Brookgreen Gardens at Myrtle Beach
Just south of the tourist mecca of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, is one of the most beautiful botanical gardens to be found anywhere. A visit to Brookgreen Gardens is not just a walk in the woods. It also happens to have the largest collection of American sculpture in the world, with almost 1,500 creations placed around the 1,600 acre site of the former Brookgreen Plantation.
Originally, what is now Brookgreen Gardens was four rice plantations. The plantations from south to north were The Oaks, Brookgreen, Springfield, and Laurel Hill. The current gardens and surrounding facilities lie completely on the former Brookgreen Plantation, which was owned by Joshua John Ward, the largest American slaveholder.
Only a handful of relics survive on the former plantations. The Alston (or Allston) cemetery survives on the grounds of The Oaks plantation. Gov. James Alston and his child are buried in the cemetery. The same grave is a memorial to the governor’s wife Theodosia Burr Alston, daughter of Vice President Aaron Burr, who was lost at sea. Her ghost is said to haunt the Grand Strand, looking for her father. The rice mill at Laurel Hill is all that remains of the plantation today. During the American Civil War, Confederates built an earthen structure on the grounds to block Union ships from coming into the tidal rivers.
These fresh water tidal creeks were used to flood rice fields, which produced as much as four million pounds of rice per year. Large numbers of enslaved people worked in miserable conditions to grow the rice. The abolition of slavery ended the era of rice production along the South Carolina Low Country.
Brookgreen is the creation of Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington of Connecticut, who purchased four plantations to open the garden to showcase her sculptures. Situated on Waccamaw Neck in Georgetown County, South Carolina between the Waccamaw River and the Atlantic coast, it is the country’s first public sculpture garden and has the largest collection of figurative sculpture by American artists in an outdoor setting in the world. It is also a nature and historical preserve with a small zoo, and a nature exhibition center.
Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington first visited the property in 1929. Because they were captivated by the beauty of it, they purchased nearly 9,100 acres of forest, swamp, rice fields and beachfront. They intended to establish a winter home on the Atlantic, but Anna saw the potential of the property and they quickly began to develop her vision of making it the showcase for her sculptures. Archer, stepson of philanthropist Collis Huntington, and Anna have donated property and contributed much to U.S. arts and culture in a number of states. Her sculpture of Joan of Arc is a feature of New York City’s Riverside Park.
About 1445 works of American figurative sculpture are displayed at the Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington Sculpture Garden. Many of the works are creations of sculptress Hyatt Huntington, but other artists are also featured. Walkways and garden paths link the sculptures in their distinctive garden, fountain, or landscape settings, with vistas of the scenery surrounding them.
“Alligator Bender” in Italian marble by American Nathaniel Choate (1899-1965), shows a Seminole warrior astride a large alligator. It is placed next to a reflecting pool where the plantation house used to stand.
Art Deco sculptor Paul Manship (1885-1966) is represented by five of his major works. This companion pair depicting “Acteon” (1924) and “Diana the Huntress” (1915) are two of Brookgreen’s most well known pieces. Manship is best known for his “Prometheus” sculpture that overlooks Rockefeller Plaza in New York City.
A 1,600-acre area of Brookgreen Gardens was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. The sculpture garden portion, 551 acres was included in the designation of Atalaya and Brookgreen Gardens as a National Historic Landmark in 1984. Atalaya Castle is just across U.S. 17 which cuts through the former combined Huntington property.
Commemorative medallions have been issued for garden members since 1973, and the ones featured above capture the beauty and history of this special place. These, and many more are showcased in two of three indoor exhibition spaces located in the gardens.
A new plaza at the Welcome Center features many varieties of colorful Japanese Maples. If you’ve never been to Brookgreen, and if you love the outdoors and the fine arts, you must make a pilgrimage to this oasis of beauty along the South Carolina coast.