Hilton Head Island’s modern history is defined by several watershed moments, when decisions put this special place on a different course than other beach communities.
As resort towns like Myrtle Beach — and countless others along the East Coast — sold out for high-rise hotels, homes that encroach into sand dunes and touristy franchises, Hilton Head’s soul has always been its deliberate attempt to preserve what makes this place such a good place to live and visit: the stunning natural beauty of an island maritime forest.
It was a radical idea at a time when cookie-cutter suburbs were springing up across the country and most beach towns consisted of modest homes on stilts. Hilton Head now serves as a template for developments throughout the world.
This path hasn’t always been easy, and it will only become more difficult as buildings age and tastes change.
Some suggest Hilton Head is at a crossroads; a moment that calls for a major departure from the past in order to secure a prosperous future.
It’s an easy conclusion to reach amid a faltering national economy that has left major thoroughfares with empty storefronts and the island’s marquee event, the Heritage golf tournament, without a title sponsor.
But it’s important to remember that this island has seen hard times before and has emerged relatively unscathed by making some changes, but more importantly, ensuring those changes are consistent with the initial vision that drew us here in the first place.
Hilton Head’s history has taught us that now is not a time to panic and make rash decisions. Now is time for us to reaffirm our core beliefs and to chart a path that is consistent with the values of our past. Beauty must not be sacrificed for quick riches; there is little lasting value in becoming another generic Beachtown, USA.
It all began with the purchase of two-thirds of the island by a handful of farsighted businessmen who quickly realized the future of this island paradise was not going to be what they initially intended.
Fred Hack, owner of a Georgia timber business, stumbled upon Hilton Head’s relatively untouched forests in 1949 when word spread that two wealthy New York businessmen, Alfred Lee Loomis and his brother-in-law, Landon K. Thorne, were putting their 17,000-acre private hunting preserve on the market. At the time, the island was accessible only by boat and was without electricity and many other modern conveniences.
The island’s land had been consolidated after the Civil War, when plantation owners fled in advance of Union troops. Some property was given to the slaves who had tended to fields of cotton and other crops. Much of what remained was sold, often at auction to recoup back taxes. Loomis and Thorne gobbled up much of the land, using Honey Horn Plantation and the surrounding forests as a place to entertain their elite circle of friends.
Hack persuaded some business associates, including fellow timber man Gen. Joseph Fraser, to buy 7,000 acres in 1949 and another 11,000 the following year.
“They pretty quickly realized they were now land developers and not timber harvesters,” said Frederick C. Hack Jr., son of the late Fred Hack, who died in 1978.
The land would eventually be developed into many of the island’s major neighborhoods, including Folly Field, Port Royal, Hilton Head Plantation, Indigo Run and Spanish Wells. Fraser sold some of his stock in the company around 1956 to purchase another 1,200 acres that his son, Charles, used to create Sea Pines.
Recognizing that the island’s development would be difficult without easy access, the group lobbied the state for a bridge to connect the remote island with the mainland. The first swing bridge was finished in 1956. Telephone service would come a couple of years later.
While the Hack family and the rest of the owners of Hilton Head Company focused on developing Forest Beach, Folly Field and Port Royal, Charles Fraser, who had just finished law school at Yale, was tinkering with a new concept for coastal development.
The idea was to not just focus on oceanfront property. Fraser sought to seamlessly blend development into the large swaths of pine forest, creating value to internal properties by building golf courses and marinas and maintaining passive parkland. This new template became incredibly successful, spreading first throughout the island and then to the rest of the world.
Homes were built with natural materials and painted subdued colors. A large forest preserve was set aside. Roads meandered around lagoons and old trees. Trees were selectively cut to make room for houses.
To ensure his vision would stand the test of time, Fraser pushed for strong deed restrictions and covenants that greatly restricted how land could be used.
“Obviously, these people were not perfect environmentalists (by today’s standards), but I do think, in the context of the times, they were good stewards of the land,” said Frederick Hack. “They relished the natural order of things.”
The Sea Pines model evolved over the years as market forces changed. It was expanded to include condominiums and more recreational amenities designed to attract families, rather than just retirees. Sea Pines adapted to the high interest rates of the 1970s by becoming an early-adopter of fractional ownership, which most of us know as timeshares.
“Hilton Head became a place where families could enjoy separate activities together — the beach, fishing, golf, tennis, biking, horses — all of this stuff in one place,” said Tom Gardo, who handled public relations and marketing for Sea Pines in the 1970s. “No other place had all of these things.”
Hilton Head has seen its share of dark days, but has always rebounded.
The first re-affirmation of the community’s vision to become a premier resort destination came in 1969 when state legislators and BASF pushed to build a large chemical plant on Victoria Bluff in greater Bluffton. Fearing the plant’s impact on the environment, native islanders and newer residents rallied against the plan, eventually succeeding in derailing it along with other proposals for off-shore oil platforms and large natural gas facilities.
