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.
No one has the same vision for the perfect vacation. Some may picture peace, quiet, and seclusion while others may picture plenty of activities close by. Regardless of what your ideal vacation looks like, there is an Outer Banks town perfect for everyone.
However, neither the beauty of the grounds and building nor a tour of the home—highly recommended—tell the full story of the Whalehead Club.
The Couple That Built The Whalehead Club
Edward Collings Knight, Jr. was the son of Edward Collings Knight who patented a sleeping car for trains. Knight the elder sold his patent to the Pullman Company. The family also had investments in sugar refining and transportation.
Most accounts suggest Edward, Jr. was better at spending money than making it.
Marie-Louise LeBel was a French-Canadian woman, 12 years younger than Knight. Wealthy in her own right when she met her husband, she was noted for throwing gala parties and being a fierce advocate for women’s rights.
Why Build a 21,000 Square-foot Mansion in Corolla?
Edward loved hunting, and as it turns out, so did his wife. Unfortunately she could not hunt on the Outer Banks at a time when the waterfowl hunting on Currituck Sound was legendary.
Founded in 1874, the Lighthouse Club occupied the land the Whalehead Club does today and Edward had been to the club a number of times, but their strict prohibition against women kept his wife away.
In 1919 the club dissolved and the land was sold to investors who planned on selling the property. Knight bought the property in 1922—approximately 2200 acres.
It Took Three Years To Build
Construction on the building began in 1923 and continued until 1925. There were a number of reasons for the lengthy construction. Almost everything had to be shipped in and the only way to get it to Corolla was by boat across the Currituck Sound. The complexity of the project certainly added to to the time.
However, if there is one overarching reason for the time spent to build the cottage—as the Knight called it—it was that construction was only permitted when the couple were on hand to personally oversee what was happening. The Knights wintered in Corolla but were not permanent residents.
When it was completed, the cost was $383,000—that’s around $5.4 million in today’s dollars.
The Original Name Was Corolla Island
After the Civil War, sport hunters from the North began to trickle in, attracted by the large migratory bird populations that moved through the Atlantic Flyway. Fishermen followed the hunters, eager to fish the teeming waters and inlets of the Atlantic. Locals, who were eking out a difficult existence logging or fishing, realized there was money to be made from tourism.
A grassroots hospitality industry sprang up in the form of food stands, tour guides, and basic lodgings. Interestingly, the hardscrabble past of the Outer Banks kept simplicity high on the list of values for locals, and that began to attract stressed-out Industrial Revolution moguls.
Tourism saw a sharp uptick in the 1920s, when vacations near the sea became an obsession for wealthy (and overworked) Americans. Edward Collings, a New England industrialist, was the first to build a massive beach home, Whalehead, in Corolla. At 21,000 square feet, Whalehead hosted so many glamorous parties that it became a private hunting club. (Today it’s a museum.)
In 1927, President Herbert Hoover visited the Outer Banks to dedicate the Wright Brothers National Memorial and recognize the 25th anniversary of flight. In 2003, President George W. Bush attended the Centennial of Flight celebration at the memorial, accompanied by celebrity aviation enthusiasts such as John Travolta.
As word got out about the peace and seclusion of the Outer Banks, the vacation industry grew, and locals reacted by refining their shops and accommodations. Roads were installed through the woods and trails, a dunes system implemented to protect beach homes, and bridges began to span the islands.
Since the Outer Banks has a long history as a safe haven and private respite for the rich, famous, and stressed out, modern dignitaries and celebrities are frequently spotted walking the beaches, shopping at small groceries, or enjoying watersports just like everyone else.
The Outer Banks’ most beloved celebrity resident was actor Andy Griffith, famous for his roles on The Andy Griffith Show, A Face in the Crowd, and Matlock, to name a few. Andy lived on Roanoke Island and was often seen at the Ace Hardware, local restaurants, or the Island Pharmacy.
Other TV and movie megastar sightings include Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael J. Fox, Whoopi Goldberg, Lynda Carter, Sandra Bullock, Kevin Costner, and Rob Lowe. Ed O’Neill of Modern Family and Married with Children fame is a frequent sighting when he visits family here.
Richard Gere and Diane Lane were regulars around town when they filmed Nights in Rodanthe. In 2008, Jon and Kate of Jon and Kate Plus 8 filmed an episode of their show in Corolla.
Famous musicians are also frequent visitors to the Outer Banks. Tim Reynolds of Dave Matthews Band fame has a house in the Outer Banks and occasionally can be found playing casual gigs at local bars. Other rocker sightings include Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters, Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones.
NASCAR drivers such as Sterling Marlin, Ward Burton, and Jeff Burton have been known to slow down in the Outer Banks. Dignitaries also love the anonymity of the Outer Banks. Melinda Gates has been seen vacationing here, as well as astronaut Michael Collins and President George Bush, Sr. The Outer Banks still attracts industry giants. You may just see the CEO of Popeye’s, Papa John’s, Dollar Tree, or Best Buy kicking back on the beach.
No discussion of celebrities on the Outer Banks would be complete without covering the legend of Tom Cruise. For years, rumors that Tom Cruise owned a secluded house on the Outer Banks have vacationers guessing.
Some locals say it’s a tall tale made up by time-share companies; others say he did shop for a house here many years ago but never bought. Either way, the story took on a life of its own. Despite the fact that sightings pop up on message boards every year, it’s unlikely that Tom Cruise owns a house in the Outer Banks. (If he does, he’s a master of stealth.)
The Outer Banks have been a peaceful playground for the rich and famous since the 1920s. For some celebrities, the islands are convenient to East Coast homes or family connections, for others the natural beauty, warm ocean breezes, and laid-back vibes are an irresistible antidote to hectic Hollywood life. What should you do if you see a celebrity vacationing in the Outer Banks? Just smile, wave, and play it cool.
Lazy OBX Morning
This week’s Memory Monday Photo submission comes to us from Mark Bridge, of East Pittsburgh, PA who stayed with Outer Banks Blue this past fall in the property “Long Distance Voyager II.” We love Mark’s picture showing a foggy early morning scene taken off of the back deck of this property.
This time of year we get many mornings just like this. Nothing like a foggy morning at the beach that just makes you want to stay in bed and be lazy all day!
|Looking towards the Ocean from “Long Distance Voyager II.”
Thank you Mark for sharing your photo memories of your recent stay with us. We look forward to serving you again soon!
All the best from the beach!
By Tim Cafferty, President, Outer Banks Blue Realty Services
Stand up Paddleboards have become all the rage on the Outer Banks over the last couple of years. It is especially popular in late August into September when the ocean waves are at their smallest of the year. Experienced paddle boarders can easily paddle out through the surf and actually ride the smaller waves into the shore with the help of the paddle steering the board. The boards, which are much heavier and bigger than a normal surfboard (they weigh in excess of 30 pounds more than double the weight of most surfboards and they are as long as 12 feet) have become especially popular among the “older” surfing set on the Outer Banks. Proving that Old Guys can still rule! Susan is of course no part of the old surfer’s club on the OBX, but those of us who are appreciate her sharing her picture!All the best from the beach!