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History of Early American Landscape Design

Otranto (Charleston, SC)

[http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/research/casva/research-projects.html A Project of the National Gallery of Art, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts ]

Otranto (Charleston, SC) was a rice plantation on Goose Creek, fifteen miles north of Charleston, South Carolina, owned by the physician and botanist Alexander Garden (1730–1791). He pursued agricultural experiments on the property and created a garden of sophisticated design featuring indigenous plants.

Overview

Alternate Names: Yeshoe
Site Dates: 1771–1890
Site Owners: Alexander Garden (1730–1791); Alexander Garden Jr. (1757–1829); Ralph Izard (1742–1804); Robert Reeve Gibbes (1769–1831); Lewis Ladson Gibbes (1771–1828); Edward Charles Lightwood; Rev. Milward Pogson (1757–1836) and Henrietta Wragg Pogson (d. 1835); Philip Porcher (1851–1872); Otranto Hunting Club; Otranto Development Corporation); Otranto Land Company
Location: Hanahan (near Charleston), SC
Condition: demolished
View on Google Maps


History

Fig. 1, Georg Dionysius Ehret, Calycanthus Florida, c. 1759, from specimens provided by Alexander Garden.

The 1,689-acre property that Alexander Garden purchased in 1771 originally belonged to a parcel of land granted in 1679 to the brothers Arthur and Edward Middleton, English colonists who relocated from Barbados to South Carolina. By the time Garden purchased the property from his friend John Moultrie (1729–1798), it had passed among several owners and acquired the Native American name “Yeshoe.”[1] It was most likely Garden who renamed the estate Otranto, in reference either to the southern Italian port town of the same name (which he might have visited while patrolling the Mediterranean as a naval surgeon in 1749 and 1750) or to Horace Walpole’s Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto, published in 1764.[2] The novel’s famed romanticism matched Garden’s conception of his South Carolina property as a “beautiful and romantick spot.”[3] The low, one-and-a-half-story stuccoed brick house that survives on the property has been interpreted variously as constructed by Arthur Middleton in the late 17th century, by Alexander Garden in the 1770s, or by Garden’s son around 1790. The building has a colonnaded piazza on three sides and a pedimented portico at the rear.[4]

One of the foremost authorities on botany in America, Garden had corresponded for many years with naturalists in Europe and America. He had already filled the garden of his Charles Town (Charleston) house with an abundance of specimens gathered from the surrounding countryside and while exploring areas as far north as New York and south to Florida. He had acquired additional seeds and plants through botanical exchanges with leading European naturalists and American botanists including John Bartram and Cadwallader and Jane Colden. With the encouragement of the Royal Society of London, he had dabbled in experimental agriculture, and had encouraged his Charles Town neighbors to join him in attempting to cultivate grapes, indigo, mulberry for silkworms, and semi-tropical crops intended for export to Britain.[5] Otranto was one of several working plantations owned by Garden. In addition to rice, he grew and processed indigo there, taking advantage of the system of brick and stucco dyestuff vats that a previous owner had put in place.[6] Although Garden expressed concern for the physical health and working conditions of slaves and condemned the hard use to which planters often subjected them, he, himself, was a slave owner. As his property holdings grew, so did his dependence upon an enslaved labor force.[7] In the mid-1750s Garden had written to the Royal Society requesting information on new machinery that might replace human labor, but he did not pursue that possibility further.[8]

