The history of Atalaya Castle in Murrells Inlet SC is a little known outside of the state but weaves a fascinating story of art and philanthropy during the Great Depression.
Atalaya Castle was built by Archer Huntington and his wife Anna between 1931 and 1933. Archer was a philanthropist from New York City and designed the house to be a winter residence for him and his wife after she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He designed the plans himself based on Spanish or Moorish architecture coupled with his own imagination. Anna, who was an artist and sculptor, did her part as well and designed the wrought iron grills that serve as hurricane protection on all the windows.
The castle has thirty rooms laid out around three sides of a courtyard. In the center of the courtyard, surrounded by native plants, is a water tower that is forty feet tall after which the house was named. ‘Atalaya’ means ‘Watchtower’ in Spanish. Various other areas included indoor and outdoor studios for Anna to work on her art, and animal enclosures where they kept bears, horses, monkeys, and a leopard.
Archer insisted that the house be built by local laborers to help boost the economy of the region during the depression years. They employed many local people to work at the house and gardens, as well, and were known as very good employers.
The house was situated on the ocean within an estate that originally consisted of over 9,000 acres of mixed land. They used part of that acreage to build the first public sculpture garden, known as Brookgreen Gardens, to showcase Anna’s work.
World War II (1942-1946)
During World War II, the Huntington’s left Atalaya and let the United States Air Corps use it as a barracks. The men patrolled the beach and operated a radar unit from the house. Other than a crashed plane on the beach, the house was unaffected.
The Huntington’s returned to Atalaya in 1946 and 1947. After that, Anna’s studio was moved to another portion of the property in Brookgreen Gardens, and the rest of the furnishings, that weren’t donated elsewhere, were sent to Connecticut after the death of Archer in 1955. Anna visited the house again only two more times in 1956 and 1958.
State Park (1960)
In 1960, 2,500 acres of the former estate, including the house and sculpture garden, was leased for free to the state of South Carolina. Huntington Beach State Park was formed and now maintains the house and grounds and offers guided tours during part of the year. For the past thirty-seven years, an art festival has been held on the grounds in September every year.
National Landmark (1984)
Atalaya Castle was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984 to preserve the history of Anna Hyatt Huntington and her husband Archer Huntington. It remains a unique and vital piece of South Carolina history.