By Carol Antman for The Island Connection
When Vance Hughes and Larry Evans climbed through an unlocked window of the dilapidated Jekyll Island Club in 1983 they were probably looking more for mischief than a life calling, but the seedy grandeur of the hotel captivated them.
The neglected hotel estate on a barrier island near Brunswick, Ga., was in ruins. With no financing and a budget of $20 million, resuscitating the hotel seemed impossible. Miraculously they accomplished it in style; recreating the opulence envisioned by the founders. From our small but luxurious room in the main lodge during our visit, history was right outside the window.
I easily imagined myself as one of the country’s elite industrialist wives like Alma Rockefeller, who vacationed here in the 1880’s. She disembarked from her namesake yacht at the dock right there, followed by a parade of servants toting dozens of steamer trunks containing the 10 changes of clothes required daily of Victorian women.
Today’s hotel dress code is decidedly casual, although at dinner, men are asked to wear jackets. Across the lawn, I could see players dressed all in white, practicing for the next crochet tournament. Horse-drawn carriages were touring guests among the quaint cottages that line the hotel’s historic grounds. It was like being in two centuries at once.
The island was purchased as a hunting retreat in 1886 and began attracting members like J.P Morgan, Joseph Pulitzer, Marshall Field and Singer Sewing Machine’s Gilbert Bourne. Membership required a unanimous vote and a huge yearly fee. The founders first built the main lodge, which was described by a reporter as an “English castle with its square-shaped windows and its lofty tower.” It was their “Winter Newport,” an escape from the North’s brutal winters and a place to recreate and strengthen business alliances. They hunted, played poker and built some of the best bicycling trails on the East coast. The wives were relegated to the parlor while the men gathered in smoke-filled rooms planning the country’s future, shoving pushpins into maps mounted on the silk wallpaper. The Federal Reserve was famously planned during a weekend retreat in a room just below ours. I’d probably have joined forces with the suffragists.
Some were members by virtue of their husbands but they wanted leadership roles. J.P. Morgan finally agreed to allow that despite his opinion that “woman suffrage would only help to complete the ruin of the country already hurt by universal manhood suffrage.” Some of the women were crack shots, good golfers and avid bicyclists. They competed against men in races and events, upsetting the social order by sometimes winning.
In 1893 Helen Bullitt Furness bagged one of the island’s dangerous boar, which had eluded even the professional hunters. Their Ladies Rough Riding Obstacle Bicycle Society spurred the development of the island’s 20 miles of excellent trails. Clearly times were changing. But in its heyday, the Jekyll Island Club thrived.
Members built ornate “cottages” (one had 22 bedrooms) boasting indoor plumbing, Tiffany glass, handcrafted furniture, original art and electric lights. They built a large swimming pool and laid a golf course beside the ocean. Many amenities have been preserved including two of the elegantly renovated cottages with rooms for larger parties as well as several smaller ones that have been turned into shops and galleries. Today, it’s an award winning National Landmark and attracts not only the country’s business and political leaders but movie makers and stars.
The aristocratic hold on the island started to crack with the stock market crash in 1929. As World War II began, German submarines were trolling off the coast, and yachts were being commandeered by the Navy.
Children didn’t value their inherited club membership as much and wouldn’t pay dues. Several schemes to save the hotel failed, and it closed for good in 1971, until that fateful night when the two high-school buddies got wild and dared to go inside the haunting building.
Today, 80 percent of Jekyll Island’s 5,700 acres is owned by the State of Georgia and remains an undeveloped maritime forest. There are a few highrise hotels on the beach, where the hotel has a pavilion and is constructing seaside cottages. The hotel emerges like an elegant lady from behind a green curtain.
Wildlife is abundant. Hughes and Evans struggled to find financing before partnering with David Curtis and Leon Weiner. After hearing an enthusiastic pitch, they came from Connecticut and “We did one of those things you’re not supposed to do,” Curtis said, “which is to fall in love with real estate.” Jekyll Island has a way of doing that: enchanting with its history, natural beauty and the graciousness that has been carefully preserved for centuries.
Roadtrips Charleston highlights interesting destinations within a few hours drive of Charleston, S.C. as well as more far flung locales. Carol Antman’s wanderlust is driven by a passion for outdoor adventure, artistic experiences, cultural insights and challenging travel. For hot links, photographs and previous columns or to make comments please see peaksandpotholes.blogspot.com.