When you walk through the doors of the Whalehead Club, you’ll enter a magical world. Surrounded by all the opulence of 1920s High Society, you’ll wander through spacious rooms where corduroy-textured walls and distinctive cork-tile floors provide an impressive setting for lily-shaped Tiffany sconces and elegant Art Nouveau furnishings.
You’ll see everything from a majestic mahogany staircase to a custom-made 6-legged Steinway grand piano. And you’ll wonder what all this eye-popping splendor is doing here at Historic Corolla in the NC Outer Banks.
It all began in the late 19th century when well-heeled waterfowl hunters began flocking to the northern Outer Banks. Typically, they stayed through the winter, when thousands of migratory birds thronged the coastal ponds and marshlands. And they set up exclusive hunting clubs, with rustic accommodations for themselves and their fellow sportsmen.
One such club was Corolla’s Light House Club, which attracted a number of out-of-state hunters, including a big-spending industrialist named Edward Collings Knight, Jr.
A railway tycoon, son of a successful inventor, Knight already owned luxury homes in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Newport, Rhode Island. But he wanted something more: an Outer Banks winter retreat where he could hunt to his heart’s content.
At the time the widowed Knight was courting Marie-Louise LeBel, a French-Canadian socialite with a penchant for perfect etiquette and a passion for waterfowl hunting. It was a match made in sportsmen’s heaven.
Fiercely feminist, Marie-Louise was determined to accompany Edward on his hunting expeditions. But there was just one problem: In those days, Outer Banks hunting was permitted for men only. That meant the intrepid huntress would miss out on all the adventure. She wasn’t thrilled about this, and neither was her fiancé.
Fortunately, the Light House Club had dissolved in 1919. Its large landed property was sold off to investors, who in turn put it up for sale. This gave Edward Knight the perfect opportunity. In April 1922, he purchased the entire parcel – 2,200 acres in all. Then, that October, he married Marie-Louise.
Building the Whalehead Club
Now the Knights were ready to build their very own hunting haven. That winter they moved into the Light House Club’s abandoned headquarters, where they supervised the construction of their new home-away-from-home.
And what a home it was. Built over three years to the tune of $383,000 – over $4 million in today’s dollars – the finished manor covered four lofty stories, 21,000 square feet in all. Painted bright yellow outside, it featured a copper-tiled roof, solid mahogany doors, 18 classic dormer windows, five chimneys, and 18-inch-thick brick walls reinforced by massive steel beams. Architecturally it blended several styles: Pennsylvania farmhouse, French-Canadian country, and Art Nouveau / Arts and Crafts.
Inside, the house included innovations then unknown in the Outer Banks: central oil heating; electricity and running water fed by a 2,200-gallon pumping system; an Otis elevator for effortless access to all four floors; a swimming pool; a cavernous basement; and a fully equipped pink-tiled kitchen complete with a Frigidaire.
The setting – right on Currituck Sound – was equally impressive. To secure his privacy, Knight dredged a channel around his entire estate, creating a literal island. He even christened his water-locked property “Corolla Island.”
A Tumultuous History
For 11 years, the Knights enjoyed their coastal paradise, hosting a small, select group of guests for posh parties and exclusive duck hunts. Then, in 1936, Edward Knight passed away. Marie-Louise died a few months later. Their Outer Banks dream died with them.
In 1939 new owners purchased the estate, renaming it the Whalehead Club. Later it became a boys’ summer school, then a World War II Coast Guard training station, and then a commercial spot for testing rocket fuel.
During the 1980s, the property passed into the hands of several businessmen who planned to turn it into a golf resort. Unfortunately, they went broke, and the Whalehead Club fell into disrepair.
Then, in 1992, Currituck County bought the house, along with 39 acres of the land. Working with the Whalehead Preservation Trust, they meticulously restored the estate to its former gilded glory, right down to the tiniest detail.
A Glimpse of a Storied Past
Today the stately mansion and scenic grounds are open to the public year-round. Visit anytime between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. to tour this architectural wonder, with its Art Nouveau walls (graced with hand-carved water lilies), its brightly painted Arts and Crafts rooms, and its one-of-a-kind Tiffany globe lamps.
Plus, enjoy the great outdoors. Stroll along the picturesque footbridge, wander over the gracious lawns and explore the beautiful waterfront. Be sure to bring your camera along – you’ll find plenty of opportunities for memorable family snapshots.
And, if you’re planning a wedding or other special event, keep the Whalehead Club in mind. It’s the perfect outdoor venue for unforgettable nuptials.