Home showcase: How the ‘Hilton Head Look’ once changed the world

This Baynard Cove home reminds us all of how the ‘Hilton Head Look’ once changed the world.

Story by Barry Kaufman | Listing photos courtesy of listing agent: Stacey Leahy, Coldwell Banker Realty & Elevated Coastal Properties

The ’60s are generally considered a time of radical change, an era when old ideas were being examined and discarded and no assumption was safe from challenge. And while the decade saw revolutionary change across the country, here on Hilton Head Island a quieter revolution was taking place.

At its heart were a few young pioneers, drawn from all points by a vision being laid out by Charles Fraser. With Sea Pines he was not just breaking the mold, he was creating an entirely new one from scratch. His was an unconventional approach to development, one molded by the philosophy of Professor Hideo Sasaki, who envisioned spaces built in harmony with nature. 

Executing that vision would require a team of builders and architects who were willing to scrap every existing method they knew in favor of something better. Among this crew of mavericks Fraser would find John Wade, Doug Corkern and Peter McGinty. Together they would create what historian Margaret Greer called “The Hilton Head Look.”

It was a style designed not to be seen, boasting low-sloping rooflines that rose just short of the treetops, muted colors that blended in with the surroundings and plentiful spaces where indoors and outdoors became nearly indistinguishable.

It was a product of this radical approach Fraser pioneered, but it was also a product of its time. And as time progressed and tastes shifted, these original designs became less recognizable as “Hilton Head homes.” Likewise, as the island as a whole transitioned from a part-time vacation community to a true community, the desire of homeowners pivoted away from style and toward livability.

By the time Charles Fraser died in 2002, the change already was happening. Long-time island resident Jack Morris was among the last to hear Fraser’s thoughts on the matter.

“My wife and I decided to have our Thanksgiving dinner at Rendezvous that year, and Charles was at his booth when we got there, so we all ate together. I remember talking to him about how, even though we’re such a young community, we should have provisions in place for creating some kind of historic district to preserve these original homes,” said Morris. “I thought I was being cute, but Charles said that that was the one thing he wished he’d done.”

Preservation of original Sea Pines homes was a dear subject to Morris, who lived in his Baynard Cove home for years before selling it late last year. Built by legendary Sea Pines figure John Curry, who lived there with his wife, Valerie, it carries some of the most unmistakable hallmarks of the old “Hilton Head Look.” As one of the few left standing, its place in history can’t be denied.

“It’s definitely a Sea Pines home in the way it blends with nature, but it also has a California feel with the amount of glass in the home,” said Morris. For Morris, an art dealer, the glass didn’t leave much room for hanging paintings, but he still fell in love with the home’s tri-nuclear design and its rich history. “In the early days John did a lot of entertaining clients and VIPs who were visiting Sea Pines.”

Morris still keeps the handwritten notes that Valerie Curry kept during the home’s construction, as well as the pages devoted to the home in Greer’s seminal work, Three Decades of Hilton Head Island Architecture.

“When we moved in and got our first look at the trees in the atrium, my wife, Luanna, said, ‘What are we going to do with those?’ but it didn’t take any time before we realized we loved it exactly the way it was. So we focused on making sure we took good care of it.” 

For the years that Jack and Luanna Morris called it home, they served as stewards of its history. And when he made the home his own, he didn’t replace the plaque installed by the Currys in 1977, wishing “Light, Love & Laughter.” He added his own, marking the home as “A Wish Made Visible.”

It was a stewardship spurred on by changes Jack could see happening even then. He recalls the time in 1997 when his friend’s gorgeous oceanfront home on two lots was torn down to create a pair of properties that could double rental income. “They had this fireplace built out of river rocks, and I remember Luanna went over to take some back to our place in South Beach. That’s the first time I thought these things might be disappearing,” he said.

When Luanna died, Jack found that the home they’d shared was ready to find its next stewards. He sold it, and now one of the last of the old Sea Pines homes is in the hands of new owners. For those who remember when the island’s architecture changed everything, the hope is that they will carry it into the future with an eye on preserving its past.

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