Brookgreen Gardens: A coastal oasis |

Brookgreen Gardens: A coastal oasis

Carolyn Schwartz
Special to the Aspen Times Weekly
A water nymph presides over the garden pool, making for an awesome first impression of the gardens.

At one time or another, you may find yourself in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina’s megalopolis beach town. Let’s hope you’re there by choice. If not, you may experience that queasy-stomach feeling you get at the “all-you-can-eat” Chinese restaurant where you’ve overfilled your plate.

Sure, you might actually love the door-to-door T-shirt and surf shops, the shopping malls with moats around them, the miniature golf courses with Day-Glo waterfalls, and the museums that feature fake, dead pop stars. And if I’m describing a recreational environment that lights your fire, well, have at it.

But know this: While you play a round at the pirate-themed, putt-putt course, you might miss the grandest part of the Palmetto State’s popular “Grand Strand.” All you have to do is drop that 4-iron and head south.

Only a dozen miles from the hub of the hullabaloo, the bumper-to-bumper traffic starts to thin out. Thunking boom-boxes, garish billboards, and neon lights give way to wide-open countryside. It’s nice to know that the kudzu-like glitz of Myrtle Beach hasn’t gobbled up everything in its path; that for at least 10 miles along the corridor of U.S. Highway 17, there are thousands of acres of unspoiled beaches and verdant woodland sanctuaries still intact.

And here is where you’ll find the splendid Brookgreen Gardens.

From its beginning in 1931, when Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington created this showcase outdoor museum with its world-class sculpture collection set amid stately pines and majestic live oaks, the gardens have been the perfect place to relax and unwind. Today they provide a perfect antidote for the “fast-lane” that exists so nearby.

To fully appreciate the garden’s present evolution, it’s helpful to reflect upon the region’s colonial past.

In the early 1800s, landowners along this coast were engaged in large-scale indigo cultivation, followed by rice. What is now Brookgreen Gardens was then four plantations, all of them bounded by Waccamaw River banks.

Central to the tract was Brookgreen Plantation, the estate of South Carolina Gov. Joseph Alston’s family. In 1801, Joseph married Theodosia Burr, the socialite daughter of Aaron Burr, newly elected vice president of the United States. Unfortunately, Theodosia’s life was tragic. She lost a 10-year-old son to malaria. Soon after, in an effort to combat depression, she booked passage on a ship to New York to visit her father. Theodosia died an early death when the ship went down.

The Alston family held onto the plantation lands throughout the economic hardships of the Civil War and well into the years beyond. But as technology improvements forced the rice economy into decline, plantation owners began to sell their properties. By the turn of the century, well-heeled Yankees acquired vast holdings that they transformed into hunting preserves and winter homes.

Enter railroad heir and philanthropist Archer Huntington and his accomplished sculptor wife. Anna Hyatt Huntington had tuberculosis; it was her doctor’s suggestion that she spend her winters in a warmer place than Manhattan. To that end, Archer purchased the four adjacent plantations mentioned above in 1930 ” some 9,000 acres between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intra-coastal Waterway. An interesting footnote: The move to a warmer climate must have accomplished its goal ” Anna died in 1973 at the age of 97, while Archer made it to the ripe old age of 85.

The couple’s first project was their personal home, which they called “Atalaya” (Spanish for “watchtower”). Based on Archer’s knowledge of 15th-century Moorish architecture in the Spanish Mediterranean, the oceanside home looks, at first view, like a fortress with its 200-foot-long concrete walls forming a square. Inside the exterior walls is a large, inner courtyard, shaded by towering palm trees. Prominent among them is the square, 40-foot-high watch tower for which the home was named. It once served as a water tower, pumping its contents from an artesian well. The one-story home’s living quarters included 30 rooms.

Anna, who enjoyed sculpting from live models, including animals, had a horse stable, a dog kennel and even a bear pen built within her studio. At present, Atalaya is open to the public; its rooms are bare of the furnishings and fine art that once made the austere structure an elegant home.

As the home neared completion, the couple moved on to Project No. 2 ” the elegant adjoining gardens, built to display Anna’s prodigious body of work.

