For the love of Pete, save the 'Hilton Head look'

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comMay 31, 2014 

Pete McGinty must have thought he was in a different world when he saw Hilton Head Island for the first time in 1953.

He was finishing a two-year apprenticeship with an architectural firm in Columbia when a small "Lots For Sale" ad in The State newspaper caught his attention. He was not familiar with the location: Hilton Head. The ad said, "Make arrangements to see the property by calling Wilton Graves."

Pete and his new wife, Aileen, didn't feel that they needed to make arrangements. But when they got to Buckingham Landing and there was no ferry to take them to the low-slung island in the distance, their adventure into a new world began.

They made arrangements next time to be picked up by Wilton Graves in a Jeepster. What we call Pope Avenue was such a narrow, sandy path they had to push back the limbs by hand before arriving at Forest Beach, where there were two homes.

They bought an oceanfront lot for $1,100.

A year later, they could move down when Aileen got a job teaching in a one-room schoolhouse at Honey Horn. Pete got jobs with Fred C. Hack, who was running the Hilton Head Co.

He used his Clemson University undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering to help place roads, traffic circles, and new buildings.

He was the first architect in a place that became known for its look -- homes of natural colors blending with the trees, with expansive glass and screen porches bringing the outside in and the inside out.

Oddly enough, long before Richard A. "Pete" McGinty died Friday at age 86, the growth he saw on Hilton Head again made him feel he was in a foreign land.

KINDRED SPIRITS

Pete was a deep thinker who was known to take his time with the drawings that shaped the "Hilton Head look."

"I went to see Pete one day in his office and he was busy with a client," recalls landscape architect Ed Pinckney. "He said just to wait for him in his office. So while I was waiting, I noticed one whole wall was covered with notes and bits of paper reminding Pete to do things or call people. When Pete was free, I said, 'Pete, do you realize about half of those people on your wall are dead?' Pete said, 'Oh, yeah ... well ... that's OK' and we went on with our business."

He found time to bring a distinctive look to the island's first large hotel (56 rooms), the first sanctuary for First Presbyterian Church, and a pro shop for the first golf course in Sea Pines.

Pete found kindred spirits on Hilton Head.

But as early as 1980, as the island stood on the cusp of a growth explosion, he said we needed to cap growth "to a point we can accommodate." We should never widen another highway, or install another traffic light, he said. We should look into a monorail, he said.

He opposed the island's incorporation, which voters approved in 1983. He feared land-use ordinances would demand larger parking lots and reduce flexibility for designers.

When he and partners got into development, he also faced opposition from old-timers saying enough was enough.

Despite all the change on the island -- and at home, where he cared for Aileen for years prior to her death last year -- Pete never quit thinking he could help shape a better community.

'UP, UP, UP'

Pete thought the island should return to its roots as it looks to the future.

"The architectural style is just not indigenous in any way," he told me a few years ago in our last long conversation. "It could be Mediterranean style or old Charleston, something that's selling in other places, sort of picked up and plunked down here.

"It's Anywhere, U.S.A. That's the tragedy of it."

At the time, he'd been wracking his brain to figure out a way to preserve buildings of half a century ago on Hilton Head, just as Beaufort and Savannah have jealously guarded their buildings and sense of proportion.

But instead he saw people paying massive sums for lots, so they tore down the old and maximized every inch of space with larger buildings.

"Everything has gone up, up, up," Pete said.

"We used to make buildings fit into the landscape and be as unobtrusive as possible."

It's a "Hilton Head look" that worked very well.

Pete saw that slipping into something biggger, more grandiose.

"Oh, it's terrible," he said. "It's terrible."

Times change. People change.

But for the love of Pete, Hilton Head Island should try harder to remain a different world.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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