Atalaya – Murrells Inlet, South Carolina - Atlas Obscura
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Murrells Inlet, South Carolina

Atalaya

The uniquely-designed winter home and sculpture studio of Anna and Archer Huntington. 

This austere-looking structure that brings to mind terms like “fortress” or “castle” was in fact a vacation home for a well-to-do couple. Located a stone’s throw from the beautiful Carolina coast, Atalaya once served as the winter home of Archer and Anna Huntington, who owned large swaths of the surrounding area.

Construction of Atalaya began in 1931 under the direction of Archer Huntington, who purportedly worked without the use of written guidelines and whose enthusiasm for Spanish history informed the Moorish architectural design. The one-story square structure encompasses roughly 40,000 square feet and includes an inner courtyard and a total of around forty-two rooms. Thirty of these rooms were living quarters while others were devoted to the couple’s artistic and philanthropic pursuits.

By wintering in South Carolina, the Huntingtons sought to escape the harsh Northeastern winters to which they were accustomed. Anna Huntington, a noted sculptor, suffered from tuberculosis and hoped the warmer climes would improve her health. Several rooms in the house, including the largest room, were used as studio space. The Huntingtons kept numerous animals at Atalaya, including dogs, horses, and even bears, which Anna used as subjects for her sculptures. Her work was displayed on the adjoining property, which was developed concurrently with Atalaya and which is now home to the Brookgreen Gardens sculpture garden and nature preserve where many of Mrs. Huntington’s statues are displayed.

The house forms a square border around the inner courtyard with each side measuring 200 feet in length. The tower in the center of the courtyard from which Atalaya’s name is derived (“Atalaya” is Spanish for “watchtower”) is actually a 300-gallon water tower. The tower’s 40-foot height provided sufficient water pressure to supply the house’s plumbing system. Heating was provided by wood-burning fireplaces and coal room heaters.

The Huntingtons last used Atalaya in 1947, eventually removing all their furnishings and leaving the house virtually empty. In the summer, one can find relief from the Carolina heat inside Atalaya’s stone walls, but bereft of furniture or decorations the dwelling feels dark and dreary, more reminiscent of a fallout shelter than a cozy winter home. Though ornate, the latticed shutters designed by Anna Huntington to defend against hurricane winds add to the dwelling’s cage-like atmosphere.

Atalaya is located on the grounds of what is now Huntington State Park. Most visitors access the house through the park’s main entrance, but those wishing to dodge the park’s entry fee can wander in from a nearby beach via a footpath that leads through the dunes. If you take this route, be sure to keep your flip-flops handy, as the turf surrounding Atalaya is home to fire ants and some mean sand spurs.