Unlike Garden’s other plantations, Otranto functioned as a rural retreat, with a small residence, a pleasure garden, and an ornamental grove of indigenous trees, shrubs, and flowers. Garden wrote a detailed account of Otranto’s terrain and of the plants he cultivated there in a letter of 1789 to his friend and fellow South Carolina planter George Ogilvie (view text). Additional information about the estate is contained in Ogilvie’s Georgic poem “Carolina; or, The Planter” (1790), which celebrated Otranto as the ideal embodiment of the English natural landscape garden, in which “taste’s soft pencil mellow[s] art[’]s harsh line / And nature’s flowing mantle veil[s] design” (view text).[9] Garden described Otranto’s “Diversified grounds” as combining “Hill & Dale,” with “A fine winding River” adding to the scenic effects—“the opposite banks covered with tall primaeval trees with many a flourishing shrub making the most picturesque background.” Both Garden and Ogilvie emphasized the dramatic visual effects of the house and garden in relation to the natural terrain, calling particular attention to the elaborate system of walks laid out on the property. A maze of serpentine paths wound throughout the garden, but when turning to look back at the garden from the perspective of the river bank, only straight walks came into view—an effect Garden characterized as a “magical deception.” Dramatic optical effects also resulted from the position of the house “on the top of the hill commanding a fine prospect of the adjacent grounds & many different views of the meanderings of the River.” By day, towering tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipfera) more than eighty feet high shaded the west side of the house from the afternoon sun. By night, a beautiful view of the moon could be glimpsed from the piazza of the house through the parted branches of another enormous tulip tree.[10] Despite its modest size, the “villa” gained dramatic emphasis from its elevated position, according to Ogilvie, who wrote: “There midst the grove, with unassuming guise / But rural neatness, see the mansion rise!”[11] Near the house stood a freestanding “rural library” (shaded by “an Umbrageous Catalpa & Lofty magnolia”) containing Garden’s extensive collection of books.[12] Along with classical authors and works of English literature, the library contained important books on natural history, including those by Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707–1788), Carl Linnaeus, John Clayton, and Johannes Gronovius.[13]

Despite his passion for collecting exotic specimens from other parts of America and the world, Garden intended the garden at Otranto to showcase indigenous plants—to demonstrate, as he put it, “what a Carolina situation ornamented with only the natural productions of the Country can arrive at when so laid out.”[14] His description of Otranto emphasizes the splendor of native flowers, shrubs, and trees growing wild in South Carolina, and their superiority to the carefully cultivated flora of the Old World. Ogilvie similarly claimed that even though Holland’s tulips bloomed brighter and Damascus’s roses smelled sweeter when cultivated in America, they could not compete with the Magnolia and humble Glauca that grew naturally in Carolina. At Otranto, he asserted, “all the pride of Europe’s florists yields / To the assembled wildings of our fields.”[15] Among the native trees that flourished in the grove at Otranto were Magnolia tripetala (umbrella magnolia), Magnolia Gordonia (Loblolly Bay), and Magnolia altissima (the Laurel Tree of Carolina), the latter characterized by Garden as “the Proudest of the Vegetable kingdom, challenging both Indies in the rich Verdure of its foliage and Excelling Every Vegetable in the Magnitude and grandeur of its flowers.”[16] He also grew Cypress trees, allowing the “flow’ry tindrils” of climbing azaleas and flowering vines—such as scarlet woodbine (Lonicera periclymenum), yellow jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens), and wisteria (Glycine)—to weave through the branches so that “one continu’d garland binds the grove.”[17] The borders of the garden included flowers and shrubs that were aromatic as well as colorful, giving “a lovely glow to the gardens of Otranto that your cold bleak gardens of Albion [England] can never see or produce.” Garden made similar claims for Otranto’s orchard, which boasted Kennedy peaches whose “taste the cold clime of Albion with all her art can never Emulate.” His recollections of Otranto abound with sensory appeal, from the fragrance of the flowers (“The Calycanthus [Fig. 1] or sweet scented shrub diffusing an Aromatick fragrance seemingly a Compound of Strawberry, Pineapple, & the Clove”), to their varied hues (“orange coloured asclepias . . . Azure Lobelias, . . . the blushing rose Coloured Accacia), to the song of “a thousand warblers,” and the atmospheric effects produced by “innumerable hosts of fireflies—A storm of thunder and lightening.”[18]

