How landscape architect Robert Marvin's work sheltered the body and nourished the soul

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How landscape architect Robert Marvin's work sheltered the body and nourished the soul

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Published Sunday, April 29, 2007 in The Island Packet  |  1309 Words  |  editorial/col/thatsthat

WALTERBORO -- Walls of glass in Anna Lou Marvin's home in downtown Walterboro are not supposed to be walls at all.
They are a statement, a philosophy -- a literal outlook on life. They break down the barrier between the inside and outside world. The walls are not there to hold up the ceiling, but to free the soul for physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual growth.
Robert Marvin, her late husband, taught the South that landscape architecture is not just planting azaleas. His soaring thoughts, germinated on the quiet rice plantation of his Lowcountry childhood, found a soul mate in Sea Pines founder Charles Fraser. Together, they helped revolutionize not only Hilton Head Island, but modern development.
On May 6, Robert and Anna Lou Marvin's garden and home -- converted from a bungalow more than 50 years ago -- will be open to the public as part of the Walterboro Antiques, History and Arts Festival. "Glorious Gardens -- A Tribute to Robert Marvin" will feature the Marvin home and four other gardens along Hampton Street from 3 to 6 p.m.
The glass walls reflect the mind that helped give Sea Pines its early distinction, that blended the island's Monarch time-share complex and Hilton hotel into an oceanfront forest, and later designed seminal local developments like Spring Island and Bray's Island.
It is a look at the mind that left us such heirlooms as the Henry Chambers Waterfront Park in Beaufort; the Waterfront Park in Charleston; the Governor's Mansion compound, the Congaree Vista and Finlay Park in Columbia; and the Callaway Gardens Sibley Center in Georgia.
INSIDE OUT
I sat in the glass living room with Anna Lou Marvin and her daughter, Alta Mae Marvin, last week to ask what made Robert Marvin a quiet sage in a field now tilted toward money and quarterly earnings, not the inner yearnings of mankind.
I saw the chair where he read two hours each day before going to bed in a glass room with no curtains. I felt the cypress wood inside and out. I saw the art created by his well-educated aunts who ran a seasonal arts colony in a rice barn, and expected great things from young Robert. I was told his childhood playmates on Colleton County's Bonnie Doone Plantation managed by his father were most likely horses and dogs. I heard that as a child he earned a quarter an hour to water the new landscaping a northern firm did at Bonnie Doone, but that he probably got a lot more out of it than that.
I saw that his glass walls were angled on the lot to gain climate control. Alta Mae said they're 14 degrees east of south, which he considered perfection. Sun does not hit the windows in the summer, but warming rays creep in 50 feet in the winter.
I laughed when tiny Anna Lou jabbed her husband's long lance into the air. As a youth, he used it in competitions aboard his horse Princess Pat. I saw hidden in a tiny hallway the grandest awards we have to offer: the Order of the Palmetto; the South Carolina Hall of Fame designation (he asked Alta Mae to write his remarks for the induction, but it could not be about him); and the American Society of Landscape Architects' highest honor for lifetime achievement. I saw the statuette that comes with the Elizabeth O'Neill Verner Award for contributions to the arts in South Carolina.
I even drove to his rustic office, now run by his longtime partner, Howell Beach. The dark wooden building sits on stilts by the swamp, surrounded by 15 acres of woods. It's down a dirt road so rough and obscure I felt like I was in a Civil War re-enactment.
LOWCOUNTRY MODERNIST
I asked a lot of people how and why this lifelong friend and soul mate of Charles and Mary Fraser helped make our community what it is.
James J. Chaffin Jr., an early Sea Pines executive and Fraser disciple who has spread the philosophy nationwide, wrote before Marvin died in 2001 at the age of 81: "Robert classically challenges his clients to 'take it apart, create chaos, open your mind, think thoughts you haven't thought before, and eventually put it all back together.' "
Mary Fraser said, "Robert looked at things like Charles did. What are the possibilities here, what should we do,
what should we not do? He would listen and bring all the parties together, almost like a counselor or mediator. He was incredibly perceptive. He didn't rush on a job. He looked at it. He studied it. He felt it."
Berry Edwards, whose landscape company executed a number of Marvin's plans, said, "He set the tone. He set the bar at a very high level, much higher than anything else being done in this area."
Landscape architect and fellow Walterboro native Ed Pinckney said, "He was so energetic. He was an evangelist for landscape architects. His delivery and his enthusiasm would overcome anyone. He promoted simple landscapes, not cluttered, not full of creativity and invention. And give him great credit for making it happen. Ideas are one thing, but working with clients to make ideas come alive is another."
LIVING ENVIRONMENTS
Most South Carolinians didn't know what landscape architecture was when Marvin took it up -- along with running his father's nursery and several other related ventures -- in 1947.
Alta Mae and her late brother, Earle, lived in the glass-walled home of such lofty purpose. She now sits in awe of her mother and father's courage to do so much more than plant azaleas.
And as we sat in the atrium-like living room designed to be one with the live oak over Anna Lou's shoulder, Alta Mae sat beneath what may be the smoking gun in decoding Robert Marvin.
Hanging from the ceiling is a large yellow geometric object. It once was the top of a "tree" in a man-made "forest" in a Colorado meadow. The forest surrounded a tent that was the gathering place for the 1962 International Design Conference in Aspen.
Alta Mae and Earle were off on a six-week trip across America with five teenage cousins and Anna Lou's parents in a Lincoln Continental -- Anna Lou's mother never taking off her hat or white gloves.
That freed Robert and Anna Lou to drive a red Volkswagen Beetle to Aspen. They brought the large yellow object home in the back seat, along with some of the leaves Anna Lou collects everywhere she goes.
It's a dangling reminder that beneath the soaring Rockies, Robert and Anna Lou met the greatest minds of many fields. Anna Lou remembers stumbling into Jonas Salk. Robert came home with new horizons. He sprinkled new advice in his many speeches that otherwise covered the need to plan.
Marvin said:
"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."
To Marvin, it was as clear as the glass walls of home.
Walterboro antiques, history and arts festival:
Schedule of events
Friday: Antique District Soiree, cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, $25.
Saturday: Wichman Street Historic Houses tour, $20.
May 6: Glorious Gardens -- A Tribute to Robert Marvin, from 3 to 6 p.m; $7.
For information and tickets: Call 843-549-9633.
Directions to Walterboro: Take Exit 53 off Interstate 95. Take a right to go to
downtown Walterboro.