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Plantation paradox

Visitors gaze on beauty and bondage at these historic plantations.


Molly Phillips
Published March 05, 2014


—  Magnolia Plantation  —

Charleston, South Carolina

It’s common knowledge that Charleston, South Carolina, is the place to go for historic Southern architecture. However, there’s one house in Charleston that puts the rest to shame: Magnolia Plantation.

One of the older plantation mansions of the South, the main house was constructed before the Revolutionary War in Summerville, South Carolina. The structure was floated down the river to its current resting place in Magnolia after the Civil War.

The grand house isn’t the only thing you’ll want to explore there, however. Five years ago, the plantation began the Magnolia Cabin Project, a guided exhibit of the plantation’s slave quarters dating back to 1850. That exhibit has brought the plantation an award for preservation of African-American history. Magnolia’s website claims that this exhibit will give visitors a “newfound perspective” on what life was really like on a Southern cash-crop plantation.

Magnolia is equally as famous for its grounds as for its mansion; it boasts one of America’s last large-scale romantic gardens, modeled after those painted by Monet in France during the impressionist period. The gardens have been open to the public since the 1870s; with much of the original layout still intact, the gardens are considered the oldest unrestored gardens in America.


—  Gamble Plantation  —

Ellenton, Florida

The Gamble Plantation, the only remaining plantation estate home in South Florida, is located about 30 minutes outside of Tampa and St. Petersburg. A trip to Gamble can transform any run-of-the-mill beach excursion into something educational.

The home is named after the man who built it, Major Robert Gamble. The mansion also served as the center point for a large sugarcane operation. Gamble’s slaves provided the necessary labor for its construction, done in the Doric Revivalist style. Its proximity to the ocean allowed for much of the house to be built of a material called tabby, made from crushed seashells, sand, and water.

Soon after the plantation was completed, Gamble faced copious amounts of debt because of the crash of the sugarcane industry and the beginning of the Civil War. The mansion played a prominent role in the war, as it served as the shelter for Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin, who had taken flight down the Florida Panhandle in an attempt to evade capture by Union troops.

After enduring decades of disrepair through the early 1900s, the house was eventually purchased by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who began to restore it, eventually donating it to the state of Florida, which oversees its maintenance today. The house and park are open year-round, with tours given daily.

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