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History of Early American Landscape Design

Otranto (Charleston, SC)

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Otranto (Charleston, S.C.) was a rice plantation on Goose Creek, fifteen miles north of Charleston, South Carolina, owned by the physician and botanist Alexander Garden. 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 (1771-82); Alexander Garden, Jr. (1783-98); Robert Reeve Gibbes (1798-?); Lewis Ladson Gibbes (1799-1808); Edward Charles Lightwood (1808-17); Rev. Milward Pogson and Henrietta Wragg Pogson (1817-23)… Philip Porcher (1851-72); Otranto Hunting Club (1872-1966); Otranto Development Corporation (1966-73); Otranto Land Company (1973)
Site Designer(s): Alexander Garden
Location: Hanahan, South Carolina (near Charleston)
View on Google Maps

History

The 1,689-acre property that Alexander Garden purchased in 1771 originally formed part of the 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]

One of the foremost authorities on botany in America, Garden had devoted many years to corresponding with naturalists in Europe and America. He had already filled the garden of his Charles Town house with an abundance of specimens gathered from the surrounding countryside and on expeditions 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 back to Britain.[4] Garden owned several working plantations, and he devoted some of the land at Otranto to agriculture as well. In addition to rice, he grew and processed indigo there, taking advantage of the brick and stucco vat system that a previous owner had put in place.[5] 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 was himself a slave owner, and as his property holdings grew, so did his dependence upon an enslaved labor force.[6] In the mid-1750s Garden had written to the Royal Society requesting information on new machinery that might replace human labor, but did not pursue that possibility further.[7]

Unlike Garden’s other plantations, Otranto functioned as a rural retreat, with a small but comfortable “villa,” 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 embodying the ideals of the natural English landscape garden, in which “taste’s soft pencil mellow[s] art[‘]s harsh line/And nature’s flowing mantle veil[s] design.”[view text][8] Garden described the “Diversified grounds” at Otranto 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 shrubs making the most picturesque background.”[9] Both Garden and Ogilvie emphasized the dramatic visual effects created at Otranto through the siting of the house and the layout of the grounds in relation to the natural terrain. Both called attention to the elaborate system of walks laid out on the property. A maze of serpentine paths wound throughout the garden, but when viewed from the river they disappeared from view and only straight paths could be seen— an effect Garden characterized as a “magical deception.”[10] 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 monumental tulip tree.[11] Despite its modest size, the house 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!”[12] An undated plat of Otranto represents a circular drive and central fountain near the entrance to the property. Near the house stood a freestanding “rural library” (shaded by “an Umbrageous Catalpa & Lofty magnolia”) containing Garden’s extensive collection of books.[13] 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 Johanned Gronovius.[14]

Despite his passion for collecting exotic specimens from other parts of America and the world, Garden’s intention at Otranto was evidently to showcase indigenous plants— to show, as he put it, “what a Carolina situation ornamentted with only the natural productions of the Country can arrive at when so laid out.”[15] His description of Otranto repeatedly calls attention to the splendor of the native flowers, shrubs, and trees that grew 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.”[16] 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.”[17] 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 gardland binds the grove.”[18] The borders of the garden included flowers and shrubs that were as 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.”Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; refs with no name must have content 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.”[19] His recollections of Otranto abounds with sensory appeal from the smell of the flowers (“The caliganthus or sweet scented shrub diffusing an aromatick fragrance seemingly a compound of strawberry Pineapple and the clove”) , the sound of the birds, and the colors of the flowers (“orange coloured Asclepias…azure lobelias and purble Juceas..)

