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The Sandcastle, A History: Part 1 – From $1 to Millions

On Oct. 25, the Sandcastle and swimming pool area closed for major renovations, and activities were moved to other locations. This article is the first of a two-part series on the history of the Sandcastle, from the Kiawah Island Company’s 1984 sale of the pool complex to KICA for $1, until 2000, just before the pool was rebuilt. Part two will look at developments since 2000.

In 1976, when the Kuwaiti-owned Kiawah Island Company (KIC) began selling land for private homes on Kiawah, it built a 25-yard four-lane swimming pool to the west of their Kiawah Island Inn, exclusively for property owners. KIC ran the pool until 1984, then offered the 2.5-acre tract with the pool complex, which included a screened-in cabana with some seating and a snack bar, to the Kiawah Residents Group (KRG – a precursor to KICA), for $1, provided KIC would not have to subsidize or manage operations.

The transfer required first a covenant amendment so that KICA could levy an annual amenity assessment (which was initially $42 for full-time residents, $28 for part-timers and $14 for lot owners) to operate the facility; and second, after the amendment passed with only 39 dissenting votes, a referendum to approve the purchase. Because KIC had been uncertain that the referendum would pass, they had back-up plans for the facility, including operating it like the Night Heron Pool.

The referendum did pass, and a volunteer Pool Operating Committee of KRG members was formed to run the facility. Contract lifeguards staffed the pool in summers, and the snack bar served several pre-packaged sandwiches and snacks. The community association added classes in the rustic cabana – such as art, gardening and bridge – and small social events.

Several current owners remember the original pool. Martha Cavanaugh, who began vacationing at Kiawah in 1986 and bought a lot in 1989, described it as simply, a pool, parking lot, a boardwalk to the beach and a few planned activities; her family used the pool daily. Wendy and Tom Kulick bought property in 1986. Wendy remembers a small cabana with a stove and oven suitable for heating but not for real cooking. However, the cabana was the gathering place for the Town of Kiawah Island election day in December, beginning when the town formed in 1988. “The late Glen Smith would cook up a batch of chili and almost everyone on the island would meet there to learn the results of the election,” she recalled.

By the early 1990s, it was clear that the facility including the pool, bath house, 850-square-foot cabana, several ground level decks, and 58 parking spaces, was inadequate for the growing community association’s needs. The cabana was the only KICA space for meetings, classes and social gatherings, and the association had no fitness space.

The board appointed a committee of long-time property owners, headed by the late Chet Barrand, to propose solutions. The committee surveyed the membership and presented its findings in October 1993. Questionnaire results “indicated that a majority of owners favored the construction at an early date” of a recreation center, according to KICA records. The report stated that Kiawah was adding “100 new property owners a year,” and the pool served 5,000 participants annually with 12,000 summer visits, 70% by part-time owners. The now 17-year-old complex was “outdated and inadequate to meet our expanding island requirements…[with] little or no potential for expanded and upgraded family recreation facilities and amenities…[and] does not take advantage of the…spectacular views of the beach that this unique site provides.” The questionnaire showed priority for a grill room for family dining, aerobics and exercise rooms, space for meetings and social functions, extensive decking overlooking the ocean, continued operation of the snack bar, and a heated pool.

Based on these results, the committee developed a plan that proposed an upscale recreation center:

  • The beach and ocean would be viewable from both levels.
  • The pool and food operations would be outsourced, as it had been for two years.
  • The grill room would provide “a vacation type dinner at reasonable prices” year-round, and other meals as demand justified, such as lunch in summer.
  • The fitness space would be managed by contract and fees charged for classes.
  • A Pool Operating Committee (POC) of members would manage the entire facility with volunteers.
  • The POC would also manage room and event rentals.
  • The pool would have lifeguards May through September and remain open the rest of the year without guards.
  • The pool area would not change, except to move the entrance to the parking lot.
  • The cabana would be demolished.
  • A leisure trail with beach access would be built on the east side of the property.
  • Parking would increase to 93 spaces, but no trees would be removed.

To make the proposal viable, particularly to provide land for parking and for the possibility of future expansion, the developer, KRA, which had bought Kiawah from the KIC several years before, offered to donate land toward the beach and east of the existing pool property. Materials sent out with ballots in the referendum of the membership in 1994 said that the center would increase property values, add “badly needed space” for social activities, provide a facility independent of the resort (through which most social and fitness needs were provided at the time), provide a place to host private parties, and be a focal point for the community with “food, recreation, leisure, swimming, beach…[and] fitness…” Operational costs were to be covered by an annual amenity assessment, an annual user fee for full-time residents, and an “initiation fee” of $572 for improved and $286 for unimproved (without dwellings) properties. Future owners, including buyers of existing homes, would pay the same, and lot owners who added homes would pay the $286 balance. The referendum passed with 3,655 votes, 53-47%.

Construction began, and Nat Malcolm – who with his wife, Linda, owns Indigo Books, once at Island Center and now at Freshfields and had just retired from a 26-year Navy career – became the manager about a year before the August 1996, opening. “I made design inputs, such as wire cables on the balcony,” he remembers, because the proposed boards would have blocked the ocean view, and he supported the decision not to heat the pool because of expense.

