Listen closely as you stroll under Brookgreen Gardens’ moss-draped live oaks and tall stately palmettos. You may hear the whispers of the branches and fronds as they tell of four rice plantations where children’s shouts, a washwoman’s song and laughter at festive parties echo through the years.
A National Historic Landmark below Myrtle Beach in Pawleys Island, South Carolina, Brookgreen Gardens opened in 1931. Extensively landscaped, it bursts with colorful blooms amid water elements, native trees and shrubs.
Brookgreen contains America’s first public sculpture garden. The 50-acre Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington Sculpture Garden is peppered with 550 well-placed sculptures by 400 artists from the early 1800s to the present. The entrance spotlights Anna’s 1950 spectacular sculpture, “The Fighting Stallions,” the largest aluminum casting made at that time.
“Brookgreen is noted for its figurative works, sculpture which portrays human, animal and other forms in nature,” said curator Robin Salmon.
Sculpture placement is decided by the piece’s size, its material (most are bronze) and whether it’s interactive. When a piece needs protection from touch, careful plantings help preserve it while enhancing its beauty.
Leave the gift shop with a landscape map and proceed straight to a path buttressed by an serpentine open-weave brick wall overseen by rustling palmettos. On the right, tucked between border plantings, is a small wrought-iron gate designed by Philip Simmons, Charleston’s famous “iron man.”
Turn left on the walkway at the intersection to see the tranquil garden surrounding Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ “Diana.” Atop a tall column in a still pool, she is posed with a bow and arrow.
Another left turn brings you to many visitors’ favorite installation, “The Fountain of the Muses.”
Commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, it was created by Carl Milles. Installed adjacent to the Met’s upstairs cafe in 1955, “The Muses” reigned for more than 25 years. When the pool began to leak, the work was stored.
Brookgreen acquired the lively multi-figured sculpture and recreated its large water element. Today Milles’ handiwork continues to fascinate as the jubilant muses — no longer tethered by walls — delightfully skip on the backs of spouting porpoises through a large circular pool, bookended by pergolas with benches. Last year 275,000 visitors sat and relished the spectacle.
The original plantation house once stood in the middle of the gardens. Massive 250-year-old trees compose the dramatic “Live Oak Allee” which led to the entrance. Anna placed her bronze “Diana of the Chase” at one end of the walkway in an adjacent garden.
As you wander, look for “Pegasus,” the largest sculpture in the gardens, carved from granite by Laura Gardin Fraser, “Alligator Bender” by Nathaniel Choate, and “Mother and Baby Bear” by Marshall Fredericks. The last is in the charming Children’s Garden. Over the years children keep climbing into the lap of the bronze mother bear, rubbing off her patina much like the Velveteen Rabbit lost its hide.
Kicking up the artistic exposure, the Offner Sculpture Learning and Research Center provides display area for some of Brookgreen’s other works. “Visible storage” is an innovative way to share its classic to contemporary treasures.
“Heron, Grouse and Loon,” a 12-foot-high bronze by Elliot Offner, a National Sculpture Society past president, awaits you in the middle of the path from the gardens to the Lowcountry Center. Go around it to get the full three-dimensional effect of the native birds.
When you visit the Butterfly House, step carefully. The Monarchs, Zebra Longwings and Painted Ladies often perch on the ground before flitting off to a flower.
Situated between the Atlantic Ocean and the Waccamaw River, Brookgreen takes pride in its Lowcountry History and Wildlife Preserve, which spotlights the native flora and fauna spread across its 9,100 acres. Birders, nature lovers and families can hike the trails or picnic on the grounds.
Adults and children are drawn to the zoo as well as the waterfowl aviary above a tidal swamp, a river otter pond, a fox glade and an aviary for birds of prey. Nearby are domestic animals, rare breeds similar to those found on 1800s rice plantations.
To learn about rice planting and harvesting, climb aboard the Springfield, a pontoon boat moored only steps from the Lowcountry Center. Traveling the same waterways that native Americans did, visitors can glimpse alligators, ducks and turtles in the cypress swamps, tidal creeks and marshes.
Taking explorers deep into the historic Lowcountry longleaf pine and live oak forests, the Trekker, an open-air vehicle, negotiates the worn sandy paths used by planters and slaves. On one route are a slave cemetery, a 115-foot-tall rice mill chimney and spectacular Waccamaw River views. On the other is the archeological site of The Oaks, home of South Carolina governor Joseph Alston and his wife, Theodosia, Aaron Burr’s daughter.
After philanthropist and scholar Archer Huntington purchased the former rice plantations of Brookgreen, Springfield, Laurel Hill and The Oaks in 1930, Anna began designing the gardens with a conservationist’s eye. After their deaths, Brookgreen has been expanded carefully over the years — with complementary principles of design and ongoing environmental stewardship — to preserve the area’s diverse ecosystem.
Admission is for seven days.
Children 3 and under – free; ages 4-12 – $7, 13-64 – $14, seniors 65+ – $12
Phone – (800) 849-1931 or www.brookgreen.org
Excursions and the butterfly house cost extra.