Back to basics: could a resurgence of the “old Hilton Head” architectural style be the next big thing?

To the folks who live here, Hilton Head can sometimes seem a congested paradise. But there was a time, not long ago, when there was no bridge to the island, no paved roads, no electricity and no phone service.

But oh, how times do change.


Radical thoughts

Charles Fraser was the son of an Army general, Joseph Fraser, who, along with five partners, bought 18,000 acres on Hilton Head in 1949 for timbering. But Charles was a young man with radical ideas about development and preserving the environment. While studying law at Yale University, he admired Harvard professor of landscape architecture, Hideo Sasaki, who had what were considered unconventional ideas regarding development that respected the environment.

So, Fraser persuaded his father to sell him 4,500 acres on Hilton Head’s south end. In 1956, he founded the Sea Pines Co., and in 1959 a bridge to the island was built.

Sasaki and Fraser created a master plan with very strict land-use covenants for Sea Pines, and development got under way. Young architects and landscape architects were sitting up and taking notice.

Ed Pinckney, one of the early landscape architects to work on Sea Pines homes and currently of Pinckney Associates in Bluffton, said he was a Clemson architecture student when he met Fraser is the 1950s. “He just bowled me over with his enthusiasm and plans for the future of this wilderness island. Hilton Head was an oasis for young architects doing contemporary architecture, which was similar to architecture being done in California at the time. Many of my classmates recognized that and gravitated toward Hilton Head.”

The ‘look’

Fraser, along with John Wade, Doug Corkern, Peter McGinty and others, created the “Hilton Head look,” according to “Three Decades of Hilton Head Island Architecture, 1965-1995,” by Margaret Greer.

That style included small houses with wood shingles, wide overhang eaves, cypress stained to blend in with the environment, screened-in porches and landscape with native plants.

“Fraser also insisted that colors and materials were literally camouflaged in the natural plant material of this maritime forest,” said Pinckney. “Colors of houses were muted earth tones that blended with the bark on trees.”

Architect Sam McCleskey, of McCleskey and Associates in Bluffton, interned in 1968 with Corkern, eventually moving to Hilton Head in 1973. He said Fraser’s enthusiasm for Sea Pines was contagious during a tour he took with him of Sea Pines in 1968. “He was truly excited about details … he was so proud of this accomplishment,” said McCleskey. “He realized that community planning involved more than just plans. He wanted to produce a community that was harmonious, one where residences complemented each other, where there were size limitations on homes. Charles Fraser was able to look outside of the box.”

Architecture, ideas change

“This wasn’t a full-time community,” said Pinckney. “This was a place for vacationers, weekenders, those interested in a second home near the ocean in a mild climate. But Charles was so successful in catering to families that more and more people came.”

As time marched on, so did demand for permanent homes on the island and more development.

“With rising land prices and a change in public taste, the original architectural style has largely been abandoned in favor of ever larger private residences, and historically derivative styles from around the world,” said McCleskey. “The best examples of that early architecture were houses built from1961-1973 in Sea Pines. Many of these houses have been torn down for larger residences.”

The Great Real Estate Recession of 1974 helped shift the original architectural intent. “The whole nation was in a recession and real estate markets got soft,” said Pinckney. “So what happened was there were compromises. Now you’d see red brick, white columns, stucco rather than wood and homes not blending in with nature.

“It’s gotten to the point  now where architectural review boards have a really hard time controlling scale, size and blending with nature, which is now almost used in the past tense.”

In 1978, other styles also took hold on the island, writes Greer. These houses were characterized by open designs, greenhouse-like bay windows, sliding glass doors, light-colored stucco, gables, bonus rooms and lots of daylight.

In the ’80s and ’90s, other architectural items became popular. People often wanted large homes with stucco softened by coquina, white trim, floor-to-ceiling glass, columns inside and out and traditional Georgian architecture.

And architects and landscape architects have often had to go with the flow.

But Pinckney said there may be a movement back in the direction of Charles Fraser’s original plans. “I hear some of the old-time Sea Pines residents are strongly in favor of strengthening Fraser’s nature-blending concepts.

“Design and continuity of architecture and nature were important factors in creating our community and in preserving the environment. Covenants and restrictions on property should be there no matter how many times a house is sold. It’s a way to control quality, and not only quality of design, but the quality of community.”



By Sally Mahan