Sketch by Jim Lenahan

We recently returned from our office retreat in Charleston, SC. An inspiring city, our assignment was to prepare a short talk about the “why” we do what we do. Asking the question “why” is inherently challenging, we are asking ourselves as to “what is the core motivation that drive us.” Charleston was an amazing place to explore this idea because it soon became clear “why” we were there–the history, architecture, food and culture told the story of the relationship between architecture and history–both shaping and reflecting how people lived.

The James Sparrow House, our Airbnb home-base

Our home-base on the trip was the James Sparrow House. A Charleston Federalist single house, it is on the National Register of historic homes. Sitting on the porch enjoying the breezes and socializing in its rooms let us experience history intimately.

Our first adventure was to visit the American College of Building Arts, a wonderful college dedicated to supporting the knowledge and skill of building arts such as Architectural Carpentry, Architectural Stone, Classical Architecture, Forged Architectural Ironwork, Masonry, Plasterwork and Timber Framing.

Plaster work at the American College of Building Arts

An iron-working demonstration

After watching the sunset from the yard and reflecting on all we had seen at the impressive campus of the college, we parted ways to get ready for our big day touring two plantations–Drayton Hall and Middleton Place.


Our office in front of “Dorothy” our Lowcountry Shuttle bus

To set the mood, we were shuttled to the plantations on a fabulous vintage bus with bulb lights and some great nostalgic tunes. Our tour was to begin at Drayton Hall, an 18th-century Palladian inspired plantation on the Ashley River and inspiration for one of our projects at the University of Arkansas, about 15 miles outside of Charleston.

Drayton Hall in 1890

Our office standing on the porch of Drayton Hall

The back side of Drayton Hall

Michael taking a moment to sketch

It was amazing to experience the way that the house interacted with it’s location. The breezes that come off the Ashley River blow through the house, bringing needed cooling in the warmer months. On the upper floor you could imagine people dancing in the ballroom and wandering onto the front deck look taking in the beauty of the land.

Drayton Hall - Drew

Drayton Hall by Andrew Gander

With rain clouds approaching–our tour, wandering and sketching complete–we head to our next plantation just down the road, Middleton Place. Greeted with a Lowcountry lunch and a herd of sheep, Middleton Place vividly preserves and recreates it’s history to tell the story of the plantation. Part of that is acknowledging the plantation’s brutal history of slavery and fostering understanding of the stories from a modern perspective.


The South Flanker, today’s House Museum, was built in 1755

A painting of the complex before the Union troops burned the property


The Spring house, gators were sunning themselves on the banks of the river

The amazing grounds and gardens

The impact of touring these plantations is so real as you occupy the space, an understanding of experience that is more tangible than you could achieve through study. The gardens of Middleton were inspired by the gardens of  Le Nôtre in Versailles–full of carefully planned sight lines, water features and sculptures created a sense of awe. They also illustrate the staggering amount of work that went into creating the property–an uncomfortable reminder of it’s antebellum past.

We leave the country estates inspired by the architecture and gardens, our heads full of images and stories that convey the history of place. So many more stories evolved over our weekend; Oysters at Leon’s, an architectural walking tour, the inspiring folks from Smoke making us a lunch, dinner at Chez Nous and most importantly sharing our stories of “why”.


Our chef at Leon’s Oyster Shop


Jim Lenahan sharing the rich details of the Miles Brewton House


Everyone had a unique take on their “why”, and yet there was a common thread that ran through all our stories and in the quiet after we all shared we really understood why we were all together in Charleston–and beyond that in our office. I could share more photos, but I think the “why” of Charleston is told most provocatively through the sketching of our office, and the passion for architecture and story behind it.

Saint James UMC Column - Drew

Saint James United Methodist Church Column by Andrew Gander



Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist by Michael Madsen


Market Building - Drew

Market Building by Andrew Gander


Saint James United Methodist Church by Andrew Gander


We had such a wonderful time in Charleston, and in studying the stories available in the city we also added to our own story as an office–understanding our “why” by sharing time, stories and a bit of wine! We return to our office invigorated and inspired, excited to settle back into our work with vision enriched by Charleston and our trip together.

“Cheers” with Michael and Ginger