Moorish Mystique at Huntington Beach
THE ATALAYA PHOTO GALLERY
Moorish architecture at Atalaya
The annual Atalaya Arts & Crafts Festival
by Rosanne Howard
It’s a coastal oddity, this low, forbidding, fortresslike structure called Atalaya. Though it sits on a beach facing the ocean, it doesn’t exactly conjure up visions of fun in the sun or rocking chair relaxation.
The building is particularly daunting when seen for the first time on a moonlit night. You see silhouettes of a tower, chimneys, high walls and rows of windows covered with ironwork.
Atalaya (a Spanish word for "watchtower" and pronounced at-a-LIE-ya) looks ancient, something uprooted from an earlier time and arbitrarily dropped on a South Carolina beach. The outer walls are a square enclosing an inner court. It’s an anomaly bearing no resemblance whatsoever to rice plantation homes in the area—or anything else, for that matter.
If people once lived here, they’re long gone. The only sounds heard on a summer’s night come from the courtyard. Peek inside and you can make out rows of Palmetto palms alongside a walkway of curved arches. The sounds come from the faint breeze stirring in the tree tops.
Brookgreen Gardens curator of sculpture Robin Salmon and Huntington Beach State Park director Keith Windham unlock some of Atalaya’s mystery on a recent tour through the home’s 30 or so empty rooms. I say "home" because by the end of the tour, I’m convinced cold-appearing Atalaya really was home to millionaire scholar Archer and sculptress Anna Huntington, who started building Atalaya in 1930. They wanted a winter retreat near their pet project Brookgreen Gardens, which also was under construction. And they wanted a place for Anna Huntington to recuperate from tuberculosis.
In everything they did, Huntington, the son of a shipping and railroad magnate, and Anna Huntington, the daughter of a Harvard professor, showed they were secure in their tastes and proudly marching to a different drummer. "They were not the idle rich," Salmon says. "They were industrious people who worked all the time."
The $64,000 question remains: What possessed the 60-year-old Archer Huntington, who could have built anything he wanted, to put up a medieval-looking fortress on an undeveloped South Carolina beach? Easily explained, Salmon says. He was the foremost Hispanic scholar of his time and wanted to build something similar to the Moorish fortresses he’d studied on the Spanish coast.
Salmon believes Atalaya represents a blend of Huntington’s ideas about Moorish architecture. "Archer has decided to build something," Anna Huntington wrote in her diary in 1930. "What he has in mind would probably be a hair raiser to an architect."
If Anna had any misgivings about living in this "hair raiser," Salmon says they’re not recorded in her diaries. She softened the look of the home’s stark concrete walls and brick floors by designing wrought iron sconces, chandeliers and grilles for the windows and decorating with plants.
By all accounts, Huntington built Atalaya without a plan on paper. The story is the local contractor, William Thomson of Georgetown, built the fortress/home by following Huntington around and listening to his verbal instructions. The Huntingtons also hired locals as brick masons and carpenters, and are fondly remembered for providing Depression-era jobs to desperately poor people.
Salmon and Windham’s tour begins at the home’s rear entrance—which the owners probably used, too, since a long driveway leads directly to it from US 17. The real revelation is Anna’s large indoor and outdoor studios on the south wing. They seem to be the home’s main indulgence. Standing in them today, it’s easy to picture tall, red-headed Anna absorbed in her work.
Since the house had no central heat, a fire tended by a servant would have been burning in the large corner fireplace. This sculptress, who didn’t marry until age 47 and was 54 when Atalaya was built, seemed to have every
comfort she needed to make great art. Says Salmon, "She didn’t grow up with fabulous wealth. After she was married, she could cast her work without worrying."
Anna Huntington made her reputation sculpting animals. She liked to work large, and often used live animals as models. The couple brought along an entourage of dogs during their winter visits, and one year a family of rhesus monkeys.
To accommodate their love of animals, Atalaya had a stable for horses, a kennel for dogs and pens for bears—but no guest rooms. The little entertaining they did here, according to Salmon, was having a few neighbors over for lunch. One of their guests was Dr. Isaac Emerson, the inventor of Bromo Seltzer and the new proprietor of nearby Arcadia Plantation.
The rest of the couple’s private spaces were also on the south wing, Archer Huntington’s study and bathroom and their bedroom on the southeast corner. With windows on two walls, it had the choicest ocean view in the house. The library, foyer, sun room, breakfast room, dining room and servants’ living room faced the ocean.
On warm days, the couple would dine on a front patio just off the dining room. Though they reportedly had plain tastes in food, Atalaya nontheless has six rooms devoted to food preparation. One is a walk-in ice box that could hold gigantic chunks of ice. It was serviced from the outside.
An unusual feature on the servant’s wing is an enclosed courtyard for drying clothes. There’s also a small oyster shucking room in the rear series of service rooms, and a 40-foot tower in the courtyard that hid a 3,000-gallon water tank.
The Huntingtons were in residence during winters through 1941. They arrived around Thanksgiving and stayed through February. The Army Air Corps took over the property during World War II, the couple returning in 1946 and 1947. These were the last years they used their home.
