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2016 interview with Richard Marks: “A Time Machine”

Excerpted from Drayton Hall Stories: A Place and Its People

By George W. McDaniel

Craig Bennett, Richard “Moby” Marks, Trish Lowe Smith and Gov. Henry McMaster at the 2017 ceremony for the S.C. Preservation Stewardship Award. Image courtesy of the Governor’s Office.

This interview has been edited for length.

For decades, Richard (Moby) Marks, a preservation contractor in Charleston, has worked on the preservation and repair of Drayton Hall. Imagining the house as a time machine, he explains why Drayton Hall was, and is still, unique, and enables us to see, as only a contractor can, the processes involved in constructing Drayton Hall and the handwork of its builders, including the enslaved. Because of all that Drayton Hall offers, he envisions Drayton Hall as a center for preservation learning.

George MacDonald: Could you tell us about your background?

Richard Marks: I grew up in Scottsville, Virginia, not far from Charlottesville. My admiration for Jefferson, particularly his architectural side, spurred me to get involved with historic buildings. In 1973, when I was about ten, we moved here. Since I loved to work with my hands, I helped my dad restore three or four historic buildings. At Clemson, I studied architecture and construction management and upon graduation in 1985 started a historic restoration company.

GM: What was the very first time you saw Drayton Hall, and what did you think?

RM: When I was a student at Charleston Day School, our history teacher, Miss Leland, took us here. I was struck by how big Drayton Hall was and how impressive its features were. The second time was with the Center for Palladian Studies and two University of Virginia professors, Freddie Nichols and Mario di Valmarana. Their academic argument over American Palladianism, English Palladianism and Georgian architecture was a telling example of how Drayton Hall serves as a resource for understanding — even debating about — our history.

GM: How did Drayton Hall affect your early career?

RM: After being in the restoration business for about eight years, I understood that the well-respected conservationist, Frank Matero from the University of Pennsylvania, was working at Drayton Hall, and that visit spurred me to study under him at Penn and to earn my master’s of science in historic preservation. Upon my return, I set up a conservation lab and with others persuaded Clemson to establish a graduate program in historic preservation in Charleston because its historical buildings could serve as a collection of learning labs unrivaled in America. I’d seen experts coming to Charleston, bringing students with them, but when they left, so, too, did their knowledge. Drayton Hall has unfailingly encouraged our students to get involved and given them the chance to learn here from among the nation’s best.

GM: How has Drayton Hall affected your approach to preservation and that of others?

RM: Drayton Hall has affected all aspects of our company because it has hired us for dozens of conservation campaigns, ranging from the brick masonry, windows and stone steps and columns to the paint, paneling, plaster and flooring to the roof itself. We’ve researched documents, artifacts and the main house itself as well as other structures. As the National Trust and Drayton Hall required, we’ve developed an academic, systematic approach because if our goal is to maintain historical integrity, we’ve got to understand the materials themselves and forecast accurately the consequences of what we do.

Drayton Hall’s preservation philosophy has made it the hallmark of historic preservation in Charleston. Every major technique has been done there, so students and professionals alike can evaluate performance over time. Our objectives have been to make interventions as light as possible and to extend the life of the building.

You don’t rush into interventions because many of Drayton Hall’s historical features are early, have not been radically altered and need to be treated with reverence. In that sense, Drayton Hall is sacred.

GM: What have you learned that visitors may not see? What might they learn that demonstrates 18th-century construction and design?

RM: In keeping with Drayton Hall’s mission, we incorporate education into our projects. Visitors learn 1) how handwork was integral to its construction, and 2) historical buildings neither build nor preserve themselves. An example is our project to assess and repair Drayton Hall’s historical windows, so they’d fit tighter in their frames and allow less draft. Setting up our shop under a tent near the main house, we encouraged visitors to see us working on the window sashes and to learn what we were doing and why. We’ve discussed the pros and cons of possible solutions. We could not do this in the private sector.

Most visitors miss how the finer points of the brick masonry show how Drayton Hall is a high style, Georgian edifice. The regularity of the brick work, the fine butter joints at each end of a brick, the tight lines of mortar between bricks and the shaped and rubbed bricks in the jack arches of the windows and around the doors, all represent the highest form of construction in that era. The fine alignment of the Flemish bond brickwork is unparalleled. A mason today would have a hard time replicating all the techniques seen here.

If visitors could glimpse the original framing, they would see great craftsmanship and close attention to detail and joinery.

GM: What has your work on Drayton Hall taught you?

RM: Materials speak to their time of use. For instance, good examples of the type of 18th-century ornamental plasterwork in Drayton Hall’s drawing room have not survived elsewhere. They look more like clay and straw than lime and are certainly not gypsum plaster. St. James Goose Creek Church is the closest thing in this area that has the hand modeled, sculpted plasterwork that plasterers were doing in England in the late 1600s and early 1700s. That tradition transports you back in time and is the closest thing to a time machine. You have to get in the mindset of the people who did the work, understand their technology and their pattern books, and only then fix the problems.

GM: How does Drayton Hall speak to you?

RM: Due to its scale, architecture, detailing and joinery, Drayton Hall is unique. Whether that’s a result of its having been one of the few survivors or its having been truly a rare example in its time of sophisticated architecture remains a good question. Everything was done to an expert level that shows an architect or a master builder superior to most any we’ve seen in Charleston. This is a very English house that exudes English detailing, proportion and scale. I’m struck by the grand nature of its elements, especially the staircase and the ceiling in the drawing room. All of these parts are remarkable survivors.

