succeeded his father in the Continental Congress and was among the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Duell's mother, Josephine Scott Smith, was the daughter of Heningham and Pringle Smith, who began the restoration of the property, setting the stage for its transformation into a National Historic Landmark. Pringle Smith, a Charleston attorney, was the nephew of Williams Middleton, who was great-grandson of Arthur Middleton.
Duell inherited Middleton Place and the Edmondston-Alston House in 1969 when he was 31. He established the Middleton Place Foundation, a nonprofit educational trust, in 1974.
Then he gifted the historic site to the foundation, ensuring it could be appreciated by all.
“My decision to give it away was (based on) my belief that the most important thing about it was the history, and that history didn’t belong to any person or any family, but that history really belonged to everyone affected by it, that includes South Carolinians and Americans,” Duell said. “The foundation ... really is part of the commonweal.”
In the 1970s, Duell oversaw the reconfiguration of the grounds, a project spearheaded by landscape architect Robert Marvin. A new parking area was created in order to keep vehicles off the big front lawn in front of the house, and the gardens, laid out in the 1740s, were upgraded.
Early on, Duell and his team removed the tractors from the stable yards and opened them to the public. Theater impresario Emmett Robinson and then-director of the Charleston Museum Milby Burton helped create historical presentations, establishing an interpretive model that persists today.
Many more changes were made under Duell’s watchful eye: Staff upgraded the restaurant, renovated the Rice Mill, planted an exhibition crop of Carolina Gold rice, created a replica of a slave chapel, transformed a freeman’s cottage into a slavery exhibit, fixed up the slave burial grounds, made improvements to the specialized tours, focused increasingly on the African-American experience at the former plantation, organized large family reunions that include both whites and blacks, codified core educational programming, pursued extensive research and developed curricula, published books and produced a documentary.
And the team overcame big challenges, too, especially the devastation wrought by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Nearly 300 trees on the historic property were knocked down, and thousands more on the tracts of land controlled at the time by the foundation across Highway 61.
In the 1960s, the annual budget was $30,000, Duell recalled. Today it’s about $7 million, with revenues generated by admissions, house tours, retail and restaurant income, grants and donations. The number of visitors to Middleton Place has reached more than 100,000 annually.
Todd said he will remain focused on the mission to educate and entertain, strengthening Middleton Place as a community resource.
“It’s about teaching history, but it’s about having fun at the same time,” he said.
He will lead an effort, joined by the board, to develop a five-year strategic plan, and he will work with Duell, the board and others to grow the foundation’s endowment, which now stands at $6.5 million. (The goal is about $20 million.) Todd also will focus attention on a new Charles Duell Legacy Fund, established to create a reserve that helps pay for preservation, education and sustainability efforts.
He will continue to cultivate relationships with interpreters and museum leaders on Barbados, whose history is intertwined with that of Charleston’s, and he will encourage ongoing research and public engagement.
“We want to codify the vision that Charles has laid out,” Todd said.