Atalaya Castle: South Carolina’s Most Eccentric Treasure

We'll bet you've never seen anything like Atalaya Castle. (Source: Shutterstock / Sara Kendall)

You may know South Carolina’s barrier islands for their beautiful beaches and golf courses. Still, some would argue that their real treasure is the legacy of New York philanthropist Archer Huntington and his wife, sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington. In the 1930s, the eccentric couple reinvigorated the Waccamaw Neck region through their establishment of some of South Carolina’s most unusual attractions, including the Brookgreen Gardens sculpture garden and nature preserve, and their exotic winter residence, Atalaya Castle. For something really different down south, stop by the Huntington’s digs for a visit.

A brief history of Atalaya Castle

 

Anna Hyatt Huntington's "El Cid Campeador" in bronze exemplifies her highly celebrated work. (Source: Shutterstock/Sherry V Smith).
Anna Hyatt Huntington’s “El Cid Campeador” in bronze exemplifies her highly celebrated work. (Source: Shutterstock/Sherry V Smith).

Anna Hyatt Huntington’s “El Cid Campeador” in bronze exemplifies her highly celebrated work. (Source: Shutterstock/Sherry V Smith).Atalaya’s story starts with the Huntingtons themselves. Exotic in their colossal wealth, pedigree, and artistic pursuits, Archer and Anna were a curiosity for South Carolina’s low country residents, who were generally poor and isolated. Over his lifetime, Archer founded 14 museums (including the Hispanic Society of America) and four wildlife preserves; while Anna was a highly acclaimed, self-taught figurative sculptor.

Around 1930, the couple arrived in South Carolina’s Georgetown County from New York to establish a winter residence where Anna could recover from a tuberculosis infection. What resulted was Brookgreen Gardens, an extraordinary settlement over hundreds of acres that included a sculpture garden and a zoo of sorts — housing an odd assortment of possums, skunks, fox squirrels, monkeys, and black bears, among other animals — and the Huntingtons’ private compound, Atalaya Castle. Pronounced Ah-tuh-LIE-yuh (Spanish for “watchtower”), the compound’s design was inspired in part by 11th-century Moorish architecture and was, as part of Brookgreen Gardens, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.

In the construction and management of both properties, the Huntingtons employed struggling local workers, many of whom had been left without work at the onset of the Depression. The couple also provided needed improvements to the local community — including a medical clinic, school, and bridge — and are responsible for bringing electricity to the broader area, from Murrells Inlet south to Pawleys Island.

During WWII the Huntingtons turned Atalaya over to the Army Air Corps (1942-1946), only to return in 1947 for a final winter season before relocating to New York for good. After Archer’s death in 1955 Atalaya’s furnishings were removed and the property, along with the sculpture garden and zoo, were leased to the state for use as a state park. Anna passed away in 1973, though many of her sculptures can be seen in museums and collections throughout the U.S. today.

Atalaya Castle up close

The exterior of Atalaya belies none of its complex interior layout. (Source: iStock / EyeJoy)
The exterior of Atalaya belies none of its complex interior layout. (Source: iStock / EyeJoy)

Perched on the edge of the dunes in what is now Huntington State Park, Atalaya is a squat yet sprawling structure amid wild coastal beauty. It includes a central courtyard surrounded by 30 rooms distributed along three sides, each about 200 feet long. The courtyard is presided over by a square tower (approximately 40 feet high), designed to hold a 3,000-gallon water tank. The inner walls, meanwhile, are bordered with Sabal Palmettos and other palms.

The rooms in Atalaya consist of Anna’s indoor and outdoor sculpture studios, living quarters, and a series of cages and pens for holding animals from the adjacent zoo. These creatures served as references for Anna’s sculpture study.

Interior room, with wrought iron window grills designed by Anna Hyatt Huntington. (Source: Shutterstock/Sara Kendall)
Interior room, with wrought iron window grills designed by Anna Hyatt Huntington. (Source: Shutterstock/Sara Kendall)

Built entirely of brick (with excess mortar in a weeping joint style), Atalaya is both peculiar and captivating. Detailed features like the wrought iron window grills (designed by Anna) are beautiful yet disquieting, while the scope and design of the property as a whole reminds one of a fortress. It is unlike anything built in the area before or since.

Brookgreen Gardens

Brookgreen Gardens (Source: Shutterstock/Craig Zerbe).
Brookgreen Gardens (Source: Shutterstock/Craig Zerbe)

Brookgreen Gardens, as originally conceived, was also a bold and unusual initiative. To show American figurative sculpture outdoors among native plants and animals was a highly unconventional idea for the times. With its extraordinary sculpture collection (including many of Anna’s works) and other features, Brookgreen Gardens remains a unique and fascinating attraction.

Visiting Atalaya Castle and Brookgreen Gardens

No doubt, the Huntingtons made a lasting impression with their unique contributions to the Waccamaw Neck area. An expedition to Atalaya and Brookgreen Gardens is well worth the trip — both for lovers of nature and those with an appreciation for art, local history, and well, eccentric stories.

Atalaya Castle is part of Huntington Beach State Park and is open most days unless closed for special events. Entry will run you a very reasonable $2 in addition to the state park admission price of $8 per person. Audio tours and guided tours are available (we recommend the audio tour at a minimum for an additional $5). See the website link above for updated schedules and tour details.

Brookgreen Gardens is about a mile and half inland from Atalaya Castle and is also open most days. Tickets run $18 ($10 for children under 13) and are good for seven consecutive days. There is plenty to see here including sculpture, botanical gardens, Anna’s zoo, and touring exhibits. Oh yeah, and you’ll want to visit at least one of the three onsite dining options, ranging from snacks, sandwiches, and salads to a full service dinner.

Finally, before you leave, stop by the gift shop for a nifty souvenir. They’ve got a wide selection of gifts, gourmet food, books and media, and even a few replica sculptures.