Garden had only a few years to develop and enjoy Otranto before the outbreak of war between America and Britain in 1776. A loyalist, he was demoralized by the conflict, confessing to Benjamin Rush in September 1781 that he had suspended his scientific correspondence until “times of Peace and Philosophical Enquiry shall again return.”[19] Like other loyalists, he was banished from South Carolina and his property confiscated following Britain’s surrender in 1782. Four years earlier, he had conveyed his property in trust to his son, Alexander Garden Jr. (1757–1829), who was being educated in England. On his return to America in 1781, the younger Garden took up residence at Otranto and, to his father’s dismay, joined the revolutionary forces, rising to the rank of major. Briefly confiscated by the new American government, Otranto was returned to Major Garden upon appeal in January 1783.[20] He sold off some of the property in 1786, conveying 339 acres to Ralph Izard (1742–1804) who owned the adjacent plantation, The Elms. He sold the remainder to Robert Reeve Gibbes (1769–1831) in 1798. Both properties changed hands numerous times over the next several decades, always under the name Otranto, until 1851 when Philip Porcher (1851–1872) acquired the 400 acres that included the villa and renamed the estate “Goslington,” or “little goose.”[21] Following Porcher’s death in 1872, a hunting club purchased the property, using the villa as its clubhouse. In the last years of the 19th century, horse races were held on the property, with a mile-long circular track installed around the house.[22] Until the 21st century, an iron gate with brick pillars remained. The property was redeveloped as a residential subdivision in the 1960s.

Robyn Asleson


Texts

“A few unconnected remarks on the situation and productions of Otranto [and] the Reasources of Carolina are inclosed. Such of them as you can weave into a description of that once beautiful and roman tick spot, may show what a Carolina situation ornamentted with only the natural productions of the Country can arrive at when so laid out.—The magical deception of the winding of Streight walks was not the least ornament of the garden for while walking in the garden you saw no straight walk & yet when turning and walking along the Bank of the river you saw none but Streight walks & not one of these winding walks thro the meanders of which you had visited all parts of the Garden while in it. And what is it now—possessed by a Goth! It sickens my soul to think of it.

“Diversified grounds—Hill & Dale—A fine winding River—The opposite banks covered with tall primaeval trees with many a flourishing shrub making the most picturesque background. The river plenteously stored with a variety of Fish—the labrus sapidus or large voracious fresh water trout—The blue bream the most delicate and sweetest of fishes. . . .

“The house on the top of the hill commanding a fine prospect of the adjacent grounds and many different views of the meanderings of the River—guarded on the West from the afternoon’s sun by two large Liriodendrons or Tulip trees full of foliage and beautiful Blossoms during May June and part of July. Remember the large Liriodendron between the fish ponds rising eighty feet without a branch then spreading out into a large head having a large opening in the middle thro which the full moon about an hour high was seen from the Piazza of the house—Never was Cynthia seen so much to advantage before having not the simple fig leaf that Mother Eve resorted to but a full grown beard of tulip tree leaves and flowers. Had Endymion seen her thus arrayed what would he have said?

“Near the house is a rural Library overshaddowed with an Umbrageous Catalpa & Lofty magnolia under Cover of which the first Company of the world reside [Milton, Tasso, Ariosto, Gay, Voltaire, Horace, Theocritus, Thompson] . . . Lineaus & Bufon accompany you to the Fields—Sir Issac & Cassini to the Celestial dance.

“The ponds full of fish Juletta a successful fisher for Perch, Carp, Blue Bream &c.

“The River at different seasons Covered with Ducks of Various kinds: . . . the Mandarine Ducks—the blue winged teal and even the alligator in plenty. . . .

“The gently hanging garden where Art only gives easy access to the Various inimitable productions of Nature from the early and mildly blushing Atamasco Lily to the modest Moccasine flower the pride of the meadows surrounded by the jessamines, orange coloured asclepias, the Candid Crinums, the Azure Lobilias and purple Iuccas[?] and day Gentianellas— . . . Leaving the pearled Lobelia, the rich velvety Erythrina or Corrollodendrons—the blushing rose Coloured Accacia and in the number and magnitude of its clusters of flowers—to face the solsticial sun—The Andromedas—The Iteas—The Cyrilla—stillingia—The styrax, the Stewartia—The Illicium—all beautiful flowering Shrubs.

“The Chionanthus.

