The Story Behind the Historic Whalehead Club in Corolla

The Story Behind the Historic Whalehead Club in Corolla

Photo: Steve Alterman Photography

When it comes to landmarks on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the four iconic lighthouses along the coast from Corolla to Ocracoke Island frequently come to mind first. Although climbing up the spiral staircases inside these structures to take in unparalleled views of the ocean and sound is one of the most popular activities to participate in during an Outer Banks vacation, visitors should not skip a trip to yet another historic Outer Banks attraction: the Whalehead Club. 

Located in the heart of the village of Corolla and overlooking the Currituck Sound on the western edge of the barrier island, the Whalehead Club is a 21,000-square-foot mansion that boasts a bright-yellow painted exterior, 18 expansive dormers, five brick chimneys and a copper roof comprising 10,000 individual tiles—making it one of the most recognizable buildings on the entire Outer Banks. But while it is best-known today for serving as an exceptional venue for Outer Banks weddings and other extravagant affairs, the Whalehead Club has a unique history that harkens back nearly a century.  

Photo: WeddingWire.com

In the late 1800s—long before the Outer Banks became the popular East Coast vacation destination it is today—the Currituck Outer Banks were bustling with wild birds ranging from ducks to snow geese that flocked to the region in enormous swarms during the fall and winter. As news of the wildfowls’ presence began to spread, wealthy businessmen from New York, Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia transformed tracts of undeveloped land throughout Currituck County into hotspots for houses that served as clubs where hunting enthusiasts who came to the Outer Banks to partake in such activities could rest after a long day in the field. One frequent visitor to the hunting clubs—particularly the Light House Club, which was established in 1874 near the Currituck Lighthouse—was a man named Edward Collings Knight Jr.

Photo: Michael Colligon Photography

An artist, businessman and heir to his father’s fortune, Knight and his second wife, Marie-Louise, spent a considerable amount of time visiting the Outer Banks throughout the early 1920s. Soon realizing they wanted to make the Currituck area their permanent residence, in April 1922 the Knights purchased the Light House Club as well as the 4.5-mile-long tract of land it sat upon. Not content to remain in the rustic accommodations of the hunting lodge they had purchased forever, the couple began to design the plans for their brand-new estate that would become the future Whalehead Club.

Photo: VisitCurrituck.com

Completed in 1925, the Whalehead Club was built upon 39 acres of pristine soundfront property as a hunting lodge that would house the couple and offer accommodations for well-to-do visitors to the Outer Banks. The construction project—which required all materials to be hauled in by boat due to an absence of paved roads in the village of Corolla—took three years to complete and cost the Knights $383,000 (more than $5.3 million today). A lavish example of the Art Nouveau style of architecture popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Whalehead Club consists of four stories and features a dozen bedrooms and bathrooms. The estate was one of the first structures east of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, to have an elevator installed, and it was also the first residence on the entire Outer Banks to receive power.

Photo: WhaleheadWedding.com

Throughout the years, the Knights hosted plenty of company in their new show-stopping estate. As many as 30 friends and visitors came by each year, many staying for several weeks at a time to enjoy the coveted hunting season that lasted from October to March in the Currituck Outer Banks. In the years following the Great Depression, however, the waterfowl population on the Outer Banks began to wane as a result of decades of hunting along the barrier islands. Knight’s health also began a sharp decline in the 1930s, and on November 23, 1934, he suffered a heart attack, which prompted him and his wife to leave the Whalehead Club. In 1936, Edward Knight passed away, and just three months later, Marie-Louise suffered from what doctors believed to be an aneurysm and passed away as well.  

Photo: Tangled Roots and Trees BlogSpot

The Whalehead Club sat empty in Corolla, and Knight’s two granddaughters who had inherited it upon his death had no interest in maintaining the property, so it was placed on the market and purchased in 1940 by a Washington, D.C.-based businessman named Ray Adams. Because there was virtually no demand for such an enormous and extravagant property as a result of the Great Depression, Adams paid only $25,000 for the 15-year-old mansion and was the one who gave it its current name. Although Adams had grand plans to turn the estate into a year-round tourist destination for visitors of the Outer Banks, which was growing in popularity among those looking for an escape from city life, he passed away in 1957, and the house was once again put up for sale.

Photo: The Photo Hiker

In the years that followed, the Whalehead Club was purchased and then resold by various owners who had a wide array of different plans for its use—but eventually it was abandoned altogether, and the unkept building and its property was deemed an eyesore by the community. So in 1992 the Currituck County Board of Commissioners undertook a $1 million project to restore the dilapidated structure to its former glory as a luxurious 1920s hunting retreat. Following a long labor of love, the renovation was complete. Today, visitors to the Outer Banks can take a step back in time by embarking on a tour of the historic Whalehead Club and finding out what life there would have been like nearly 100 years ago.

 

 

 

 

 

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