The man who built the Harbour Town Lighthouse died Monday at his home in Bluffton.
William Brooks “Bill” Whalley, 89, also built the original Harbour Town Clubhouse in just 4 1/2 months, racing to get it finished for the first RBC Heritage golf tournament in 1969.
“I distinctly remember putting carpet down that morning,” Whalley said.
The Whalley Construction Co. of Savannah built more than 100 large buildings all over the South, including the CNN Center in Atlanta.
And Whalley and his late brother John built other significant buildings in Beaufort County, including the ones surrounding the Harbour Town Yacht Basin in Sea Pines, the clubhouse at the Arthur Hills Golf Course in Palmetto Dunes, the four-story Jade Building near Sea Pines Circle, the clubhouse at Dataw Island near Beaufort, and the headquarters of the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce.
But it was the red-and-white candystriped lighthouse in Harbour Town that became his most iconic structure. It was the first lighthouse built in many years in South Carolina, but it was never nautical. Instead, it became the symbol of Sea Pines, Hilton Head Island and often for South Carolina’s tourism industry.
Whalley was asked by Sea Pines founders Charles E. Fraser and his brother Joseph B. “Joe” Fraser Jr. if he could build a “fishing village” in a swampy area that they would call Harbour Town.
“There was no road down there and we had to go by jeep,” Whalley said.
Workers and most supplies had to come by boat. Electricity was provided by generators. The 93-foot spire with a lookout deck at the top of its 114 stairs was built in a steady 25-knot wind, as Whalley recalled it.
It cost $275,000 to build. People called it “Fraser’s Folly.”
But they were wrong.
It created the focal point of one of the PGA Tour’s most famous finishing holes on the Harbour Town Golf Links 18th.
But it was part of a bigger story.
Peter Walker, who helped design Sea Pines as a young man and more recently did the landscape design at the National September 11 Memorial in New York City, once explained it to me:
“Not only was Charlie (Fraser) entrepreneurial, he was theatrical. He looked for things that reach out to touch people — whether it was a place, a building, a program, aesthetics — anything people could respond to on an emotional level.
“It was a symbolic lighthouse. Obviously, he didn’t need a lighthouse. It was part of the imagery. It’s all about fantasy. He wanted a place to play, golf, swim, ride horses. It’s that fantasy of a life that’s fun. If you’re like Charlie was, one of the things you look for is what is unique, exciting, symbolic? Charlie was smart enough to realize these things work with the human heart. He was always working on what makes a place better, more interesting, more beautiful. Or keeping something beautiful. Not destroying it.”
To Walker, it was not folly.
“You’re always looking for that iconic thing,” he said. “We used to joke: What would make it to the cover of the phone book?”
Whalley started building the lighthouse while awaiting plans for the Fraser’ top priority — the golf clubhouse.
“We couldn’t wait until the architect finished his drawings before we started,” Whalley said. “We were able to design the structural frame from sketches.”
Scaffolding encased the skeletal lighthouse during that first Heritage golf tournament as Arnold Palmer won it.
Then came debates over its stripes, and the color.
Kenneth DeMay, the young architect of the lighthouse who would go on to win more 30 design awards in his lifetime, wanted vertical stripes. But Fraser went with horizontal after consulting with interior designer Elizabeth Gordon, former House Beautiful editor.
And Charles Fraser picked red stripes. Or did he?
“We painted that damn thing three times to get it the way Charles wanted it,” Whalley said. “We had to brown it up. He didn’t want a lollipop red.”
Whalley was a Savannah native and third-generation builder who loved competitive sailing in a 30-foot Morgan.
“He taught (future America’s Cup winner) Ted Turner how to sail at the Savannah Yacht Club,” said his daughter, Jana Whalley Lewis of Savannah.
He also was an avid golfer, but best known as a detail-oriented hard worker.
Whalley got a mechanical engineering degree from Georgia Tech, and served in the Navy during the Korean War before becoming president of Whalley Construction Co.
He moved to Hilton Head in the mid-1980s and served on the Town of Hilton Head Island’s Building Board of Adjustments and Appeals.
He later moved to Sun City Hilton Head, and then to the Lawton Station neighborhood nearby.
He loved to point to the Harbour Town Lighthouse, telling how it was similar in size and shape to the stone Darwen Tower his grandfather built in Lancashire, England, in 1898 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.
And if you asked, he would share good advice for young builders.
After working on a master’s degree in structural engineering at Georgia Tech and finally reporting to work for his father in Savannah, he was told: “You can put your books on the shelf and start taking care of the company’s books.”
Whalley said: “It was hard for me to comprehend. But I learned to do it and, as it turned out, that was probably the most valuable of all my internships. It was good experience, but man, I resented it. I went on from there to other internships. And when Daddy died in ’65, I was ready to take over.”
He said too many young people “are in a big hurry to get to the top, not realizing that it takes a lot of experience to be a good designer and builder.”