GM: As a contractor, what do you think are its strongest qualities?

RM: Without exception, the strongest parts of the building are the masonry walls and the layout of the external walls as they relate to internal masonry walls. The perimeter walls are fortified and substantial. Tying the walls together are substantial floor systems. However, their long span underneath the second-floor great hall is the weak link. Buildings of this stature from 30 to 50 years earlier probably would have had summer beams, which were thicker. Exposed on the bottom side, they would have been seen from the first-floor great hall below. If beams of that larger size had been the case, the summer beams would probably still be there, and the structure would probably still look like it was originally framed. Instead, under the second-floor great hall, they made the summer beams thinner so they could hide them between the floorboards on top and the plaster of the ceiling below because it was stylish to not see structural elements. This illustrates how the house was a product of its era. However, the depth of the beams underneath the floor was not sufficient to support that long span, so it failed. The support underneath the second floor is the only part of the house that was insufficiently engineered.

The Upper Great Hall at Drayton. Image by Willie Graham.

GM: If you were a tour guide, what would be your key messages in characterizing the construction and design of the house?

RM: I would tell people that Drayton Hall is unique in America and is very akin to what you might see in England during the same time period.

I’d ask them to imagine seeing this house under construction. Unless you’d been to Villa Cornaro in Italy or seen Andrea Palladio’s designs, you would have wondered how one could come up with this design. It was the first in this country. Since there were few published copies of Palladio’s designs and since most weren’t out until probably the 1730s, Drayton Hall was on the cutting edge of the discovery and the reinterpretation of Italian Renaissance architecture. It has a unique place in the history of this country.

I would also ask them to care about Drayton Hall’s future because it is a rare survivor and a unique example of what the wealthy elite were doing in colonial America. It exemplifies the success of that class in South Carolina. The amount of money generated in the Lowcountry was far superior to that of other colonial settlements, creating incredibly wealthy individuals who could show off and build structures on par with those of the landed gentry in England. I would explain that the average building of the mid-18th century was simple compared to this house. Drayton Hall was a “skyscraper” for its day.

GM: From your contractor’s perspective, what do you think of the decision to preserve and not restore Drayton Hall?

RM: That decision offers a unique challenge. How do you preserve a building and at the same time let it become a museum open to visitation and not allow spaces to be altered? Because things inherently age and weather, how do you stop change? The challenge is how to keep the outer envelope in good shape and on the inside leave it as it was when sold to the National Trust. Over time, things were done for fashion and to “modernize” the house. They’re all part of the story. The house is honest. It doesn’t gloss over imperfections and blemishes. It reflects what happened in the South after the Revolution and the Civil War and into the 20th century. We are fortunate in that Drayton Hall was not destroyed by fire, hurricane or man. If we listen, it has a story to tell.

GM: What has your work as a contractor taught you about the people who designed and built Drayton Hall?

RM: The people who built Drayton Hall were experts in every respect. They had the ability to take the raw material available in the Lowcountry — such as the clay for the brick, the shell to make the lime, the timber to make the framing — and transform them into building materials, which included both the structural materials as well as the finer elements like the joinery, finish work and casework. They not only had the ability to construct it, but they came up with designs and the proportions on par with what their counterparts were doing in England. However, they were doing it in a remote site with harsh conditions in a part of the world they weren’t that familiar with. Drayton Hall was the culmination of a keenly honed organization.

Portico analysis with Richard Marks, Ed Chappell and Craig Bennett. Photo credit Richard Marks.

GM: Since we don’t have records of Drayton Hall’s construction and cannot identify its builders, does the house itself allow us to get closer to nameless African Americans who probably did a lot of that work?

RM: This type of building could not have been done without the enslaved artisans and laborers who worked side by side with master builders. The sheer amount of energy it took to generate the raw goods would in today’s world take heavy machinery and tremendous amounts of horsepower. Just think of the work necessary to dig and process the clay to make the bricks; to build, stock and manage the kilns to fire them; to gather the sand and produce the lime, produced by burning oyster shells; to mix them with water to make the mortar; then to skillfully take all of that and erect the walls for this grand edifice. That’s just the brickwork.

In the colonial era, you do not see this grand of a building in Pennsylvania or other areas. Why? Because Drayton Hall was the product of vast amounts of money coupled with the expertise available probably through master builders or carpenters who came over from England, and the presence of very trained, enslaved African American builders and laborers. While it’s unfortunate that so many of the hands that worked on this building will never be known, we can look at Drayton Hall and see and touch their handiwork and know it couldn’t have been built without them.

GM: How do you see Drayton Hall in the future?

RM: My vision for Drayton Hall is that it becomes a center for learning. It would build on previous efforts, highlight the site’s uniqueness and broaden the knowledge of the historical people who did the work. Hopefully, we could identify them by name and map where materials came from. We have stone columns that are sophisticatedly carved and turned, yet we cannot connect them to names and faces. I’ve always wanted to put myself in the place of the people who did the work and go back in a time machine. If we could learn more about those people and what they did and how, wouldn’t that be fascinating?

A resident of Summerville, S.C., George McDaniel was executive director of Drayton Hall from 1989 to 2015 and is now president of McDaniel Consulting, LLC, a strategy firm for communities and historical organizations.


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