“The Magnolia altissima, the Proudest of the Vegetable kingdom, chal­lenging both Indies in the rich Verdure of its foliage and Excelling Every Vegetable in the Magnitude and grandeur of its flowers—

“The Magnolia Glauca, or Sweat flowering Bay, scenting all the Circumambient air with its fragrance.

“The Calycanthus or sweet scented shrub diffusing an Aromatick fragrance seemingly a Compound of Strawberry, Pineapple, & the Clove—called sometime by the envied name of Bubby Blossom from the Ladies often carrying them in their bozoms.

“The Kalmia or Callicoe flower, a beautiful shrub.

“The Borders deakt with full blown Illiciums-Kalmias Erythrinas Calycanthus-Accacia Coccinea[?]—Umbrella Magnolias-Stewartia­ Ptelias—Styrax—Itea Cyrilla and many other aromatick and flowering shrubs give a lovely glow to the gardens of Otranto that your cold bleak gardens of Albion can never see or produce.

“The Liriodendron, Magnolia Gordonia, or Loblolly Bay—the Catalpa—the large flowering Cornus—the Chionanthus—the Halesia, all large trees overshadow the Lesser greatly.

“The yellow Jessaminy rich in the wallflower smell, luxriantly covering the tallest trees mingles its fragrant flowers with the Snow Drop or Chionan thus together with the Periclymenum or Scarlet woodbine.

“These invite a thousand warblers—the Mocking bird. The Nonpareil, the Last in beauty of colours and the first in variety of notes exceeding all known birds—

“Innumerable hosts of fireflies—

“A storm of thunder and lightning.

“Fair Peaches—the Kennedy Peach when full ripe exceeding in richness and flavour any other fruit or what even fancy can suggest—a taste the cold clime of Albion with all her art can never Emulate.


  • Ogilvie, George, 1790, describing Otranto, in Carolina; or, The Planter (1986: 67–76)[24] back up to History
“And lo! my friend, where all the muse demands,
“On Goose-creeks banks thy own Otranto stands!
“Where pleas’d and wond’ring as we thrid the maze,
“We doubt what beauty first demands our praise
“The river bounded by the impervious shade,
“The smooth green meadow, or the enamel’d glade,
“Where all the pride of Europe’s florist yields
“To the assembled wildings of our fields;
“Tho’ herewith brighter tints the tulip glows,
“And richer fragrance scents Damascus’ rose . . .
“Whilst yet unnam’d the graet Magnlia bloom’d,
“And numbler Glauca trackless wilds perfum’d.

“Here Pales seems with Flora to have strove,
“To blend the beauties of the lawn and grove. . . .

“Here early blossoms deck the unfledg’d Thorn,
“And yellos Jasmines leafless trees adorn.

“Bright as the blush of Venus when she loves,
“Sweet as the woodbine of her Paphean groves,
“Th’ Azalea climbs the Cypress loftier bough,
“And Periclymenons low shaded blow,
“Blending their lovely tubes of roseat hue,
“With the Glycine’s variegated blue.
“From tree to tree the flow'ry tindrils rove
“Till one continu’d garland binds the grove
“Winding through shady walks, we slow descend,
“To skirt the mead, or trace the river’s bend . . .

“We mark the white Accasia all alive
“With Bees, or see the Orange drain the hive,
“Whilst fragrant Calycanths appear to bring
“The fruits of Autumn midst the flow’rs of Spring;
“White Chionanths, with flaky fringe, display
“December freezing in the lap of May,
“As Periclymenons luxuriant throw
“Their glowing wreaths around the mimic snow;
“And yellow Jasmines interweave between,
“Their golden blossom, and their em’rald green. . . .

“Here Qamoclits their blushing flow’rs renew,
“Ere rising suns exhale the morning dew;
“As if asham’d the tell-tale morn should see
“Their tender limbs intwine yon vig’rous tree. . . .
“There midst the grove, with unassuming guise
“But rural neatness, see the mansion rise! . . .

“Nor distant far, where Liriodendrums spread,
“More rich than Persian Looms, a painted shade,
“A Temple, sacred to each Muse, we find,
“Stor’d with the noblest treasures of the mind. . . .”

