David Lauderdale

Hilton Head can thank him for its trademark style. Now, his childhood home is up for sale

Robert E. Marvin
Robert E. Marvin Courtesy SCETV

Bonnie Doone Plantation in greater Green Pond, South Carolina, is now for sale for what seems to we peons as a bargain basement price of $2.9 million, but its value to the Lowcountry and all of the South may never be truly realized.

That’s because it’s where Robert E. Marvin grew up, and where his sense of the balance between mankind and nature was formed.

As an adult, he fashioned that into the celebrated feel of Hilton Head Island; and the simple pleasures of Beaufort’s Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park; Columbia’s Finlay Park, Vietnam War Memorial, and Governor’s Mansion complex; Rock Hill’s Cherry Park and Glencairn Gardens; and so much more.

The imprint of Marvin’s life at Bonnie Doone can still be felt on Hilton Head at Harbour Town, the Monarch, and the Omni hotel; and at the upscale Brays Island and Spring Island residential communities of Beaufort County.

Maybe it’s most tangible in the Six Oaks Cemetery in Sea Pines on Hilton Head. Marvin became a soul mate of Sea Pines founder Charles Fraser, but early on it was discovered that the master plan lacked a key ingredient. When a young girl on the island died unexpectedly, Marvin worked on a tractor in the rain through the weekend to create a beautiful burying place for her amid the live oaks.

Let nature speak. Don’t clutter it up. Don’t “improve” it. These were the building blocks that came from Bonnie Doone to Hilton Head.

Marvin’s father was the overseer at Bonnie Doone, then a 15,000-acre former rice plantation in Colleton County.

Robert was an only child, living seven miles from the nearest neighbor. His best friends were the woods and marshes, and his dogs and horses. His well-educated aunts ran a seasonal arts colony in a rice barn, and expected great things from young Robert.

He drank it all in when the New York owner of Bonnie Doone brought in the Innocenti and Webel landscape architecture firm to fashion gardens there.

Marvin, who went on to earn degrees from Clemson University and the University of Georgia and is in every hall of fame there is for his profession and his home state, spent a lifetime telling people that landscaping is more than planting azaleas.

He was a pioneer in the profession of landscape architecture in South Carolina, and a leading voice of Southerners pleading that we save the landscape, and thereby save our souls, as development and industry and “progress” finally came to town.

Marvin and his longtime partner, Howell Beach, put this on the wall of their design headquarters buried in the woods at the end of a narrow, dirt road near Walterboro:

“The dominant reason for existence of Robert Marvin/Howell Beach & Associates shall be to create and design an environment in which each individual can grow and develop to be a full human being as God intended him to be.”

Marvin and his bubbly wife, Anna Lou, drove their red Volkswagen Beetle to the 1962 International Design Conference in Aspen, Colorado, where they met the greatest minds of many fields. Anna Lou remembers stumbling into Jonas Salk.

Robert and Anna Lou Marvin are both gone now, but the influence of that long trip west is still with us.

Marvin would later say: “I once heard Dr. Karl Menninger, world-renowned Kansas psychiatrist, tell the Aspen International Design Conference on Man’s Environment, that a man’s success and happiness are affected as much by his emotional response to his environment as by his physical comfort in it.

“It was Dr. Menninger’s belief that the answer to mounting problems of mental health lies in the preventive measure of creating living environments which consider the emotional needs of people.”

Marvin already knew that, not from the fields of the great Rocky Mountains, but from the sandy paths of Bonnie Doone.