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  • October 24, 2014

Design Rediscovered: Middleton Place - Ladue News: Design

Design Rediscovered: Middleton Place

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Posted: Thursday, February 13, 2014 12:00 pm

The British have nothing on the United States, as we have our own distinguished Middleton family who’ve made their mark through decades of American history.

It all started in 1730 with John Williams, a South Carolina planter. Upon John’s demise, his daughter, Mary, inherited the plantation and surrounding property, which became part of her dowry. Mary fell in love with Henry Middleton and married him in 1741. The young couple built the main house of the plantation that same year, a brick Jacobean-style manse consisting of three stories. In 1751, they added two ‘flankers’ (unattached wings on either side of the main house), which added a ballroom, library and guest quarters. A lover of land, Henry also immediately began work on his gardens that would one day be considered the oldest landscaped garden in the U.S. and one of the finest gardens in North America.

Henry Middleton was a successful man by most people’s standards. He was the Speaker of the Commons, Commissioner for Indian Affairs, and served on the Governor’s Council. However, in 1770, he resigned his post to lead the opposition to British policy.

Middleton was later elected the first president of the Continental Congress in 1774. A wealthy landowner with 20 plantations comprising 50,000 acres under his watch, he was a leader of Southern society. Misfortune fell when wife Mary passed away in 1761. Grief-stricken, he moved to The Oaks, his childhood plantation home. In 1763, he passed ownership of Middleton Place to his son Arthur, upon the younger Middleton’s return from studying in Europe. Henry remarried twice after Mary’s death, but had no more children.

Arthur Middleton also had many notable accomplishments, including the distinction of being an original signer of the Declaration of Independence. This had its consequences, however, as Arthur was one of the landowners captured and imprisoned by the British in 1780. He was not released until 1781. This, after British troops burned Middleton Place, as well as ransacked the home and vandalized the garden statuary. Ironically, the terms of surrender eliminating British troops from the South was signed at Middleton! Arthur died at age 45, leaving Middleton to his son, Henry.

Henry Middleton, another over-achiever, traveled extensively across Europe and America. He served in both statehouses of South Carolina, as the state’s governor and as an ambassador of sorts to Russia. He loved horticulture, and used his talents to expand the gardens of Middleton Place. The famous French botanist André Michaux was a friend, and introduced Henry to many plants that were not indigenous to the United States. Henry was responsible for bringing the first camellias, azaleas and crape myrtle to America.

Henry’s son, Williams, inherited the plantation from his father in 1846. Williams had other ideas than his forefathers, signing the Carolina Ordinance of Secession supporting its independence from the United States. This, of course, was a spark that ignited the Civil War. In 1865, troops captured Middleton Place, burned the main house and north flanker, and slaughtered five of the water buffalo on the grounds, while capturing six others. The captured water buffalo later turned up in the Central Park Zoo! The animals were originally brought to Middleton Place from Constantinople in the late 18th century as an experiment for the plantation’s rice production.

Down but not a quitter, Williams began restoration in 1868 to the south flanker, making it the main residence of the plantation. When he died in 1883, his wife, Susan, inherited the property. Like a plague over the family, in 1886, an earthquake toppled the main house and north flanker, as well as the gardens. Not having the means they once had, the family was forced to leave the property to ruin.

Elizabeth, William and Susan’s daughter, was bequeathed the property in 1900 and made minor restorations. Her cousin, John Julius Pringle Smith, took over ownership of the property upon Elizabeth’s death in 1915.

Working tirelessly, Smith and his wife, Heningham, restored the gardens, which became open to the public in the late 1920s. The following decade was spent restoring the buildings to their original appearance, which later resulted in Middleton becoming a part of the National Register of Historic Places and designated a National Landmark.

For more information on Middleton Place, visit middletonplace.org.

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