Drayton Hall's new $5 million visitor and education center is steadily taking shape, despite recent heavy rains and mud at the plantation museum site.

It's arguably the most significant construction at Drayton Hall since its surviving plantation home was built in the mid-18th century.

Carter Hudgins, president and CEO of Drayton Hall, recently weaved across the mud puddles to tour the construction as workers fastened slate tiles to the roofs.

While much remains to be done on both the exterior and interior — the project isn't scheduled to open its doors until April — it's soon enough to get a feel for the project's size and how it will relate to the famous house considered by many to be the nation's finest example of Georgian Palladian residential architecture.

"It's not too big. I think the scale is just big enough," Hudgins said of the new building. "It's meant to be a background building. It makes a statement, but it doesn't overpower the house or the site."

The new project feels like several buildings symmetrically placed around a mature live oak likely planted by Charles Drayton around 1800.

Visitors will arrive from a new parking area into an open-air, timber-framed breezeway with restrooms and a gift shop positioned off to the left and an orientation hall and small gallery off to the right.

Beyond the oak will stand a similar but smaller building again with a timber-framed, open-air hall with enclosed education spaces to the right and left. The center is being named for former Drayton Hall director George McDaniel, while the visitor center is named in honor of philanthropist Sally Reahard.

The buildings will change visitors experience to the plantation site by giving visitors some context before they view the historic house up close.

"It shifts the focus from the house to the history," Drayton Hall spokesman Jon Yarian said. "Right now, it's just a one-man play."

"By the time they get to the house, they'll have questions based on this part of their experience," Hudgins added.

The project also includes a new heated and air-conditioned gatehouse located farther away from Ashley River Road, reducing the possibility that an influx of visitors could back up onto the busy highway. The property's masonry gates, which were about 30 years old and had suffered frequent damage because of their narrow opening, also are being replaced.

The project also will reroute traffic on the site so all cars use the former exit road to arrive and depart.

"We're trying to get all the modern vehicle traffic out of the core of the historic property," Hudgins said.

The effort includes refurbishing a late 19th century caretaker's house, which had been used as a gift shop but soon will interpret the property's later use for phosphate mining and other aspects of its 20th century life.

The work is being done by Hood Construction of Columbia. Architect Glenn Keyes designed the buildings, while the timber framing work was designed by Moyer Fountain, an early graduate from Charleston's American College of the Building Arts and built by Timber Artisans. Landscape architect Wertimer & Associates designed the courtyard.

A new visitors center has been a goal at Drayton Hall since the National Trust for Historic Preservation acquired the property in the 1970s. The site has acquired many pieces of furniture and other historical artifacts connected with the property, but there has not been any place to display them.

The center will be able to display a small part of that collection, though Drayton Hall eventually hopes to build a much larger gallery space sometime after the current project wraps up.

Yarian said those familiar with Drayton Hall likely will be intrigued by the new look. "It's really neat to see it in progress," he said. "It's just a great big mess, which is sort of exciting."

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