Site: Redcliffe Plantation State Park, Aiken County, South Carolina, US
Date of Visit: August 9, 2015
Redcliffe Plantation consists of 369 acres, two cabins, one horse stable, a visitor’s center, and one big ol’ house. This house was donated to the state in 1973 by John Shaw Billings, whose family built the house in 1859. It is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a state park. The house is only accessible through a guided tour. Billings, the first managing editor of Life magazine, always maintained close ties to his birthplace in South Carolina despite spending much of his life in New York. He renovated the plantation house in the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s and installed mid-century amenities while staying true to the original nature of the house. During the 114 years that the property belonged to the family, there were other individuals whose entire life focused on the plantation. The Henley, Goodwin, Wigfall families were long-established residents of the plantation starting in the 1850’s and lasting through 1975. The Henleys even outlasted John Shaw Billings (d. 1973) by staying until 1975. These families lived in small cabins and in the lower levels of the main house, and they differed from the property owners in one small detail: they were of African descent.
The plantation house was built in 1859 by James Henry Hammond: plantation owner, state senator, and governor of South Carolina. He supported secession and independence of the South and an established class system which included slavery. Politically, he is credited for coining the phrase “cotton is king.” By modern standards Hammond’s morality was skewed but he was a very successful businessman. While Redcliffe was a residential rather than productive plantation, Hammond owned huge tracts of (ahem) agricultural land which made him a powerful political and economic figure. This house was where he boasted of that status.
Equally interesting as the house is the story of how it’s changed over time. The Billings did major renovations including installing electricity and updated plumbing, but tried to make these additions as minimally invasive as possible. Electric conduits and pipes are tucked into corners and painted to match the walls. An extremely interesting addition surviving from the 1950’s is an electric chair lift installed on the grand staircase. The last lady of the house, Frederica Wade Billings, found the stairs increasingly difficult to navigate, and ordered a folding chair lift added to the house in the 1950’s.
While the Billings had tremendous respect for the house, furniture, and household goods, they also needed it to be a functional living space. As they grew older, the basement of the house, converted to a kitchen in the 1910’s, was renovated again into an apartment in the 1950’s. The visible elements of the residents’ lives and stories such as the chair lift and the cabins are reminders that people walked, talked, ate, slept, and lived here. They moved through the rooms in a similar pattern to modern visitors. In the 1930’s visitors to the house likely admired the antique doorknobs and original fireplaces with the same respect as the visitors of 2015, and 19th century guests hoped for a cool breeze in the summer just like their modern counterparts.
The house is full of handcrafted details and stories at every turn. Notable “housegold” items included specialty liquor bottles in the dining room, 19th century built-in cupboards and cabinets, deluxe 1930’s bathrooms, and the library full of books and masculine furniture. The art collection and furniture is original to the property and includes a bathing tub from the late 1800’s. While not every piece from Billings’ donation is on display, it’s estimated that roughly seventy percent of the furniture and furnishings is visible on the tour. And this is just the interior!
The exterior features a gorgeous enormous porch with hand-turned railing details and columns. There used to be a second-story porch but it was removed before 1900 after being damaged. The remaining porch is elevated over a “basement” (actually ground level) which displays the craftsmanship and construction of the lower courses of the house and underside of the porch. The large staircases complement the grand nature of the house and invite thoughts of historic lifestyles.
What we consider the modern front door does not face the grand driveway with the magnolia alley, planted 1860, but the side of the house facing the river. In the 19th century, the house had a grand view of the Savannah River, now obscured by trees. Most 19th century visitors would travel on the river rather than by the road so their first view would be a grand white house on a hill above the river bed. This orientation also served to catch cool breezes from the river as they flowed towards and through the house. The large doors, wide central corridors, tall windows, and extensive porches all serve to support air flow through the house especially during the hot and humid southern summers.
Interpretive stations, especially in the slave cabins, were simple installations that were very effective. Photographs showed plantation residents hauling buckets of water and milk on their head or a shoulder yoke, and visitors had the opportunity to feel the weight of just the containers. The horse stable building invited visitors to step into a few of the stalls and peer into the corners, all while imagining the grand carriage and saddle horses and their caretakers who used to live and work in the space.
Another unique interpretive component was the historic garden, which had rotating themes relevant to the property’s history. Past planting themes included Depression Era, WWII, Plantation Kitchen, and African-American Heritage. I always applaud historic houses which utilize the grounds rather than just the buildings; historic lifestyles would have been closely tied to the natural world, the seasons, and agriculture. It just makes sense to use any existing landscaping budget to support the educational initiatives of the site.
The interpretation of multiple perspectives is a rising trend at residential sites, and Redcliffe is included in that trend. The state park has two of its slave cabins intact, built c. 1857, and illustrates the daily life of past residents with photographs, reproduction clothing, and copies of documents. The two-room cabins with central fireplaces were occupied from the 1850’s until the 1970’s by generations of the same families. Some renovations were done in the 1930’s but the floor plan and essential elements were virtually unchanged. The selections displayed in these cabins are well chosen and highly illuminating. Hammond’s plantation manual details key components in the exchange between plantation master and plantation worker. Precise work schedules accounted for illness, pregnancy, nursing, youth, and age, while annual allotments described blankets, shirts, petticoats, shoes, and hats. Allotments were different based on the role of an individual, or if their situation had changed such as a serious illness or new child. Billings’ donation to the state park system in 1973 did not just include the house, but the entire family’s collection including unedited records, books, and handwritten personal papers. While Billings was a professional editor, creating a complete inventory in 1957, Redcliffe has exceptional documentation because Billings gave everything, even the unsavory bits.
While the plantation was largely residential, it did produce a few specialty crops like berries and hosted some experimental crops like peaches and nut trees. Hammond tested a variety of different products here for sustainability and marketability. The majority of the African-Americans at Redcliffe worked in the house, but there was a small number of field laborers; the average estimate for the plantation in the mid-19th century is 20-30 slaves. While this ratio is reversed when comparing most plantation properties, it seems that Hammond’s work schedules and allotments at Redcliffe were also applied at his larger, agricultural properties.
A modern addition to the historic buildings is a visitor center with restrooms, a small gift shop, and an exhibit of historic artifacts, photos, and documents. The exhibit is nicely produced, and provides an overview of the property’s history, its purpose, and the notable residents. Like the educational interpretive displays in the historic structures, this exhibit is also carefully curated and provides information without being overwhelming. It stays focused on this particular property and the relevant families, rather than trying to present the entire history of plantations in South Carolina. This is a wise choice since the small shop carries a good selection of books and resources to discover more general information. An interesting choice for the shop’s book selection is genealogy guides. A museum store should reflect the mission and interpretation in the museum, and at this property visitors encounter the same families over and over again. Why not encourage visitors to look back and consider their own families?
Redcliffe Plantation State Park is a great example of how to select key themes and interpret them thoroughly and cohesively. At this site the age and architecture of the main house is obviously a significant feature, but it’s the people who moved through and lived in the house which create the interest factor. The staff have done an excellent job interpreting the history of the site through the families’ history, and used the structures, traditional museum display, and hands-on components to achieve this goal. While the tour guide was knowledgeable about the Greek Revival architectural elements of the house, the majority of the tour was about the people. Readers, if you’re in South Carolina or Georgia and seeking historic houses, don’t miss the porches at Redcliffe Plantation.
To experience a virtual tour of the Redcliffe Plantation house and property, put this link in your browser to download a PowerPoint slide show with photos, floor plans, biographic details, and more.