“We must build a tower here. We need that tower. I want to make a place for bats to roost and breed. In San Marcos, Texas south of Austin where I grew up they built towers to attract bats and exterminate the malarial mosquitoes.” ~~~~~~~~~~~~ Archer Huntington to Anna Hyatt Huntington, January 1931
Insect control wasn’t the only reason Archer Huntington wanted a tower at his seaside home in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina. Mr. Huntington loved all things Spanish and wanted to build a Moorish-style “castle” like those he had seen on Spain’s Mediterranean Coast. The watchtower also held a 3,000 gallon water tank which provided ample water (and water pressure, thanks to the height of the tank and tower) for the Huntington home by the sea.
Archer Huntington devoted his life to studying all things related to Spain and to philanthropy. He loved to write poetry and actually translated the epic poem El Cid for which he was declared an “elegant scholar” and elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He was crazy about museums and set up over fifteen in the United States and abroad. Anna was an accomplished sculptor when they met and had been recognized for her work by many prestigious schools and societies. Archer had followed her career and he set up a meeting to discuss a commission he wished to give her. Their courtship began from that meeting and they married in 1923.
Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington were not native South Carolinians, but ventured south looking for a place to build a home because Anna had tuberculosis. It was thought that spending winters in the milder climate of the South would be good for her. Archer viewed the property with four derelict plantations that comprised the 6,655 acres collectively known as Brookgreen as a grand adventure, a start-up project. And he certainly had the time and money. Archer was the son of Collis Huntington, one of the four men who built the railroads that linked the western states with Omaha. He went on to develop a network of railroads that linked the northern and southern states and after that, he invested in even more lucrative business ventures. Archer and Anna married late in life on their common birthday, March 10, and called it their “3-in-1 Day,” so that they could have three celebrations every March 10. Anna was 47, Archer was 54 on their wedding day.
Construction on the couple’s one story seaside castle commenced in 1931. It was named “Atalaya,” which is Spanish for watchtower. It took about three years, but the workers were also building Brookgreen Gardens for the Huntingtons at the same time and were dividing their time between the two projects. The home is basically a square and inside the outer walls are two grassy open courtyards which are adorned with beautiful palms that rustle softly in the sea breezes. The watchtower, often called the “Tower of Marrakesh,” was the visual centerpiece of the fortress-like structure.
From the master bedroom, you can hear the sounds of the sea not far away on the eastern side of the home because the living areas are on the ocean side of the home. The servants’ quarters line the other side of the structure. Every room has a fireplace and they used coal room heaters as well. Archer’s study and his secretary’s office were on the south side of the home. Anna’s studio was also on that side and it featured a 25-foot skylight. Off from her studio was an enclosed exterior courtyard where she worked on her sculptures.
It is worth noting that the home is absent of a ballroom and formal dining room and other grand rooms. The Huntingtons built Atalaya as a sanctuary and retreat from the busy social obligations their lifestyle thrust upon them when they were in residence at either their Connecticut or New York home. Archer and Anna wanted their southern home to be a place where they enjoyed simple pleasures, meaningful artistic endeavors, and being out in nature. Right outside the doors of Atalaya are the stables, the oyster shucking room, dog kennels, and the bear pens. I love the oyster shucking room; the Huntingtons actually employed a person to keep fresh seafood on hand for them when they were at Atalaya. I am also totally fascinated by the bear pens. Anna loved using live animals for her work and there were always animals around the estate; monkeys, horses, and birds were often in residence. Anna went on to become one of the foremost breeders of Scottish deerhounds in the country.
Atalaya is on the grounds of the Huntington Beach State Park. The park is a wonderful place to camp, ride bikes, and just enjoy the beach. But to me, Atalaya is the crown jewel of the park. There is just nothing quite like it. This was probably the third or fourth time we have visited Atalaya. I never tire of walking through the old structure and imagining how it looked furnished and full of life. As a tribute to Anna Hyatt Huntington, the Atalaya Arts and Crafts Festival is held every September at the castle. We were lucky to be in the area once on the weekend of the juried festival. Even an enormously talented woman like Anna would be impressed with the quality and variety of art on display in the rooms of her sanctuary by the sea.