When the alligator statue returned from several weeks of restoration, just in time for our First Thursdays Art Market in April, it reminded us of some things that might add up to why our alligator has never had a single name that stuck.
So many connections come forth when we think about the Sea Pines gator’s career that this profusion might explain why no one name ever seemed to be enough. Between two brothers, between father and son, between restaurants and merchants, between visitors and residents – the long, bronze creature at the center of Sea Pines Center fulfills that miraculous mission of art, connecting people to each other, and to something greater, too.
Stepping Into a Symbol
When the Saturday Evening Post sent a reporter and photographer to Hilton Head Island in March 1962, it was to interview Sea Pines founder Charles Fraser – then just 26 – who was becoming a topic up north, a focus of conversation for his audacious approach to turning one of his father’s lumber forests into an oceanside resort. The news was in how Charles charted this course to disturb the sea island environment as little as possible.
The part of the resulting picture that was calculated was that Charles asked himself, “What would a young gentleman wear to be taken seriously up there?”
So, Charles donned the Brooks Brothers suit that he probably picked up as a student at Yale, and he topped it off with a straw fedora hat to reflect the subtropical sun. Charles added a rolled umbrella at the last minute and wielded it like a walking stick, not expecting rain, but rather thinking that a young gentleman should do that.
The part of the picture that was beyond calculation was when a better-than-medium-sized alligator stepped in to join the photo shoot. With barely a moment’s hesitation, Charles fell in step with the gator, the camera snapped, and the image endured, eventually becoming a statue itself, in Compass Rose Park.
Two Brothers Inspired
Although nobody thought too deeply about it, the contrast between the well-dressed young gentleman and the seemingly prehistoric beast did more than just stick in the mind and imagination. It symbolized the partnership with nature that Charles Fraser honored in the way he designed Sea Pines.
When Charles’s brother, Joe, took charge of developing The Shops at Sea Pines Center, Joe assisted Forsythe Jewelers in commissioning artist Walter Palmer to create a sculpture we could situate right in the middle of the plaza, between Forsythe Jewelers and Truffles, two original anchors of the center.
Drawing, no doubt, from the enduring image of his brother, Charles, Joe Fraser suggested an alligator. Although Walter Palmer was – and is – noted for his humorous bronze sculptures of birds, such as the giant Kingfisher at Shelter Cove, he seems to have used that fine touch for friendliness in creating the alligator we have enjoyed here at The Shops at Sea Pines Center for nearly four decades.
A Father and Son Team
While Walter sculpted the core of the Sea Pines Center alligator, it was his son, Wally, who bronzed it. The casual dignity, the quality of seeming imposing and inviting at the same time, the feeling of fun – for this we owe our thanks to both father and son. Coming full circle, it was Wally Palmer who took on the task of restoring the alligator when we decided it was time to “send it to the spa” last fall.
“The technology for bronzing today is so much more advanced than 36 years ago,” Wally said, “that the alligator is completely familiar, and yet it looks better than ever.”
A Celebrated Return
Such a fitting day it was when our alligator returned to its pedestal on the same day that First Thursdays Art Market resumed after winter break. Eighteen local artists exhibited. Our home-grown singer-songwriter, Sara Burns, serenaded. And a duo drawn from the award-winning band that was born at Hilton Head High, The Nice Guys, played familiar hits. Wally Palmer tells us that the original unveiling in 1987 was, understandably, an even bigger celebration.
“They held a pretty big shindig for that,” Wally said of the unveiling.
Charles Fraser made some dedicating remarks. What impressed Wally most, though, he says in memory, was the first time Wally and his best friend Mike White had encountered an open bar.
“Mike helped me bronze the gator originally. Mike owns a soccer pub up in Athens now, but we just cherish the gator,” Wally said of the sculpture they pitched in to bronze those many years ago.
Making New Stories Every Day
With a whole history of connecting people, our alligator’s birthright in a way, it still can be surprising how the gator goes on every day connecting children with parents, connecting friends and couples. The gator even connects grownups with the kids within them. You can see it in their eyes.
This magic is on display day after day in the plaza of The Shops at Sea Pines Center, when people have their pictures taken together with our alligator. Some say it is second only to the Harbour Town Lighthouse as a traditional Hilton Head Island photo op. Decades and distances fall away. Such a warm and magical power was imbedded in our alligator, from the very beginning, and people’s pictures are their way of doing their best to take it home. Even these many stories of connection fall short of explaining the magic in full. Come join us and see for yourself.