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
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, history was right outside the window. Brunswick,
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 built the main lodge first 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 cigar 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 who 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.
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% of
5,700 acres is owned by the State of Georgia and remains an undeveloped maritime
forest. There are a few high rise 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.”
has a way of doing that: enchanting with
its history, natural beauty and the graciousness that has been carefully
preserved for centuries. Jekyll Island
Jekyll Island Club Hotel: www.jekyllclub.com