photo by: Tony Sweet

May 8, 2020

Southern History: A Virtual Tour of Four National Trust Historic Sites

It’s week seven of our National Trust Historic Sites virtual tour series, and if you’ve been following along, we hope that the tours have been educational and provided an escape from your weekly routine. In this, the final installment of the series, we visit four Southern estates spanning 230 years of American history, from a mid-18th century Colonial mansion in the South Carolina Lowcountry to a late-1960s restoration of an 1876 Italianate villa in San Antonio, Texas.

Today these historic sites help tell the full American story, which often includes the history of slavery in the United States. The first site on our tour, Drayton Hall, is one example of what historic sites are doing to reveal the many layers of history they hold.

The next stop on today’s tour takes us to the Shenandoah Valley. Home to Revolutionary War Major Isaac Hite and his wife Nelly Madison Hite, sister of President James Madison, Belle Grove was an expansive agricultural property. Starting with 483 acres, Hite grew the property to as large as 7,500 acres and expanded the farming operations to include a general store, a grist-mill, a saw-mill, and a distillery.

The third house on our southern history tour takes us to Louisiana. Set among towering live oak trees draped with Spanish moss on the banks of the Bayou Teche in New Iberia, The Shadows was built in 1834 for sugar planter David Weeks. By the start of the Civil War, the Weeks plantation enslaved more than 200 people, who worked the sugar cane plantation where the Weeks family wealth was made.

In 1922 William Weeks Hall, great-grandson of the original owner, acquired the property and conducted major construction and restoration work to preserve the family estate. In 1958, the property was donated to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Our last stop is Villa Finale, built in 1876 for the hardware merchant Russel C. Norton. First designed as a one-story, four-room, single family home in San Antonio’s desirable King William neighborhood, the house was expanded in 1904, adding a second story and the Italianate tower. By the middle of the 20th century, the neighborhood was in decline and the house was divided up for use as a boarding house.

In 1967, preservationist Walter Nold Mathis purchased the house and restored it along with 14 other houses in the area. As such he was instrumental in the revitalization of the historic King William neighborhood. Mathis, who wanted to leave this gift for visitors to enjoy for generations to come, bequeathed the property and its collections to the National Trust in 2004.

We hope you have enjoyed our virtual tours and that we've inspired you to visit some of our historic sites when they re-open for public visitation. Right now we can't predict when all of our National Trust Historic Sites will once again allow visitors, and it is likely that each will open according to the guidelines established by the states where they are located. When those days arrive, we'll be pleased to welcome you back.

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Dennis Hockman is editor in chief of Preservation magazine. He’s lived in historic apartments and houses all over the United States and knows that all old buildings have stories to tell if you care to find them.

Join the movement to save and sustain historic African American places. The African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund will help every American see themselves, their history, and their potential in our collective story and national cultural landscape.

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