Images


Other Resources

Photographs of the villa at Otranto


Notes

  1. For the history of the property, see Michael James Hetizler, Goose Creek, South Carolina: A Definitive History 1670–2003 (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2005), 174–75, view on Zotero; Henry A. M. Smith, “Goose Creek,” South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine 29 (January 1928): 20–22, view on Zotero.
  2. Edmund Berkeley and Dorothy Smith Berkeley, Dr. Alexander Garden of Charles Town (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969), 17–19, 236, view on Zotero.
  3. George Ogilvie and Alexander Garden, “The Letters of George Ogilvie and Alexander Garden,” Southern Literary Journal 18 (1986): 132, view on Zotero.
  4. Robert P. Stockton, Elias Bull, and Cathy Caffrey, “Otranto Plantation” (Hanahan, SC: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1977), view on Zotero.
  5. Berkeley and Berkeley 1969, 33–34, 59, 102–3, 112, 119–21, 155–57, 247–52, view on Zotero; Joseph I. Waring, “Correspondence between Alexander Garden, M.D., and the Royal Society of Arts,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 65 (1963): 17–22, view on Zotero; Joseph I. Waring, “Correspondence between Alexander Garden, M.D., and the Royal Society of Arts (Continued),” South Carolina Historical Magazine 64 (1963): 86–94, view on Zotero.
  6. Three vat systems used in the processing of indigo at Otranto survived until the early 20th century, and two of the plantation’s brick and stucco vats are still preserved, among the only known examples in existence in South Carolina. See David B. Schneider, “Otranto Plantation Indigo Vats” (U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1988), view on Zotero.
  7. Garden included 42 slaves in the property he conveyed to a trust in 1778. During the siege of Charleston in 1780, British troops captured 76 slaves at Otranto. When he returned to England in 1782, Garden left behind “twenty-five Mulatto and Negro household servants,” who were also enslaved. Berkeley and Berkeley 1969, 275, 280, 289, 294, 323; see also 102, 124–25 for Garden’s comments on the treatment of slaves, view on Zotero.
  8. Berkeley and Berkeley 1969, 58–59, view on Zotero.
  9. David S. Shields, “George Ogilvie’s ‘Carolina; Or, The Planter’ (1776),” Southern Literary Journal 18 (1986): 13, view on Zotero.
  10. Garden to Ogilvie, July 24, 1789, in George Ogilvie and Alexander Garden, “The Letters of George Ogilvie and Alexander Garden,” Southern Literary Journal 18 (1986): 132–33, view on Zotero.
  11. George Ogilvie, “Carolina; Or, the Planter,” Southern Literary Journal 18 (1986): 71; see also 67 for Ogilvie’s identification of Otranto as “the Villa of Doctor Garden,” view on Zotero.
  12. The quotation is from Garden to Ogilvie, July 24, 1789, in Ogilvie and Garden 1986, 133, view on Zotero.
  13. Ogilvie 1986, 71–74, view on Zotero.
  14. The quotation is from Garden to Ogilvie, July 24, 1789, in Ogilvie and Garden 1986, 132, view on Zotero.
  15. Ogilvie 1986, 67, view on Zotero.
  16. Garden to Ogilvie, July 24, 1789, in Ogilvie and Garden 1986, 133, view on Zotero.
  17. Ogilvie 1986, 68, view on Zotero.
  18. Garden to Ogilvie, July 24, 1789, in Ogilvie and Garden 1986, 134, view on Zotero.
  19. Nina Reid, “Loyalism and the ‘Philosophic Spirit’ in the Scientific Correspondence of Dr. Alexander Garden,” South Carolina Historical Magazine, 92 (1991): 13–14, view on Zotero.
  20. Berkeley and Berkeley 1969, 221–23, 243–45, 275, 284–92, view on Zotero.
  21. Hetizler 2005, 176–77, view on Zotero; Smith, January 1928, 23–25, view on Zotero.
  22. Leiding 1921, 26, view on Zotero.
  23. Ogilvie and Garden 1986, view on Zotero.
  24. Ogilvie 1986, view on Zotero

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