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Brookgreen Gardens: The Cultural Jewel of the Grand Strand

A visitor is greeted by a sculpture of two stallions locked in combat. One rider is thrown to the ground and cowering, the other rider holds on to his bucking steed. It is a frenetic scene that demands attention.

It is a sight that draws you in, but that pulsing energy from "Fighting Stallions" quickly gives way to an enveloping lush calm that exists just beyond the front gates. Welcome to Brookgreen Gardens in Murrells Inlet, a cultural oasis nestled quietly and regally along the Grand Strand of South Carolina. When one desires to leave the urban hustle of Charleston, but may not want the sand and neon of Myrtle Beach, a visit to Brookgreen Gardens is the answer.

Brookgreen Gardens marks its 80th anniversary in 2011. This museum was the brainchild of northern industrialist Archer Milton Huntington and his sculptor wife, Anna Hyatt Huntington. The two originally came south for a warmer climate for Mrs. Huntington's ailing health and fell in love with what they found along the Carolina coast.

Huntington was heir to a railroad fortune and Mrs. Huntington was a well-known sculptor who traveled in the artistic circles of New York and Europe. Together, the couple found a common love of the history and nature of the Lowcountry of South Carolina. In the early 1930s, they purchased land that was previously four adjacent former rice plantations, totaling 9,200 acres stretching from the Waccamaw River to the Atlantic Ocean.

The Huntingtons built their winter home Atalaya along the sand dunes of what is now Huntington Beach State Park (land owned by Brookgreen Gardens and leased to the state of South Carolina). Atalaya, Spanish for "watchtower," is a severe-looking fortress-like structure that became their Carolina home for many years. Here, Mrs. Huntington maintained a sculpture studio where she and fellow sculptors created works of art. She even had habitats where she kept various animals that served as live models for her highly detailed sculptures.

Across what is now Highway 17, the Huntingtons brought to life the former 18th-century Brookgreen Plantation. The couple was captivated by the lush, wildly overgrown grounds they found, highlighted by an allée of live oak trees planted in the 1700s.

Originally intended as a location to display Mrs. Huntington's sculptures, Brookgreen Gardens quickly morphed into a public garden that was dedicated to acquiring, exhibiting and preserving American figurative sculpture. In addition, the Huntingtons were passionate about the conservation of Southeast plants and animals. In his first public statement, Huntington summed up their goal: "Brookgreen Gardens is a quiet joining of hands between science and art."

These three cornerstones of sculpture, plants and animals still remain at the heart of the nonprofit Brookgreen Gardens. More than 1,400 works of sculpture are now in the Brookgreen collection that range from small commemorative pieces to the largest piece in the collection, "Pegasus" by Laura Gardin Fraser. Carved on site at Brookgreen and completed in 1954, this 15-foot sculpture was the last work of art commissioned by Huntington before his death in 1955. It is set regally in its own raised fountain area overlooking a green lawn and set against a backdrop of bald cypress trees and former rice fields.

The Elliott and Rosemary Offner Sculpture Learning and Research Center is a learning laboratory and exhibit space, with smaller and more delicate works displayed. Of note is the large number of works by Richard McDermott Miller, a New York sculptor who willed the contents of his studio to Brookgreen Gardens upon his death in 2004. Visitors get unique insight into the workings of an artist as seen through the various and evolving versions of the same piece of sculpture.

The Rainey Sculpture Pavilion consists of two gallery spaces that have a schedule of continuously rotating sculpture exhibits, drawn from both the Brookgreen holdings and from other renowned artists and museums. The annual highlight is the National Sculpture Society's yearly awards exhibit, where the best of contemporary American figurative sculpture is displayed.

Through April 24, Brookgreen will present two exhibitions: "Out of the Wild: Animals in Sculpture," which includes historic and contemporary sculptures of North American and African animals; and "Cold-Blooded Art," which focuses on reptiles, amphibians, fish and insects.

