The Moorish style house at the end of “the straight road” in Huntington Beach State Park leads to where the namesake couple crafted their vision for opening Brookgreen Gardens in 1932.
Taking his turn on a daily docent tour of Atalaya (pronounced “Ah-tuh-LIE-yuh”) last week, Mike Walker, a longtime interpretive ranger at the park, told a group of nine visitors why Archer Milton Huntington, a scholar of Hispanic studies and published poet, and the former Anna Vaughn Hyatt Archer built this winter home in the early 1930s, accessed from a dirt road now paved and still known as Kings Highway, U.S. 17.
Besides giving Anna Huntington additional studios inside and out to build on her renowned sculpture talents, Atalaya turned into treatment for her tuberculosis and gave a break from the cold, hard winters in New York and Connecticut.
Starting the hourlong tour in the front outer courtyard, Walker spoke of how the Huntingtons “loved animals,” especially horses, and that the “bear pens were not just for bears.” He said Anna was known as an “animaleer” in sculpture, who worked only with live models and found human figure work dull. The dog pens nearby housed about 20 pet Scottish deerhounds, and they all traveled in a “custom-made RV” with the Huntingtons.
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After the guests took a seat in the right inner courtyard, in front of the watchtower — the English translation of Atalaya, constructed without any need to look for pirates as on the Mediterranean decades ago — Walker spoke of Archer being smitten by Spanish culture in his global travels, and having inherited wealth, he made philanthropy a pastime, especially to create museums of various themes in the Northeast.
“He joked that wherever he set his foot down,” Walker said, “a museum popped up.”
No blueprints, just going along
Never through drawings or blueprints, Atalaya arose, experimentally in parts and solely through the local residents employed, Walker said, and if they lacked skills, tradesmen in masonry, carpentry and the like were brought in for future benefits for the staff.
The tower also contained a cistern, to pump out water, even so far as to irrigate the grounds, as Walker pointed out in the thin, grooved channels along the walkways.
Stepping into Anna’s outdoor studio, Walker said the artist preferred natural sun to illuminate the subjects she molded, in light of her abhorrence “of modern and abstract art.” Next door in her indoor studio, needed because winter brings some chills every year, Walker said almost every living area in Atalaya was equipped with a fireplace, but this room also housed five monkeys.
Entertaining never enthused the Huntingtons on their winter retreats, Walker said, for “they came here to work … and be inspired by nature.” Their master bedroom, in a corner, once had “an unobstructed view of the ocean,” before jetties later added to Murrells Inlet would shift the beach.
A posted quote from Anna’s diary recounts her cherishing birds’ “sweet notes” outside the window, “piping ever above the roar of the ocean.”
Asked about the lack of original furniture and photos of the Huntingtons’ tenure there into the mid-1940s, Walker said the couple stayed content being private and frugal, even giving many items to their wait staff, for whom they provided all food and laundry service, and to cousins in California.
March 10’s triple value
With only a photo of the foyer to this day, Walker said, a tradition of placing shells around the mantle continues. He also sprung a pop quiz about the “3-in-1” significance of March 10 in the Huntingtons’ lives: his and her birthdays in 1870 and 1876, respectively, and their wedding, in 1923, always celebrated every year housewide with a party by the Friends of Huntington Beach State Park volunteer group.
“They’re responsible for Atalaya looking as good as it does,” Walker said.
Continuing in the back, ocean side of the home, in the breakfast room, he guided everyone’s eyes to some original wood strips from which tapestries would dangle.
With everyone in the servants’ living room, as an ocean breeze through open window panels enhanced the shade, Walker didn’t need to prove why it’s “the most comfortable room in the house.” Moving on later to the whole wing for employees’ quarters, he explained that each room had a wardrobe, writing desk, chair and single bed, and that the chauffeur and laundry man were the only two male staff members.
Most tours don’t descend into the basement — not that many places in this region even have a cellar — but this tour brought a bonus. A concept for a wine cellar didn’t pan out for the Huntingtons, but a water heater serviced the various bathrooms, Walker said.
Although he called this cavern “a dusty old basement, … it’s Atalaya’s … and very few people get to see it,” and the telling of ghost stories inside only enhance Halloween events there.
Walker, who began his S.C. state parks ranger career at Hunting Island, near his native Frogmore community on St. Helena Island, said after the tour that when he began at Huntington Beach in 1991, he was one of the last people to live in Atalaya, when it still housed park staff.
“I never saw ghosts,” he said, “but we heard noises at night.”
Friends and stewards
Repeatedly during the tour, Walker praised the Friends of Huntington Beach. Joan Crow of Murrells Inlet, an Atalaya tour docent and one of about 150 members in the Friends group, rounded up a list of recent projects and things to do.
In Atalaya, the visitor center was renovated and updated, and purchases have included replacement glass for windows and Lexan, installed on doorways of rooms that have been opened for public viewing.
“We rely on the small core of dedicated volunteers,” Crow said, “who give of their time and talent to preserve this wonderful slice of history. We couldn’t do it without them.”
Elsewhere in the park, which dates to 1960, the Friends bought jellyfish and sea horses for addition to living displays in the nature center, provided funds to add the berm at the end of the causeway for safety purposes, and through a grant, restrooms were renovated and the boardwalk replaced on the park’s north end.
Crow said the Friends also continue a plan of funding two Americans with Disabilities Act sites in the campground — to make the park the second statewide to have federal and state-approved sites — and the next step entails raising funds for sidewalks from the sites to the restrooms.
Walker also said that the Huntingtons would use the straight road into Brookgreen, all the way to the gardens’ tour boat landing.
Since the couple conceived the gardens from their getaway at Atalaya, both sites have joined the National Register of Historic Places, and like the Baruch family finding solitude from New York at Hobcaw Barony just a few miles south along the coast, visitors locally and from afar continue soaking up history and culture that put this section of the Lowcountry squarely on the globe.
Bob Jewell, Brookgreen’s president and chief executive, said the crews and volunteers for the gardens and Huntington Beach, the latter on land leased from Brookgreen and managed by the state park system, remain partners in preserving “a great vision” and legacy of the Huntingtons.
“It’s a real privilege to be among the stewards,” Jewell said. “We really do see ourselves as stewards of their generosity, vision and philanthropy, and we’re always looking for ways to enhance the mission and increase the visibility.”
Such efforts include other means of attracting more families to the gardens and park, through more programs so that everyone visits both places for “the complete story,” Jewell said.
Together, they let you “come in and sort of renew your spirit,” he said, “and just take in absolutely all the beauty of what nature has to offer and what artists and Mother Nature have produced all in one setting.”
Also, when one of Anna’s cousins visited a few years ago, “we gave her a whole tour” of Brookgreen, Jewell said, remembering her conclusion about how their former estate all the way to Atalaya has been preserved: She thought, “Anna and Archer would love it.”