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.” [20] Like other loyalists, he was banished from South Carolina and his property confiscated following Britain’s surrender in 1782. Four years earlier, he had sought to safeguard his property by conveying it to his son, Alexander Garden, Jr. (1757-1829), who was then being educated in England. Unlike his father, the younger Garden was a staunch proponent of American independence who returned to America in order to fight with the revolutionary army, eventually rising to the rank of major. Otranto was nevertheless confiscated briefly by the new American government and returned to Major Garden only after he filed an appeal in January 1783.[21] He sold off some of the property in 1786, conveying 339 acres to Ralph Izard, Jr. (175?-180?) who owned the adjacent plantation, The Elms. He sold the remainder to Robert Reeve Gibbes (1769-) 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 Garden’s house and renamed the estate “Goslington,” or “little goose.”[22] Following Porcher’s death in 1872, a hunting club purchased the property, using the villa as its clubhouse In the last years of the nineteenth century, horse races were held on the property, with a mile-long circular track installed around the house. [23] Until the twenty-first century, an iron gate with brick pillars remained. r entrance to six acres of the old Otranto property that remained undeveloped in the twentieth century style until the twenty-first century 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.


"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....

"Here Pales seems with Flora to have strove,

"To blend the beauties of the lawn and grove....

Bright as the blush of Venus when she loves,
"Sweet as the woodbine of her Paphean groves...
"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...

"There midst the grove, with unassuming guise
"But rural neatness, see the mansion rise!...


Images


References

Notes

  1. For the history of the property, see Michael James Hetizler, Goose Creek, South Carolina: A Definitive History 1670-2003 (Charleston: The History Press, 2005), 174-75, view on Zotero; Henry A. M. Smith, "Goose Creek," The 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, N.C.: 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 ,” The Southern Literary Journal, 18 (1986), 132, view on Zotero.
  4. Berkeley and Berkeley, 1969, 33-34, 59, 102-03, 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),” The South Carolina Historical Magazine, 64 (1963), 86–94, view on Zotero.
  5. Three vat systems used in the processing of indigo at Otranto survived until the early twentieth 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), https://www.zotero.org/groups/54737/items/itemKey/4V2ZV5KZ view on Zotero].
  6. 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.
  7. Berkeley and Berkeley, 1969, 58-59, view on Zotero.
  8. David S. Shields, "George Ogilvie’s 'Carolina; Or, The Planter' (1776)," The Southern Literary Journal, 18 (1986): 13, view on Zotero.
  9. George Ogilvie and Alexander Garden, "The Letters of George Ogilvie and Alexander Garden," The Southern Literary Journal, 18 (1986): 132, view on Zotero.
  10. Garden to Ogilvie, July 24, 1789, in Ogilvie and Garden, 1986: 132, view on Zotero.
  11. Garden to Ogilvie, July 24, 1789, in Ogilvie and Garden, 1986: 132, 133, view on Zotero.
  12. George Ogilvie, "Carolina; Or, the Planter," Southern Literary Journal, 18 (1986): 71, view on Zotero.
  13. The quotation is from Garden to Ogilvie, July 24, 1789, in Ogilvie and Garden, 1986: 133, view on Zotero.
  14. Ogilvie, 1986: 71-74, view on Zotero.
  15. Quotation from Garden to Ogilvie, ---, Ogilvie and Garden, 132
  16. Garden and Ogilvie, __Ogilvie, 67
  17. Garden to Ogilvie, p. 133
  18. Ogilvie, Carolina, 68
  19. Garden to Ogilvie, p. 134
  20. Nina Reid, ‘Loyalism and the “Philosophic Spirit” in the Scientific Correspondence of Dr. Alexander Garden ’, The South Carolina Historical Magazine, 92 (1991), 13-14, view on Zotero.
  21. Berkeley and Berkeley, 287-92, --?? 175
  22. Hetizler, 2005, 176-77, view on Zotero; Smith, January 1928, 23-25, view on Zotero; Harriette Kershaw Leiding, Historic Houses of South Carolina (Philadelphia and London: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1921), 27, view on Zotero.
  23. Leiding , 1921), 26, view on Zotero.
  24. Ogilvie and Garden, 1986, view on Zotero.
  25. George Ogilvie, "Carolina; Or, the Planter," Southern Literary Journal, 18 (1986), https://www.zotero.org/groups/54737/items/itemKey/QSHZQ4DS view on Zotero]

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