As Atalaya has been stripped of its furnishings, and there are few extant photographs of the interior, today’s visitors must use their imaginations to recreate the building as it looked in the ’30s. There’s little information about what happened to the furnishings during the military occupation or which items were actually returned to Anna Huntington.
Genevieve Peterkin of Murrells Inlet solved some of the mystery. She says the Huntingtons gave her mother Genevieve Chandler the wrought iron table and chairs and glass sideboard from the dining room, and a white polar bear rug from the library. Chandler worked at Brookgreen Gardens as a guide.
Peterkin is one of the few people left in the area who recalls visiting the Huntingtons at Atalaya. She was a 10-year-old child at the time, in the company of her mother. "I remember going to the library through the courtyard. In my memory I thought it was like a monastery. The furnishings were sparse and simple. The chairs, as I recall, were rather massive with heavy, wooden, carved arms. Mother said Archer Huntington’s office had large and heavy furniture, too.
"The thing you would have noticed was the simplicity. There was no clutter."
In the ’50s, Brookgreen Gardens employed caretakers to help protect the home from vandals. One was Peterkin’s brother Joe Chandler, who lived there with his wife Ann and their two toddlers. Recalls Peterkin, "They put a swing set in the courtyard. The sun warmed it in the winter. It was the biggest playpen in the world."
The Girl Scouts of Georgetown leased it in the late ’50s, and in 1960, Anna Huntington leased the home and 1,500 acres surrounding it to SC Parks, Recreation and Tourism for Huntington Beach State Park. Former parks director Norman Cooler says a few park rangers tried living there in the ’60s as caretakers, but were defeated by the building’s high humidity. "It’s not a good place to live," he says.
Even if it doesn’t measure up, comfortwise, Atalaya definitely stirs imaginations. According to Peterkin, a former employee of the Huntingtons who bore them a grudge started a rumor they were piping gas out to Nazi submarines lurking offshore. The rumor traveled and became so widely repeated it gained credibility. Peterkin says it breaks her heart to know such rubbish was spread about two people who did so much for the area.
"Park visitors love it," says Windham. "They’re amazed at a Spanish-style fortress on the coast. They want to know what kind of people built something like this."
Evidence of Atalaya’s romantic appeal are the numerous outdoor weddings performed in its courtyard, its use as a backdrop for fashion photos and as a Halloween haunted house. Thousands of park visitors tour it each year, and the popular PRT-sponsored crafts festival in September is always packed. When potters and jewelry makers, photographers and fiber artists move in for three days, Atalaya becomes strangely functional, as if it were made for them.
Salmon’s "wishful thinking" is that Atalaya be used for a sculptor-in-residence program. It would be a fitting use, since the home was chosen as a national landmark in 1992 because Anna Huntington worked there.
It served as the perfect exotic backdrop for a dinner Brookgreen Gardens threw two years ago for its newly formed Huntington Society, a group of major donors and supporters. "Incredible plants were brought in and there was lots of candlelight," Salmon says. "We had photos of the building’s construction blown up and mounted. Everyone was just thrilled. It was black tie and a warm evening, but no one really cared."
Atalaya’s future is in the hands of PRT, the lessee, and Brookgreen Gardens, the owner. The fact that it’s constructed like a fortress increases its chances for a long life. Atalaya’s a proud survivor of hurricanes Hazel and Hugo.
But it does need maintenance. The windows are deteriorating and the special grillwork covering them is rusting. PRT does what it can to preserve Atalaya, Windham says, but has no specific budget for this purpose. "The main caregiver is not the owner, so it’s complicated. How can Brookgreen Gardens, the absentee owner, justify putting millions into a structure it doesn’t use?"
PRT and Brookgreen are working on a solution, says Brookgreen Gardens president Larry Henry. This involves including Atalaya in a lease extension under negotiation and supporting PRT’s desire to make the building more of a focal point.
The park already has received the go-ahead to turn a maintenance shed at Atalaya into a visitors center. If negotiations succeed, Henry says, Brookgreen will take over the landscaping of Atalaya and provide interpretative materials.
Though Brookgreen has no present plan to use Atalaya, Henry says Brookgreen is reluctant to grant a second 30-year lease, without some way to break it. "With no heat and air-conditioning in the building, there are significant problems with reuse," he says. "Right now, Atalaya’s serving a useful purpose in a park setting. I think we can enhance that.
"Atalaya has had almost a second life, since the Huntingtons left, as a kind of feature on the beach. It really adds to the character of Huntington Beach State Park. It’s one of the reasons people go there. The mysterious old building has a romantic pull."
John Rainey, chair of Brookgreen’s board of trustees, agrees. "Atalaya is in a state of controlled and maintained decadence," he observes. "It’s really elegant in that state. It’s like a Roman ruin or an abandoned castle."
Rosanne Howard is a freelance journalist who lives in Pawleys Island.
THIS ARTICLE IS SPONSORED IN PART BY:
* Brookgreen Gardens
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