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Hilton Head Island takes its name from one William Hilton, a 17th century English explorer—no kin to Conrad, but the present developers will pardon you for confusing the two. Hilton went back to England to report that on the island "the Ayr is clear and sweet, the countrey very pleasant and delightful, and we could wish that all they of our English Nation, who wish a happy settlement, were well transported thither," and his unabashed remarks are widely quoted by the Sea Pines Company, as you can imagine. But, of course, it was Indians who were first transported thither, followed by Spaniards, Frenchmen and even Yankee soldiers during the Civil War. A Sea Pines bird watcher with extraordinary peripheral vision frequently picks up the Indians' left-over arrowheads nowadays and ceremonial ruins, still visible, were built around 3,800 years ago.
The renaissance of Hilton Head began in 1950 when a syndicate of southern lumbermen bought the island and began to cut its stand of yellow pine. Supervising the shipping of the timber, destined for Norwegian shipwrights and African bridge builders, was Charles E. Fraser, the 21-year-old son of the syndicate head, Lieut. General Joseph Fraser, now a retired Army officer. Charles Fraser, 33 today, is a man of compact size and enormous mental energy, and it is he, chiefly, who has been responsible for building Sea Pines into a multimillion-dollar empire.
While working on his father's shipping docks, Fraser was between the University of Georgia and the Yale law school, which he entered that fall. In his free time he used to drive a logging tractor around the island to explore it—especially the south end, where the beaches, forests, marshes, creeks and lagoons crowd upon one another in romantic profusion.
"For years I had had a hobbyist's interest in architecture and land development," he says, "and it was easy to see Hilton Head had a lot of promise. For what, I wasn't really certain, but I did feel it was far too fine a place to be chopped up in a quick-buck, real estate operation. I thought it would be better to leave it alone entirely."
What Fraser proposed to do, then, was to come up with some sort of ideal answer, then sell the land to someone who would follow his ideas. By the time he got out of Yale, and a two-year hitch in the Air Force, he had a plan for a leisure-oriented community in mind and a buyer in hand: himself.
Says Fraser: "I made such a good case for the island's potential that I no longer felt like entrusting it to somebody else." Thus, in 1956, he bought 4,000 acres of Hilton Head from his father and his family for $600,000, later added 1,200 acres which he bought (for $1 million) from other syndicate members. He formed a corporation, Sea Pines Plantation Company, and was in business.
The master land development plan for Sea Pines is the work of Sasaki & Walker, a Massachusetts firm noted for its knowledge of optimum land use. The plan, in broadest terms, provided a layout that would permit as many as six rows (nonuniform rows, to be sure) of houses along the beaches, plus less dense concentrations of houses facing a golf course, the tidal creeks that will be dredged for small boats, and so on. Following the plan, main roads in the Sea Pines area are set well back from the beach, while short, dead-end access roads lead to the beachfront homes. The arrangement not only preserves the good looks of the beach but brings front-row (and back-row) houses nearer to the water and gives depth to property values. "There's less drop in prestige than there'd be if you had to cross the main road to get to the beach," says Fraser. "There's a psychological lift in being on the ocean side."
Because the main road does not run along the shoreline like a cartographer's tracing pen, says John Wade, an architect and land planner formerly with Sasaki & Walker and now with Sea Pines, there is no special pressure on front-lot builders to put up show places to be admired by passers-by. "The effect," says Wade, who has designed 60% of Sea Pines buildings, "is to give all the houses, whether near the water or farther back, a feeling of balance. You don't have a situation like you find in Palm Beach, where the showplaces on the beach—and the road—put to shame the houses behind them."
All Sea Pines home designs are carefully scrutinized by an architectural review board before they are built. Even the placement of some houses is dictated by company covenants; front-row beach houses, for example, must not block the view of second-row houses. The reasons for the covenants, of course, are not to create sameness and look-alike housing, but to ensure that durable, low maintenance materials are used, that strong foundations are built (hurricanes are not unknown along the Carolina coast), and that bad design or just plain ugliness does not pull down the values of adjacent sites. Except for minimum-size restrictions, cost of a proposed house, which on Hilton Head can run as low as $10 a square foot, is expressly outside the company's jurisdiction or interest. The homes already built vary in architecture but show consistent use of bleached swamp cypress and redwood siding, light-colored masonry foundations, large expanses of glass and breeze-ways and, overall, the stamp of contemporary design. Taken as a whole, the homes are as handsome and unobtrusive as the surroundings.
The purchase of lots has followed a predictable progression. Says Wade: "The first to sell were the most expensive ones, those on the beach side of the road, because of the view amenities. The next-highest demand is for golf course lots—recreational amenity. Then the community amenities will take over. The pioneers will be settled and the less adventurous will come because they can find the security of precedence."