Brookgreen Gardens, Huntington State Park and Atalaya
Story by Lois Carol Wheatley
Archer Milton Huntington and his artistically gifted wife Anna Hyatt Huntington set sail in 1930 from their home in Connecticut bound for the West Indies. They stopped at the port at Georgetown, South Carolina for supplies, and somewhere in the process of laying in a stock of groceries and such for their sailing excursion they also bought four conjoined rice plantations: Brookgreen, Laurel Hill, The Oaks and Springfield.
To a couple possessed of such fabulous wealth, this amounted to impulse buying at the checkout counter. Archer Milton Huntington was the stepson of Collis P. Huntington, the man who built the Southern Pacific Railway and ran several steamship lines. He was one of America's 12 richest men.
The newly acquired rice plantations also had some fancy pedigrees of their own.
The real estate acquisition
Laurel Hill Plantation was owned by Gabriel Marion, the nephew of a prominent Revolutionary War General. Francis Marion has been called the father of guerilla war tactics, and was known in his day as the Swamp Fox. The 1950s TV series of that name starred Leslie Nielsen.
Brookgreen Plantation was owned by William Alston (1728-1781), a captain under General Francis Marion during the Revolutionary War. His son Washington was a well-known artist, and inherited a tract called Spring, which is believed to be part of the Springfield Plantation.
His cousin Joseph Alston owned The Oaks, and here is where local history makes a grand entrance onto the national stage. Alston's namesake grandson became the governor of South Carolina and married Aaron Burr's daughter Theodosia. Burr was the third vice president of the United States under Thomas Jefferson, and for reasons that remain obscure, he challenged Alexander Hamilton to a duel. Burr shot and killed Hamilton, and fled to New York City to avoid prosecution.
Theodosia conspired with her father to smuggle him out of the country, and she planned to accompany him to France. Alston booked passage for her from South Carolina to New York, but somehow she never arrived. Historians guess her ship might have been attacked by pirates, and residents of Bald Head Island, North Carolina claim to see her ghost crossing the beach at night to throw herself repeatedly into the ocean rather than suffer at the hands of the pirates.
Another tidbit of local history related to this consortium of prominent plantation owners is the prestigious South Carolina Society, also known as Winyah Indigo Society. It was chartered by King George II in 1758, originally organized as the Convivial Society in 1740. The Winyah Indigo Society Hall still stands at the corner of Prince and Cannon streets in Georgetown, headquarters of this group of well-to-do planters that spearheaded the building of a school and a library. The inscription on the historical marker reads as follows:
"Springing from the fervor for indigo, the colony's vital new crop for making blue dye, the Winyah Indigo Society was begun in 1755 and incorporated 1757 to ensure stronger financial support for the free school which it had founded. Thomas Lynch was then president of the society, which also maintained a library and served as an intellectual center. The 1857 building here was used by Union forces during the Civil War."
New land use policy
The Huntingtons were enchanted by the rich history of their rice plantations and by their lush landscape dotted with live oaks that gracefully dripped with Spanish Moss, but they were far too cosmopolitan to even consider this untamed wilderness as a possible permanent full-time residence. They were interested in creating a southern refuge they could retreat to during the winter months, where the beach was close at hand, where Anna could continue to recover from tuberculosis, and where they could design and landscape a natural setting suitable for Anna's sculptures.
"We are classicists," explained Archer Huntington, devoted to figurative sculpture in the realistic tradition. This was at a time when the art world was retreating from realism, a time of Picasso's cubism, Duchamp's Dadaism, and the Bauhaus's Surrealism. Nobody serious about art intended to render a subject faithfully, paying close attention to its most intimate and minute details. Nobody except Anna Hyatt Huntington and, as it turns out, a handful of other prominent sculptors whose works are represented at Brookgreen Gardens. Her focus was on creating and acquiring works that represented things found in nature, specifically the human form and animals.
Reportedly she asked a servant to find a scrawny horse to serve as a model for her statute of Don Quixote riding astride his exhausted mount Rocinante. The servant exceeded her expectations, bringing to her a near-death skeleton of a horse, every rib showing beneath a much-afflicted coat. She nursed the creature back to health while she sculpted her vision of Cervantes' hero, and today her masterpiece of detail stands near the visitor's pavilion. Later she added a companion sculpture, Sancho Ponzo, Don Quixote's long-suffering sidekick, sculpted by C. Paul Jennewein.
Classicist meant not just traditional statuary recalling the golden age of Rome and Athens; it also suggested themes of classical mythology and classical literature, the gods and goddesses of Homer and Euripides, coupled with the water lily pools and flowing fountains of the ancient world.
Anna sketched the preliminary landscape layout in a butterfly-shaped design. Archer gave her ten million dollars to play with.