Drayton Hall across the pond

photo by: Tony Sweet

May 8, 2020

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

National Trust Historic Sites are open! We encourage you to check directly with each site for up-to-date information on available activities, ticketing, and guidelines if you are planning a visit.

Plan Your Visit

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 plantation big house 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 plantation complex. 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, worked by more than 276 enslaved people.

To learn more about the enslaved community, visit Belle Grove’s website where a growing number of biographies are updated monthly.

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 planters David and Mary Weeks. During David’s illness and after his early death, Mary operated this urban plantation complex, a substantial sugar cane plantation and other associated properties with the forced labor of more than 250 enslaved people through its most financially successful era.

Louisa Bryant, the enslaved house manager governed domestic matters including supervising the 50 people who comprised the enslaved house staff and farm workers who fed and clothed the Weeks and enslaved communities while also keeping up the carefully curated grounds at The Shadows.

In 1922 William Weeks Hall, great-grandson of the original owners, acquired the property. He conducted major construction and restoration work to preserve the family estate and, with the help of some creative landscaping, operated it as a quintessential southern plantation destination for tourists, celebrities, and a whole host of LGBTQ artists and writers. Hall added a garden walk, bamboo barriers for privacy, hedges to screen unwanted views, a peaceful fountain and a ticket booth with restrooms built from the remnants of brick slave houses. He was also an active part of the early to mid-century arts and preservation movements in New Orleans and helped rouse support for the preservation of the French Quarter. In 1958, he bequeathed the property 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.

Check out the rest of our virtual tours of National Trust Historic Sites, exploring places related to Commerce and Industry, Sacred Places, Garden Glory, Architectural Traditions, Presidential Retreats, and Modernism.

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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.

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