By Carol Antman for The Island Connection
Elizabeth Stark came to what she called the “perfect paradise” of Mayport, Florida in 1914. There were too many gray-haired people in the rest of the state to suit her she quipped. Ambitious and savvy, she and her husband bought all the land they could: hundreds of coastal acres. It was christened Wonderwood. They built a 1,000 foot fishing pier and several houses. They raised polo horses and grew figs. She anointed herself queen of a cast of eccentric characters that included mobsters, movie stars, industrialists and treasure hunters that took advantage of the new rail lines making their way South. Previously the only way to easily reach Mayport was by shooting a gun in the air to call a rowboat ferry which began in 1874 to carry farmers, merchants and travelers across the St. John’s River. It endures today as a picturesque car ferry. Wonderwood became a symbol of the developing South and Elizabeth its defender. When World War I broke out, she famously protected her bulwark by assembling a stalwart troop of armed Girl Scouts on horseback that patrolled the beaches.
“Although we never had any spies arrested, we kept a lot of them on the move,” she boasted in her memoir.
But time in her paradise was curtailed by the government. In 1940 the Marines evicted the Starks, raised Wonderwood and built an officer’s club. President Roosevelt insisted that Mayport become a military base. An officer “followed me out on the street and told me to leave and never put my foot on the property again,” she wrote.
Unbowed, she found “a suitable shack” on the beach to live in which reminded her of the Girl Scout “hun hunters”. She claimed she was happy.
Meanwhile, along the nearby coast, hotels were springing up to meet the growing demand: The Continental, The Atlantic Beach Hotel, Perking House and the Palmetto Lodge. The Spanish-Mediterranean designed Casa Marina was built in 1924. Every one of those hotels except the Casa Marina burned to the ground, victims of the lethal combination of heart pine floors, lanterns and candles. It was fire proof, constructed of stucco, concrete and tile. It had the beach’s first sprinkler system. So it endured. Its tenacity is reminiscent of Elizabeth Stark’s. She could have been its muse.
Like Wonderwood, the Casa Marina and its ocean-side dancing are a symbol of the glamour of the golden age. In the 1920’s the hotel hosted the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the Rockefellers and President Truman. Jean Harlow and Al Capone were rumored to have been guests. Machine Gun Kelly came to dine. Spenser Tracy and Katherine Hepburn may have rendezvoused there. Weekly rates were $25 including three meals per day. Along the 40 miles of beach, women swam in shoes and rented woolen bathing suits that weighed up to 25 pounds when wet. Just up the beach a Red Cross life-saving station was established in 1915. It is now the oldest continuing operating volunteer corps in the country. But then the military cut it all short just as it had for the Starks. It appropriated the hotel for military housing during World War II. A succession of owners and businesses followed until 1991. Then it was boarded up for eleven years until being elegantly renovated and reborn as one of the 240 Historic Inns of America.
The unique Spanish-Mediterranean architecture remains but the hotel has been remodeled into 18 two-room suites and 5 rooms. An attic has been transformed into a stylish rooftop martini bar with unparalleled views of the coastline and a lively, cosmopolitan scene. The ocean-side courtyard where Hollywood starlets danced in the moonlight now hosts up to 150 weddings a year. For Sunday brunch the dining room attracts a full house for Executive Chef Aaron Webb’s “new beach” cuisine: a combination of local and Southern tastes. The crowning glory is his whole roasted red snapper which is seasoned and slow roasted while poised in an upright, swimming position. It’s so photogenic; diners often want the chef to pose with it for snapshots.
Steps outside the hotel are the other attractions of Jacksonville Beach: the boardwalk with its souvenir shops and fast food, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird Lounge. There’s a popular quarter-mile-long fishing pier. There are surfers and swimmers, jet skis and boaters. Mark Vandeloo, General Manager of the Casa Marina, “took a huge interest in the hotel as I met the people who walked in the door. They had fond memories or a story of its history and what it meant to them.” He considers himself the guardian of the hotel’s history which is artfully depicted in vintage photographs that line the hallways. But he also looks towards the future.
“Hopefully in more 90 years, people will visit and tell their story ….. about the great experience they had.”
Roadtrips Charleston presents adventurous and interesting destinations within a few hours drive of Charleston, S.C.. Carol Antman’s passion for outdoor and artistic experiences feeds her wanderlust for exotic and nearby adventures. For hot links, photographs and previous columns or to make comments please see www.peaksandpotholes.blogspot.com