March 2014

Home Captures Zeitgeist of Original Hilton Head

Author: Rebecca Edwards | Photographer: Mark Staff Photography

I was reminded of Søren Kierkegaard’s quote, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards,” when I was recently asked to write about the quintessential Hilton Head home. How we aesthetically experience Hilton Head architecture now is very different from how we would have experienced it “way back when” and, more to the point, how it was intended to be experienced.

Ruthie Edwards of Ruth Edwards Antiques and Interiors is what I call one the “originals”—a group of people who moved here in the 1960s and built the first homes, had the first families and launched the first businesses in the area. She would laugh and say the true originals came here before her and were “a crazy group of diverse individuals who were leaders at the top of their game and who built wonderfully eccentric homes.”

In an effort to capture these people, these times and these homes, Margaret Greer published, Three Decades of Hilton Head Architecture 1965-1995 in January of ’95. “I wrote that book a week before the bulldozers came,” Greer said. “Now, only a few of these fabulous homes still remain.”

On page six of the book, you will find Dwight and Susie Emanuelson’s ’50s-inspired contemporary beachfront property in Sea Pines—a home that epitomizes the zeitgeist of 1960s Hilton Head. And, just like monuments and historic sites throughout the world, this home gives us a telling snapshot of our past so we may better understand our future.

The house was originally designed by Doug Corken and John Wade and built by Farris Highsmith in 1963. In an interview with Sports Illustrated in December of 1962, Wade (who at the time of the article designed 60 percent of Sea Pines) said, “Because the main road does not run along the shoreline like a cartographer’s tracing pen, there is no special pressure on front-lot builders to put up show places to be admired by passersby. The effect is to give all the houses, whether near the water or farther back, a feeling of balance.” Wade went on to say, “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.”

In keeping with this philosophy, the Emanuelson’s home stands out due to its uniqueness rather than any overt or ostentatious elements such as size or color palate. “The interior of the house was meant to look like the inside of a naval cruise ship,” Dwight Emanuelson said. To create this effect, the house’s design plan included industrial metal, concrete floors, slanted walls, and steps going “up deck” (a.k.a. the third floor) on both sides of the main room.

The Emanuelsons bought the home in 1987 and, still maintaining the integrity of the design, have remodeled the house four times with the help of interior designers Ruthie Edwards and Laura Baker, builder Joe Highsmith (son of Farris Highsmith) and architect Matt Taylor.

“The house is a series of nine-degree angles,” began Taylor, who believes the Emanuelson’s home provides a significant commentary about Hilton Head’s architecture. “Hilton Head is becoming a homogenized beach community that is bringing in historical references that were never part of the original design intention. Originally, Hilton Head had a mid-century modern theme where nature came first and the home second. The architecture was drawn from nature. Long overhangs were a function of getting water from a house and reminiscent of a tree.”

The interior of the Emanuelson’s home embraces it’s surrounding landscape with ample windows and sliding glass doors, and its black and white interior compliments rather than competes with the view. “We painted the ceiling in the bar blue, to give the feeling of a nighttime sky,” Edwards said.

The house also showcases some incredible art. “All my friends are on the walls,” said Dwight Emanuelson, who began collecting art in his 20s. By friends, he is referring to famed abstract expressionalists like Conrad Marca-relli, David Budd, Malcolm Morley and Syd Solomon—all guys he hung out with when he lived in New York and worked on Wall Street. “I’d help them manage their money; they’d show me their art. It was a great time,” Emanuelson said.

Emanuelson serves on the boards of the Columbia Museum of Art, the Telfair Museum, and Cornell’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, and has given away much of his collection “to help perpetuate an appreciation for art and to help local museums build up their collections.” Walking through his home is like touring a fine art gallery with a charming docent sharing personal anecdotes about the artists. Plus, you could spend hours thumbing through his extensive art book collection.

Then there’s the chair collection. In every room of the house, you can sit down on a one-of-a-kind chair. In Emanuelson’s office is an Eames chair, circa 1930s. Off from his kitchen is a Harry Bertoia lipstick chair and Harry Bertoia Eifel Tower chair. Around his breakfast table are Philippe Starck ghost chairs. And this list goes on.
When asked why he collects art, art books and chairs he smiled and said, “I’m a Libra.”

“A Libra?” I asked.

“Yeah, Libras like beautiful things.”

I thought to myself the world might need more Libras just so we can preserve the finer things in life. I was then reminded of the conclusion of Greer’s book in which she wrote, “The quality of our lives is really shaped to some extent by the external world we live in, and in the quality of the structures we build.”

As we are leaving Emanuelson’s house he says something that worries me. “You know, if I ever sold this house, whoever bought it would probably tear it down.” Going off of a gut reaction, I ask him to please tell me before he ever considers listing it. We both know I can’t afford his home, yet we both know Hilton Head can’t afford to lose it.

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