Today, Anna’s personal outdoor gallery, named Brookgreen in honor of the property’s plantation beginnings, is a splendor to behold ” a series of European-style gardens covering some 35 immaculately groomed acres. Those acres now contain more than 500 sculptures spanning the entire period of American sculpture from the early 1800s to the present. Some 200 sculptors are represented here. The official garden guidebook calls Brookgreen Gardens a Historic Landmark destination that features “the largest permanent outdoor exhibition of American figurative sculpture in the world.”

At the Huntington’s request some years later, the gardens ” plus all the adjoining former plantation lands ” were deeded to a nonprofit corporation that governs the property today. Docents are on hand for tours and it’s said that many of them “adopt” a sculpture and give it a quarterly spiff-up with bowling-ball wax.

The story of how Brookgreen Gardens came to be is told in a 10-minute video at the visitor center. Its theme is romantic, full of oozy images of slanting sunlight and oak trees garlanded with Spanish Moss. But there’s nothing like seeing the real thing.

In my case, I have two young grandchildren in tow the day I visit the gardens. They, of course, are interested in “the biggest” sculptures or the ones that feature animals, or those of children their size. Diana, the Greek goddess of the hunt, whose graceful image is reflected in the circular pool over which she presides, makes an awesome first impression.

After “Diana” we stroll along Live Oak Allee, once the Tara-like entrance to the Alston plantation mentioned above. Gargantuan live oaks lead the way. In former-teacher mode, I use the time to instill the kids with a little antebellum history, and to share with them poor Theodosia Burr’s tragic tale.

Perhaps the most dazzling sculpture award should go to “Dionysis,” the huge, gold-leafed bronze rendering of the Greek god whom the Romans called Bacchus. Most of the other sculptures in the gardens are created from bronze or aluminum, so this huge gleaming guy is hard to miss.

And then there’s the biggest sculpture of all: “Pegasus,” the winged horse. He’s easily bigger than a Mac truck and a nearby wall plaque mentions that it took Laura Gardin Fraser nine years to create him.

Anna Huntington’s work, as you’d expect, is well represented in the garden. Her sculptures are easily identified by their dull silver finish, an aluminum compound that many artists of the time favored. Other notable sculptors whose work is at Brookgreen include Western artist Frederic Remington, Marshall Fredericks, Daniel Chester French, and Gutzon Borglum, whose best-known work ” the chiseled faces of four beloved American presidents ” looms from the heights of Mount Rushmore.

And now for those alligators I mentioned in the preceding paragraph. It’s not likely you’ll encounter any among the sculptures, but they’re just a lagoon away. Thankfully, for the sake of the kids who are champing at the bit to see one, a good-size specimen is sunning himself on a muddy bank when we take an afternoon guided tour on a 50-passenger pontoon boat that plies the Waccamaw River’s fresh-water canals. Although there’s an additional charge for the river adventure, who would want to leave the South Carolina Low Country without a sighting of one of the area’s most respected species of wildlife (“respected,” as in: Look with admiration, but keep your hands in the boat!)

The gardens’ 23-acre public wildlife area allows us to wander through a bird sanctuary with herons, egrets, ibis and wood ducks. Birds of prey include hawks, eagles, vultures, and nesting owl couples (our favorites).

The entire experience ” gardens and wildlife sanctuaries ” create an extraordinarily beautiful combination of art and nature that is difficult to leave.

And impossible to forget.

Brookgreen Gardens is on U.S. Highway 17, between Murrells Inlet and Pawleys Island. It is across the street from oceanfront Huntington Beach State Park. You can’t miss the towering aluminum horse sculptures created by Anna Hyatt Huntington at the entrance of the gardens. The sculpture is said to be the largest aluminum work ever cast.

Huntington Beach State Park offers two camping areas with 184 campsites in a maritime forest with close access to an awesome stretch of white-sand beach. The Huntington Estate, “Atalaya,” lies within the park’s boundaries. It is open for free daily tours.

Information: (843) 237-4440;

The gardens are open 364 days a year (except Christmas). Hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: Adults 19-64, $12; ages 13-18 and seniors over 65, $10; children 6-12, $5.

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