Peter and Patti McGee: ‘There is a two-word answer’
Excerpted from Drayton Hall Stories: A Place and Its People
By George McDaniel
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Patti and Peter McGee. Image provided.
Peter McGee, a Charlestonian and prominent attorney, was instrumental in the initial preservation of Drayton Hall. A National Trust for Historic Preservation trustee, he served on Drayton Hall’s advisory council for many years and became its chairman. Patti McGee, a native of Marion, South Carolina, is an active preservationist in Charleston and was advisor from S.C. to the National Trust. Among other things, they describe the key role of Frances Edmunds in the preservation of Drayton Hall.
George McDaniel: Since you’re a Charlestonian, Peter, what did Drayton Hall mean to you growing up?
Peter McGee: Middleton Place and Magnolia were the two main spots on what we called the River Road. To me, Drayton Hall was, in a word, almost meaningless. The first time I laid eyes on it was decades ago when Patti and I went up the Ashley River with my friend David Maybank. We carefully tied up our boat on its riverbank, and ascending the bank, I saw Drayton Hall. It’s not an overstatement to say there was a “wow” impact. I was old enough to recognize architectural beauty, and this place had it!
Patti McGee: Drayton Hall’s unique to Charleston and to this country. Later, I do remember going to a dinner party of Sara Hastie Low, a Drayton descendant. Candles filled the place, even tiny votives in the fireplace. Was it elegant! Magical!
George: What led you to become so involved in historic preservation?
Peter: A two-word answer: Frances Edmunds. As a youth, I had gotten to know Frances. When she was with the Historic Charleston Foundation in the 1960s, she sought to update zoning laws, which dated to the 1930s, to extend the historic district up the peninsula and achieve other goals. When she asked her brother Henry Smythe for a young lawyer to help, he recommended me. That’s the first time I worked with Frances.
George: Why do you think women have been involved in preservation?
Patti: Women were, without question, the earliest leaders in the preservation of Charleston. Perhaps it’s an appreciation for the domestic. It wasn’t just saving one house but saving the community and the whole environment. Women had the time to volunteer. That’s how I became involved. You had to have a desire to learn about decorative arts and antiques and the ability to do it as a volunteer. Men handled the legal and financial ends. Charleston is lucky to have had those women.
Frances Edmunds had a lot to do with it. She saw the value of Charleston’s being a living, thriving, viable city. It wasn’t Williamsburg because it had not been reconstructed. People lived here, worked here, played here. She instilled in us that we wanted people to see Charleston as a real community. We were not Disney World.
George: What led you to the preservation of Drayton Hall?
Peter: Again, Frances Edmunds. We knew Charles Drayton and his brother Frank wanted to sell it, so she came up with a strategy. I helped. We needed three organizations: the local Historic Charleston Foundation, the state of S.C. and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Since the trust was having its annual conference in Charleston in 1970, we organized a tour exclusively of Drayton Hall, not of Magnolia or Middleton Place. We didn’t want Drayton Hall to be bought by a rich Yankee or anything like that. We’d spring it on them: “Isn’t this a wonderful place?” The trustees would be enthralled. Afterward, when we said, “Now don’t you think …?” the trust’s leadership would say, “Yes, we do.” Once they saw it, National Trust leaders — James Biddle, Gordon Gray and others — would recognize that saving Drayton Hall was vital. From the site, we returned them to their hotels, so for their whole time, we’d given them Drayton Hall by themselves. From that event, a series of steps took place, culminating in Drayton Hall becoming a trust site.
George: What do you think Drayton Hall has offered the public?
Patti: When you involved both the Draytons and the Bowens and began to tell the parallel stories of the two families, you were ahead of your time, George, and that’s what makes the site come alive. You’ve had great guides, ones who loved history and interpreted the place in the light of how the plantation owners and the slave community lived, which is so integral to interpreting any of the antebellum places. The way Drayton Hall is opened up for people gives them a rare chance in person to appreciate Palladian architecture. As for the Draytons, they treasured Drayton Hall and lived in this house and used it into the 20th century for parties and weddings, making it integral to the identity of their family. You’ve kept them engaged. I think all of that is wonderful, and not many places can say that.
George: If you were to summarize Frances Edmunds in a few words, what would you say?
Peter: Smart. Lots of ideas and determination. I had a lot of fun working for Frances.
George: Why did Frances Edmunds care so much about Drayton Hall?
Peter: Because she cared about a lot of things.
Patti: She was passionate about Charleston. When they were saving and acquiring the Nathaniel Russell House, she fell into that first job. That’s what led to the formation of the Historic Charleston Foundation. Frances had a way of making it impossible to say no. She had the ear of the bankers and the ear of the highway department and knew where people were whom you had to be in touch with to get things accomplished. She stepped on a toe or two, but not many.
One story about Frances: When I went onto the board of the Garden Conservancy, I was seated next to a man who had been involved with the National Trust and knew Frances. He asked her, “How do you get the leaders in your community to get behind these wonderful projects? She quietly looked over at him and said, “Oh, just a little pillow talk.”
George: You were saying earlier that she did not want someone “from off” to buy Drayton Hall. Could you describe the likely effects of that on Drayton Hall?
Peter: From the outset I knew that we were not going to let this property get away. We needed help; hence the game plan I described.
Patti: We didn’t want it to become a victim of that second Yankee invasion in which houses were owned not by people who lived and worked here but by those who come for a few months. Charleston wasn’t their home. Somebody used the word “token wives.” They have “token houses.” When somebody has to have a house in Charleston, a house in St. Croix and a house at every ritzy address, it’s a loss. At the same time, there are people who’ve come to appreciate what a unique city Charleston is. You’ve got them on the board of Drayton Hall. My friend Ben Lenhardt thinks Drayton Hall is wonderful. We need them.
George: I’ll ask you an imaginary question. Imagine Frances Edmunds still living and as strong as you remember her. Now imagine she’s on television’s “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” Colbert being your son-in-law. Can you imagine the conversation they would have?
Peter: It would be pretty damn good!
Patti: He would have a lot to say about his hometown. He doesn’t talk about Charleston too much, but I think he’d recognize that she was a person who helped make Charleston as special as it is. That would be fun to see. Oh, Lordy! She would give it to him as much as he would give it to her.
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. He is the author of Drayton Hall Stories: A Place and Its People, forthcoming in April from Evening Post Books.