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A Boston Globe headline on May 23 read: "Kenneth DeMay, designed Hilton Head lighthouse, 77."
DeMay, whose memorial service will be held Monday in Concord, Mass., accumulated more than 30 design awards in his career. His work in cities, resorts and university campuses made him a fellow and board member of the American Institute of Architects.
That the candy-striped Harbour Town Lighthouse in Sea Pines, a simple edifice that's not even a real lighthouse, made the headline on his life story tells more about the human spirit than it does steel and concrete.
And it tells about the men and women who chase after what makes the heart tick, try to bottle it in line drawings and maps and renderings, and then unleash it like a butterfly for us to enjoy.
It tells about chutzpah, karma, intellect and fantasy.
It tells the story of modern Hilton Head Island.
<strong>WHITE BUCK SHOES</strong>
DeMay was the first architect hired at Sasaki Associates landscape architects in the Boston suburb of Watertown, Mass. He was there from 1960 to 2001. This is the firm, founded in 1953, that reinvented land planning and, in 1956, drew the original master plan for Sea Pines.
It was a tiny firm then, founded by Hideo Sasaki, a brilliant Japanese-American who was sent to an internment camp as a young man but grew up to head the Harvard Graduate School of Design and a firm whose client list is now so vast it must be divided into six sectors. Its "waterfronts" sector, for example, numbers 37 projects and includes familiar ones in Charleston and Savannah, plus some work on the master plan of the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park in Beaufort.
While others sculpted corporate headquarters surrounded by parking lots, Sasaki turned them into gardens. Sasaki pioneered the collaborative, interdisciplinary approach to landscape architecture, to include history, culture, ecology -- and clients.
"(Sasaki) wanted people to understand the human needs and natural forces that were working on the landscape," Harvard professor Charles Harris said when Sasaki died in his native California almost a decade ago.
Sasaki was a young man, with his few associates including Harvard students, when a boyish Southerner in white buck shoes and a fresh Yale Law School degree strode into his office with rolls of maps under his arm. It was Charles E. Fraser, and his family owned some 5,000 acres on the southern tip of a backwater island called Hilton Head.
<strong>PHONE BOOK COVER</strong>
Peter Walker, who became a principal in what was called Sasaki/Walker & Associates, helped draw the Sea Pines master plan. He included its groundbreaking cul-de-sacs that run to the beach from a main road set back from the ocean. That design gives value to more rows of lots, all accessible by greenways to the beach.
"Charlie was a young and very adventuresome client, and we were young and very adventuresome designers," Walker said last week. "So lots and lots of things in it are unique."
Harbour Town is one of them. The idea of building a community's heart from nothing was new.
Harbour Town and its lighthouse came much later than the original drawings, with construction coinciding with the mad dash to get Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus' Harbour Town Golf Links ready for the first Heritage professional tournament in November 1969.
But Walker said it was always in the plan, as a space some might label "marina."
"It grew as they were designing it into something quite a bit more," said Walker, who is designing the World Trade Center Memorial at ground zero in New York City with Michael Arad.
The yacht basin -- ringed with housing, businesses, a playground, red rocking chairs and family entertainment beneath the Liberty Oak -- created a sense of place. And the lighthouse brought an icon, now considered among the most recognizable in the world.
"Not only was Charlie entrepreneurial, he was theatrical," said Walker from the offices of Peter Walker and Partners Landscape Architecture in Berkeley, Calif. "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."
Walker is trying to do that with the 9/11 memorial.
"With a memorial what you're trying to do is something that symbolizes that event -- keeps it in people's minds."
The lighthouse is similar, he said.
"You're always looking for that iconic thing," Walker said. "We used to joke: What would make it to the cover of the phone book?"
Stuart O. Dawson is retired but still pops in at Sasaki, which was once called Sasaki, Dawson and DeMay.
He recalls there being 30 or more proposals for the lighthouse.
Issues were height (Fraser wanted the public to be able to climb it, so it came in at 93 feet), shape (it's octagonal, with Fraser saying he and his wife, Mary, were inspired by a lighthouse in the Bahamas), location (it had to be seen down Harbour Town's waterfront 18th fairway, and landscape architect Robert Marvin of Walterboro later made sure it is perfectly framed from the Harbour Town Clubhouse steps), whether the stripes should be vertical or horizontal (DeMay wanted vertical but Fraser went with horizontal after including consultation from interior designer Elizabeth Gordon who did much of the early Sea Pines work and was associated with design maven Elisabeth Draper of New York), and color (Fraser picked red stripes, and contractor Bill Whalley, who built the lighthouse and now lives in Sun City Hilton Head, said, "We painted that damn thing three times to get it the way Charles wanted it. We had to brown it up. He didn't want a lollipop red").
Dawson recalls a jarring incident in the woods around Harbour Town when it was being built.
Fraser was driving a station wagon with DeMay, Dawson and others aboard. As was typical, Fraser was talking nonstop -- waving his hands, hashing out the color or shape and maybe referencing Greek ideals or the joys of Sliding Rock in North Carolina -- when suddenly the car smacked into an oak.
"He never stopped talking," Dawson said. "He backed up, and water was spewing out of the hood, but he never acknowledged that he'd done that."
Dawson quickly acknowledges that Sea Pines did a lot for the firm, and the profession. Five of the people who shaped Sea Pines -- Sasaki, Dawson, Walker, Marvin and William J. Johnson -- won the highest lifetime-achievement honor given by the American Society of Landscape Architects.
While "Hilton Head lighthouse designer" Ken DeMay is being memorialized many miles away, the bust of Fraser that rests above his grave will be looking out over Harbour Town. Boats will be bobbing and people will be milling about. And the human spirit somehow captured by design will move some of them to sit and rock, and others to snap pictures of the lighthouse, and smile.