Approximately halfway between Myrtle Beach and Georgetown lies one of the area’s premiere attractions, Brookgreen Gardens. It was established in 1931 when Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington purchased four defunct rice plantations and found that the classical gardens of the former Brookgreen Plantation would be perfect for displaying Anna’s sculptures.
In addition to the striking horses at the entrance, many of Anna’s works still dot the landscape. Sculptures by other artists are mixed in, with over 1,400 pieces throughout the park. The plantation house and most of the original buildings burned down at the turn of the last century, but the impressive avenue of oaks leading to the front steps is still there. A fountain was built on the foundations of the main house and is the primary reservoir of water for the gardens. At Christmas, I’ve been told that lit candles float delicately on its surface, which must be a breathtaking sight!
To see the park from a different angle, we took a pontoon boat ride down the creek, past abandoned rice fields where the dikes and trunks could still be seen. The rice grown here was called “Carolina Gold” and was incredibly profitable thanks to slave labor. It was interesting to learn how the slaves would use the trunks to control the water levels. Snakes, alligators and mosquitoes were serious threats during the rice-growing days, but we only came across one alligator on our ride. I’m not sure if that’s a blessing or a disappointment!
Brookgreen Gardens also has a terrific display of wild and domestic animals. The latter include Marsh Tacky horses and Tunis sheep, historic rare breeds that would have lived on the plantation when it was a working farm. Native animals inhabit the cypress swamp and aviary along with rescued wild animals who are being rehabilitated. The pair of bald eagles were most impressive. We also had the good fortune to visit the gardens while the Butterfly House was open. It was amazing to walk around the enclosure as thousands of the beautiful creatures alighted on every branch!
Brookgreen Gardens’ creators, Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington, built a winter home by the nearby seashore in 1931 in the hopes of curing Anna’s tuberculosis. (The warm coastal climate apparently helped as she died in 1973 at age 97.) Archer, the son of a railroad magnate and industrialist, was a philanthropist and scholar of Hispanic culture who founded the Spanish American Society in New York City. The Huntington’s named their castle Atalaya, Spanish for watchtower, and designed it using the Moorish influences they admired while traveling in Spain. Resembling a deserted fortress, there’s not much left to see except the striking architecture. But there was something romantic about exploring the long forgotten rooms and imagining for yourself the once splendid decorations.
The most impressive room was Anna’s studio on the southern side of the compound. A skylight and large windows ensured the cavernous area was well lit, while an enclosed courtyard outside gave her plenty of space to work on her sculptures. Anna was noted for using live animals as models and had stables and bear pens built on the property. I read in the small museum that she always traveled with her dogs, birds and monkeys.
Atalaya is located in what is now Huntington Beach State Park. The wildlife refuge and coastal preserve is punctuated by white sandy beaches, windswept dunes and beach grass swaying gracefully in the breeze. Driving inland, you can see large flocks of indigenous birds, and if you’re lucky, an alligator or two.