“I think it was a fork in the road,” said Hack. “Because of the public outcry, it did in a very real way set the course not just for Hilton Head, but also for the lower part of Beaufort County. It made us more aware of our environment and it made us ore aware of our community. We needed to choose a path and, of course, we chose the right one.”
By the 1970s, the original landholders who had brought modern development to the then-remote island began to get out of the game, ushering in a dark period of time for Hilton Head. After a series of real estate transactions, an over-leveraged developer named Bobby Ginn bought many of the island’s major gated communities, including Sea Pines, Hilton Head Plantation and Port Royal.
When Ginn’s enterprise went bust in 1986, a series of community leaders and banks worked with the bankruptcy court to restructure the companies that controlled the island’s major developments. They also were able to save the Heritage Golf Classic, which was in danger of folding.
At about the same time, a movement was afoot to help reign in development. After a series of controversial, pre-fabricated “stack-a-shack” condominium complexes were approved by Beaufort County in the late 1970s and early 1980s, residents pushed to form their own town. In 1983, the Town of Hilton Head Island was incorporated to stave off undesirable development.
In subsequent years, the town created a strict land management ordinance to control development and maintain the aesthetic standards created by Fraser and the island’s other early visionaries The town also began a land-buying effort, strategically purchasing land throughout the island (and in Bluffton), often maintaining it as passive parkland.
Where do we go from here?Today, Hilton Head is nearly 95 percent developed, but many buildings are in need of upgrades. There’s no easy solution to promoting redevelopment, while ensuring that it is done in a manner consistent with the island’s beginnings.
“In this environment, things age quicker and from a tourism perspective, people are looking for places that are new and fresh,” said town manager Steve Riley. “For a place designed to control growth, it’s hard to make such a drastic change.”
The town, for its part, has begun injecting some flexibility into its zoning code in recent years, including a mechanism for the owners of buildings that pre-date the town’s land management ordinance to make incremental improvements. This is important because many buildings are larger than what town code now would allow and few business owners are willing to sacrifice the size of their buildings just to make a few improvements.
Last year, the town finished improvements to Coligny Beach Park, a project that has the potential to spur redevelopment in the area once the economy rebounds. A future phase calls for re-doing the Coligny parking lot, a project that includes demolishing the former location of The Smokehouse and a miniature golf course in order to build a park connecting Circle Center to Coligny.
Similar efforts are underway in other parts of the island. Officials hope the eventual installation of a traffic circle and park at the intersection of Arrow Road and Dunnagans Alley will encourage landowners in that area to spruce up a corridor that is looking quite tired these days.
And lest we forget about the mall, a significant departure from past decisions made by Town Council. After a two-year battle, the council approved changes to the zoning of the Mall at Shelter Cove to allow a movie theater, something owner Walt Petrie said was vital to reinvigorating the half-empty shopping center. But after all of that work, Petrie was unable to find financing, so he shelved the project.
“The huge fight over the mall was in large measure the town taking a step that we had never done before,” Riley said, “and it was a step we had chastised Bluffton and Beaufort County for: adding more density than what was initially allowed.”
While Riley and others see the mall fight as emblematic of the town’s willingness to play ball, others view the protracted fight as a clear example of the time, effort and money it takes for business owners to get their redevelopment projects approved.
With banks tightening their lending practices and a soft economy, few property owners are willing to take a chance on redevelopment, particularly if the end-result of what some would call an arbitrary planning process is so uncertain.
“It’s hard to change a mindset that’s been so entrenched for 25 years,” said Chet Williams, one of the island’s primary zoning and land-use attorneys. “It’s like trying to stop the Titanic. Hopefully, with time, we’ll begin to see some sort of change.”
There’s some irony to one major roadblock to redevelopment. Part of the initial vision of Hilton Head included installing regimes to manage and maintain condominium complexes. Those regime structures make it nearly impossible for a wholesale redevelopment of multi-family properties because all of the owners would have to approve any changes.
“It’s not possible in a multi-story residential structure to change 8-foot ceilings to 9-foot ceilings, which is what people want these days,” Williams said.
But it is possible to make smaller changes. At Heritage Villas near Harbour Town, owners recently agreed to replace old fences that surround utility areas and patios, a noticeable upgrade. There are numerous examples of similar small-scale improvements throughout the island that tend to have a large impact on the appearance of older buildings.
Some bigger redevelopment projects also are in the works. Harris Teeter has plans that will change the configuration (and terrible parking lot) of Park Plaza. Two restaurant buildings will eventually replace the old Cracker Barrel. A sleek, luxury condominium building with a swimming pool on the roof is expected to be built at Palmetto Bay Marina.
Many of these projects are currently in limbo. When times are tough, business owners tend to slow re-investment, and communities dependent on tourism and real estate tend to panic.
