George McDaniel in 1989, shortly after becoming executive director.
How has Drayton Hall changed since you arrived in 1989?
My goal was to sustain Drayton Hall’s pursuit of excellence by building on the strong foundation of my predecessors, who established our core beliefs in preservation and education. Things were much smaller back then. Our budget was around $600,000, and now, thanks to Miss Sally Reahard’s endowment, it’s at $2.2 million, and we have a larger and more professionally trained staff, plus more visitors. Since about 1992, we’ve been self sufficient, receiving no cash support from the Trust, but it has provided critically needed professional support and guidance as well as grants that have funded preservation, collections, education, and research. We have been fortunate to have a wonderful site council that has supported Drayton Hall in many ways over the years. When I came here, our collections were not on site—they were at Montpelier, the Southern Regional Office and elsewhere. We have made a real effort to bring those collections “home” to Drayton Hall. Also, the land across the river was still a threat, zoned at 22 units/acre, and now we have purchased that land. It’s gratifying that our work has won awards at the local, state, and national levels and is recognized as a world-class site.
What sets Drayton Hall apart from other historic sites?
Drayton Hall has a long tradition of striving for excellence, and that can be seen in the architecture, material culture, Drayton family papers, and oral history. Drayton Hall as a place is unique. We all are very careful to preserve this survivor, and want to do the best for it because of the legacy it stands for in Charleston and the nation. Because Drayton Hall has been preserved, or stabilized, and not restored to a specific period of time, it gives us the opportunity to tell a richer and deeper story of how this place and its people changed over time. The good news is that we continue to have excellent relations with the descendants, both black and white, and they contribute substantially to Drayton Hall’s ongoing story. Because this site has been preserved and has not been “gussied up,” it evokes history in ways that deeply touch our visitors. Just last week I met a person in Maine who had visited Drayton Hall years ago and who said how inspirational her visit was. Such comments are not unusual.
When most people think of Drayton Hall, they think of the main house. How did you change the conversation to include the landscape and the Ashley River?
There’s no doubt that the main house is the crown jewel, and it’s not so much a question of changing the conversation as expanding upon it because to truly understand the main house you need a more complete picture. The main house didn’t pop out of the ground like a mushroom. We began to ask important questions. Who built the house? Who worked the land? I believe it is important to study the landscape and the African American history in order to tell a more complete story. Having grown up in Atlanta, I saw how suburban sprawl radically changed the landscape. I could also see this happening on Ashley River Road. My predecessors were already fighting this in the 70s and 80s. At Drayton Hall, we’ve had a long-standing tradition of conserving not just our own site, but also the larger cultural landscape including the Ashley River and Ashley River Road.
If you could only be remembered for one thing here at Drayton Hall, what would you want it to be?
I want to leave a tradition of striving for excellence and integrity. It’s about trying to make a better world and working for something greater than yourself. I have enjoyed being part of that larger mission.
Ten years from now, where would you like to see Drayton Hall in terms of its mission?
Drayton Hall’s education programs and interpretation have been grounded in scholarly research and professional pedagogy. Our experts on staff have made a difference. Ten years from now, I would like to see an interpretive center to properly display our collections and that would serve as a physical representation of Drayton Hall’s mission, that is, it conveys the story of this site in ways that educates and inspires visitors to support history and historic preservation.
Praise for George McDaniel’s Leadership
“George McDaniel’s tenure at Drayton Hall represents the embodiment of stewardship and whole place preservation. He has led the preservation and maintenance of the site’s extraordinary buildings and landscape, as well as the surrounding landscape of the Ashley River. He has worked tirelessly and creatively to recover and tell the stories of the site, especially those of its African American history. His work has established new and expansive ways in which historic sites provide public benefit. George’s leadership, which is always grounded in a good story and his easy laugh, has made Drayton Hall an exemplary historic site and it has strengthened the National Trust as an organization.” -Stephanie Meeks, President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation
“Historic sites often narrowly focus on their own limited slice of history. Their narratives are limited to the minutia of their own story and their concerns stop at their borders. Not the case with Drayton Hall. Guided by George’s broader vision, Drayton Hall has used its compelling history to connect visitors to larger historic themes and to instill in them a preservation ethic that they can take home with them. Drayton Hall has gone beyond its gates to protect the larger cultural landscape of which it is such an integral part. By linking its story to larger themes and by playing a leadership role in regional preservation, George has established Drayton Hall as a national leader. Drayton Hall is a world-class historic site. That recognition is due in no small measure to the enlightened vision, generous spirit, and exceptional dedication of its world-class leader, George McDaniel.” -Tony Wood, Drayton Hall Site Advisory Council Chair Emeritus
“As a member of the Drayton family, I would like to express our appreciation for George McDaniel’s 25 years of dedicated commitment to Drayton Hall. He spearheaded the effort that has successfully secured the view shed of Drayton Hall in particular and the Ashley River region in general. He has put together a talented staff who are outstanding in their respective fields. His vision has enabled all descendants of those who helped to make Drayton Hall what it is to feel pride in their heritage. He has also broadened the outreach of Drayton Hall through educational programs and expanded recognition with cooperative ventures with other historic-minded organizations. We are truly grateful that his leadership and love of history has borne such fruit at Drayton Hall.” -Anne Drayton Nelson