The Road Less Taken at Middleton Inn

By Frank Harmon, FAIA

Sometimes we can appreciate a work of art for what’s left unsaid, for the missing piece that we get to imagine. Ernest Hemingway doesn’t mention abortion in his short story “Hills Like White Elephants.” Yet the couple waiting for a train beside the Ebro River is consumed by the thought of it. The devastating memory of war stalks the young American fishing in “Big Two Hearted River,” but suffering is not mentioned, its absence underlined by the grandeur of the landscape.

The composer John Cage thought that the greatest music lay not in sounds but in silence. And In architecture this phenomenon can be observed at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater in the mountains of Pennsylvania. Asked by his client to celebrate a beloved waterfall, Wright built the house over the stream so that you can’t actually see the waterfall. Instead, you hear it, which makes the experience of Fallingwater unforgettable.

I had a similar experience recently at the Middleton Inn near Charleston, South Carolina, built 25 years ago by architects W.G. Clark and Charles Menefee. A series of dignified, elegantly proportioned residential buildings rests beside the Ashley River underneath 100-year-old pines and live oak trees. To many architects, these are the most important modern buildings in the South. (To others, they aren’t.

What makes these buildings so Southern? They lack the obvious architectural symbols of the South. There are no white painted Corinthian columns,  and no porches with rocking chairs. Missing also are the wrought iron gates and grand allees of oaks you might expect. Instead, you arrive along a winding road to an earthen clearing overlooking a salt marsh where the inn stands quietly to one side. The inn’s 55 rooms seem to have floated to the banks of the Ashley River. Hardly a shovel-full of earth seems to have been disturbed.

But the earlier history of Middleton Place is quite different. For centuries the land here has been pushed and scraped. The extensive terraced earth parterre at nearby Middleton Plantation was the first of its kind built in the colonies. Below it slaves toiled in the rice paddies carved from the earth. And after the Civil
War, the banks of the Ashley were strip-mined for phosphates.

“These earthworks have left a profound mark on South Carolina’s wetlands,” wrote MacArthur Fellow Ted Rosengarten, “…evoking man’s temporal conquest of
nature, and nature’s ultimate conquest of man.”

In contrast to the turbulent history of its site, Clark and Menefee’s inn has a quiet languor and equilibrium as relaxed as the Spanish moss draped across the trees. Clark wrote that all building should be atonement for the disturbance of the land

But what about the missing piece? It’s hiding in plain sight: At Middleton Place there are no paved roads. The effect is profound. This elegant, sophisticated residence is reached by a dusty, shadow-flecked dirt road so that, on arriving, you experience the place, not the asphalt

And what a place it is — live oaks, Spanish moss, and alligators in the river. A friend says that to get to the real America you have to scrape off the first six inches of
asphalt, so preconditioned have we become by the many layers we use to cover up meaning.

By leaving out the paving – perhaps the most ubiquitous artifact of modern life — Clark and

Menefee leave nothing between the land and us.

Hemingway would get it.