“I don’t know that if the economy wasn’t in the tank and there was still money flying around that people would even be talking about redevelopment,” Riley said.
But they are, and there’s bound to be even more talk about it in the coming months, especially as the town’s first contested elections in years take place in November.
Recently, Mayor Tom Peeples appointed a task force of community leaders to suggest ways the town can promote redevelopment.
Peeples charged the Mayor’s Task Force for the Island’s Future with:
- Reviewing, refining and recommending a set of core values intended to guide both commerce and government actions for the future of the island.
- Developing a succinct mission statement of who we are as a town and how we should position ourselves in the marketplace.
- Identifying no more than five key areas of focus for the town, based on the core values and the mission statement, over the next 25 years.
- Recommending strategies for implementation of these key focus areas.
The chairman of the task force, David Ames, a longtime islander and civic leader, said in January that the future of the island is a concern of many residents and business people.
“I’m not the only one who’s been talking about these things,” said Ames. “(Fellow task force member) Kumar Viswanathan was one of those talking about the town getting its act together to stimulate redevelopment on the island. He was looking at commercial decay on the island; I was looking at a broader perspective. The question is: Are we really paying attention to where we’ll end up if we maintain the status quo?”
One possibility is for the town to create a new land-buying program designed to buy old commercial buildings, demolish the structures and then put the vacant land back on the market.
“There are a lot of things we’re going to have to talk about,” said Riley. “The main thought is: Don’t sell your soul. Be careful about what flexibility you include. The economy’s down now, but don’t sell out water quality or the environment or the myriad other reasons people choose to come here.”
The history of Hilton Head
2.5 million to 12,000 years ago: Hilton Head Island is underwater. There are a couple of theories about how barrier islands like Hilton Head were formed. The first is that off-shore sandbars were gradually built up. More recently, scientists have come up with the theory that as the ocean retreated during the glacial period, a set of sand dunes formed at the new coastline. Gradually, sand and sediment collected in between the new and old set of dunes, forming an island.
8,000 BC to 1500 AD: Native Americans who travelled along the Savannah River basin visit the island seasonally, most likely arriving in the fall of each year. Several shell rings remain from this time period, including one in the Sea Pines Forest Preserve and Green’s Shell Enclosure on the north end.
1521: European explorations of the area begin with Francisco Cordillo, who leads a Spanish expedition that initiates contact with local tribes.
1663: Capt. William Hilton sails from Barbados to explore lands granted by King Charles II to eight English lords.
1779-1780: Hostilities rise amid the American Revolution. Hilton Head residents tend to side with the colonists, while Daufuskie sides with the British. A number of homes are torched by British forces and Daufuskie islanders.
1790: Sea Island cotton is first grown on Hilton Head.
1813: The British are back: this time to burn more homes during the War of 1812.
1860: Hilton Head is home to about 20 working plantations that rely on the labor of slaves brought in from Africa and the Caribbean. Most of the owners do not live on the island. South Carolina becomes the first state to secede from the Union.
1861: About 13,000 Union troops take back the island. The following year, Mitchelville is founded as a village for freed slaves. The population of the island swells to 40,000. Occupation ends by 1868.
1870s: Some plantation owners return to reclaim their land. The rest is held by the government and sold to native islanders and land speculators. The island is again known as Hilton Head. It had been called Port Royal during the Civil War and Trench’s Island during the 1700s.
1893: A large hurricane hits Beaufort County, killing about 2,000 residents and destroying many of the island’s structures.
1920s: Cotton crops are in decline. Native islanders grow other crops, fish and raise livestock to sell on River Street in Savannah.
1940: The island’s population is about 1,100 and consists primarily of descendants of freed slaves.
1949: Hilton Head’s modern development begins when Fred Hack, Gen. Joseph Fraser, Olin T. McIntosh and C.C. Stebbins begin buying about 20,000 acres for logging operations. The island’s population is only about 300 residents.
1955: The Sea Crest Hotel is built on Forest Beach and the first vacation cottages go up in Folly Field.
1956: The first bridge to the island is built, Sea Pines begins development and the island’s first grocery store is built near Coligny.?1960s: Spanish Wells, Port Royal and Palmetto Dunes are conceived; Hilton Head Airport is built and Sea Pines installs the island’s first gates. Harbour Town is completed in 1969, the same year as the first Heritage Golf Classic.
1970s: Hilton Head Plantation and Shipyard are built; the island’s full-time population hits 6,500 and more than 250,000 people a year vacation here.
1980s: The toll bridge is replaced; the town is incorporated; Wexford and Long Cove are developed.
1990s: Hilton Head’s full-time population nears 30,000 and approximately 1.5 million visitors come each year. The Cross Island Parkway opens in 1997.
Sources: Town of Hilton Head Island, Coastal Discovery Museum and S.C. Aquarium