The grounds and gardens of Brookgreen provide a complementary lush background to the many sculptures. The undisputed heart of the grounds is the walled garden that frames the majestic live oak allée. More than 250 years old, these trees have witnessed the rebirth of the Brookgreen property. Huntington's "grey oaks of mystery" are draped in Spanish moss and have a quiet, ghostly quality to them.

A number of additional garden "rooms" await exploration, including the Palmetto Garden, Children's Garden, Jessamine Pond, Gretchen's and Caroline's Gardens and the Rosen Carolina Terrace, which is actually anchored on the remains of the former plantation house's pleasure garden. In total, there are some 500 acres of cultivated gardens and grounds with more than 2,000 species of plants to enjoy.

Brookgreen's long history is displayed and interpreted throughout the gardens. The Lowcountry Trail gives a fascinating look at the lives of the people who lived on the grounds during the 19th century, from the wealthy rice planter to the enslaved African rice field worker. Interpretive signage and interactive displays provide a deeper understanding to this rich, but now vanished, culture. The E. Craig Wall Lowcountry Center displays artifacts dating back to early Native Americans and tools from the plantation era. A variety of rotating educational programs, including ones that celebrate the Gullah culture of former enslaved African slaves, take place in the auditorium throughout the year.

Created from former indigo and rice plantations, Brookgreen Gardens has several archaeological and cultural sites that have been researched, conserved and opened to the visiting public. A highlight is the Oaks Plantation History and Nature Trail, the former plantation home of Governor Joseph Alston and his wife, Theodosia Burr Alston (the only child of Vice President Aaron Burr). Stretching for about a mile, the trail is home to the remains of the Alston homestead, in addition to the remains of the plantation's slave village, all interpreted and accessible for exploration. Of note is the walled Alston family cemetery with its elaborately carved gravestones set among the eerie stillness of the surrounding woods.

The Lowcountry Zoo is the only zoo along the Carolinas' coast that is accredited by the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums. On display are a number of animal species native to the area, all living in natural, outdoor settings, including alligators, red and gray foxes, bald eagles, owls, and deer. The Cypress Aviary is a treat to walk through to experience Lowcountry birds and waterfowl. The otter exhibit allows visitors to watch the playful antics of river otters, both above and below the water surface.

The Domestic Animals of the Plantation Exhibit presents the animals that would have been a vital part of the former Brookgreen Plantation. Red Devon cows, Tunis sheep, Dominique chickens and Carolina Marsh Tacky horses live in a paddock and barn setting, again allowing visitors the chance to interact with the animals. Brookgreen is proud to feature Marsh Tacky horses, the South Carolina state heritage animal. Tracing their lineage back to horses of Spanish explorers, the Tacky's unique physical stature made them ideal to work in the muddy, mucky coastal Carolina rice fields.

The latest addition to Brookgreen's living exhibits is the "Whispering Wings Butterfly Experience." Opened in 2010, this butterfly house operates seasonally between April and October. The state-of-the-art exhibit features more than 100 species of butterflies in a natural, landscaped setting that visitors can walk through. It even has a "pupae emergence room" where guests can see the transformation from a chrysalis to an adult butterfly.Whatever time of year you visit Brookgreen Gardens, something is bound to be either blooming or happening. The grounds explode in color and scent in spring, when more than 300,000 daffodils and tulips bloom throughout the gardens. "Cool Summer Evenings" is a nine-week series of music and drama presented outside under the trees during June, July and August. "Harvest Home Weekend" is an October highlight celebrating harvest time in the Lowcountry.

The year concludes with "Nights of a Thousand Candles," a premiere holiday event along the Carolinas' coast and throughout the Southeast. It has been honored as one of the "Top 20 Events in the Southeast" by the Southeastern Tourism Society. At night, the grounds and gardens of Brookgreen are set aglow with more than 150,000 electric lights and 5,000 hand-lit candles and luminaries. It is a shining winter wonderland that never fails to impress and instill holiday cheer. Wandering musicians, entertainment tents with a varied performance schedule and a food tent serving Lowcountry fare all add to the unique holiday happening.