The building was to be called the Property Owners’ Recreation Center, and owners were involved in the construction. Chet Barrand was a woodworker, and he created handiwork such as the bar in the third room upstairs, now called the Barrand room in his honor, and the handrails at the entrance. “Chet was the pool committee in the early years and kept the cabana and pool operating almost single-handedly,” Nat remarked. “He is the real ‘father’ of the Sandcastle and truly deserves the plaque in the upstairs lounge.”

Nat nicknamed the project “the Sandcastle” because the original plans called for four turrets. Three of the turrets disappeared because of cost constraints, but the name has endured.

Controversy erupted over the building’s roof and siding. Plans specified a cedar shake exterior, but two people collected over 1,500 signatures on a petition to use Hardie Shake, which they said would be cheaper and safer. The Architectural Review Board (ARB) denied the request, and the petitioners asked the KICA board, with four developer and three property owner directors, to overturn the ARB. They refused. Discussion about the siding was heated but the cedar shakes stayed in the plans.

When the building opened, the first floor held a single fitness room with aerobic equipment, a large multipurpose weight machine called a Trotter Gym, and class space; and the Sand Dollar Snack Bar, staffed initially by members during the summer season. On the second floor was the current large room divisible into three and a large catering kitchen which was no longer described as a club-like grill, but rather, according to the August 1996 Digest, as a space for property owner functions, seated meals and special event rentals. Outside was a verandah on both levels that overlooked the ocean and wrapped around the side, a new beach access with showers, and 103 parking spaces.

The pool remained open during construction of the building, which opened on Aug. 4, 1996. Martha Cavanaugh recounted, “Contractors did a great job of building…without interruption to the pool during the season.”

Nat Malcolm remembers some of the early challenges: a mother at the grand opening, furious that Nat would not let her children play in the fitness room; providing easy access for property owners and their guests while screening out non-KICA members; the air conditioning and sound systems, both initially ineffective; the push and pull by members over whether the complex should be elegant and club-like with dues or, as Nat preferred, a community asset for everyone.

He also remembers good times. “My favorite times were the events, especially the property owner dinners that I started. They benefited the caterers who wanted to be known by the community as well as the members, and were one of the center pieces of our activities.” He is still proud of the large event space. “We built the event space as a place for wedding receptions and it is still used for them today.”

KICA Recreation Director Kay Narmour has been working at the Sandcastle almost since its inception. She recalled, “The thinking was that except for Nat as manager, and a half-time assistant manager, property owner volunteers would run the building, pool and food operations. There wasn’t even to be a fitness instructor. No one knew how much work running a recreation center would be. I was hired six hours a week to fill in so the people running it could go play tennis. Obviously, you can’t run a place like this with only volunteer help.” Kay quickly began to handle weekend events and her hours increased. Soon, she was the assistant manager and eventually she replaced Nat as Sandcastle manager.

The fitness room and food operations caused problems from the beginning. At first, member volunteers staffed the snack bar, but soon the pool contractor who provided the lifeguards took over that function, serving little more than hamburgers, hotdogs, peanut butter sandwiches and snacks. In 1996, when the building opened, the snack bar kitchen was inside the main building; food was served from the kitchen to people outside where the seating was. But flies were a problem, so the seating area was enclosed the second summer.

The next issue was that children’s activities were too close to the eating area. Kay remembers ping pong balls flying into people’s food. The next year a wall was erected to separate the eating area from the children’s activities.
The second floor layout quickly became a problem. Kay explained, “The third room [which was to have been the grill room] was accessible only through the kitchen or the middle room [which was to have been the bar]. So when the rooms were used separately, if the middle room was in use, people had enter the third room through the kitchen.” There was no upstairs storage, so nowhere to store the heavy round pedestal tables that had been purchased for the dining room and, though attractive furniture superior to catering quality tables, frequently had to be moved so the room could be used for activities other than dining. “No one envisioned that the rooms would have a variety of uses or could foresee how the Sandcastle would eventually be used.” Kay said.

The fitness area suffered from a different set of problems. When it opened, it had the Trotter Gym, some cardio equipment and class space. Soon, women in classes began complaining about the men on treadmills ogling them. The solution was to convert the snack bar to a space for the four pieces of cardio equipment, then enclose the screened porch for a snack bar. The Trotter Gym was dismantled and traded in for strength training pieces, and a storage area in back was converted to strength training space, creating three fitness areas and generating a small uptick in usage.

Ventilation in the fitness spaces was inadequate. “It smelled terrible,” Kay recalls. Supervising three separate spaces was difficult. There were battles over the TVs. One property owner changed the station and another threw the remote at him.

Despite the operational and management difficulties, the Sandcastle served its purpose, with ocean views from two levels, food and fitness facilities, a leisure trail to the beach, and other amenities. The center became a showpiece for real estate agents luring people to Kiawah and enhanced property values. It became the community gathering place its designers envisioned.

Our look at the history and evolution of the Sandcastle will continue in the December issue of Digest, discussing how the facility has changed over the years and what is in store for the Sandcastle during the current renovations.

Article contributed by Digest Feature Reporter Sue Schaffer.