Between 1886 and the 1940s, Jekyll Island was the vacation hotspot for America's glitterati. While you won't run into a Rockefeller on your vacation here these days, that's kind of a good thing; it used to cost a LOT of money to join the uber-exclusive Jekyll Island Club. But just because the island is a lot more accessible today doesn't mean it has totally lost its turn-of-the-century charm. The complex was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1978, after years of uncertainty about the future of the old cottages, hotel, and other buildings. In 1985, the Jekyll Island Club Hotel was fixed up and reopened, and work is being done to restore some of the other buildings as well. Some serve as event spaces, stores, or vacation rentals, or are owned by the Jekyll Island Museum. Although a couple historic cottages may not be open quite yet, a walking tour of the island provides a glimpse into what life was like for the Gilded Age barons who vacationed here.
When first arriving to Jekyll Island, it's not hard to see why America's wealthiest robber barons chose it as a vacation destination. The "splendid isolation," gorgeous scenery and balmy weather can still be felt here. Members of the incredibly exclusive Jekyll Island Club (which a magazine of the time called "the richest and most inaccessible club of our time"), included J.P. Morgan, Joseph Pulitzer, William K. Vanderbilt, and Marshall Field, to name a few. Some of these men built their own cottages, many of which still stand today, while others stayed in the clubhouse (now the Jekyll Island Club Resort). While visiting the island, members would enjoy long, luxurious days spent hunting, horseback riding, skeet shooting, golf, tennis, biking, croquet, lawn bowling, picnics, carriage rides, and (of course) lavish parties. Not a half-bad way to pass a few months, right? As you explore the 240-acre site and its 33 historic buildings, you can still sense the halcyon atmosphere that enticed club members so long ago.
The club opened in 1888, and a ton of history has been made in the clubhouse. In 1910, a group of financial leaders met here under the cover of night to draft the outline of a federal banking system, the beginnings of what would become the Federal Reserve. In 1915, the nation's first transcontinental phone call took place between President Woodrow Wilson in Washington, DC, Alexander Graham Bell in New York, Thomas Watson in San Francisco, Henry Higginson in Boston, and AT&T President Theodore Newton Vail at the Jekyll Island Club. In 1924, the USGA used Jekyll Island's golf courses as a testing ground for steel golf clubs and lighter golf balls, forever changing the game. By 1928, the last of 18 cottages had been built... just in time for the Great Depression, when the club's membership dropped by half. WWII dealt the club its final blow.
The grounds eventually became a state park, but it wasn't until 1987 that the clubhouse was reopened as a stunning luxury resort, evocative of the club's glory days. Visitors can stay in the clubhouse itself or one of a few cottages (Crane Cottage, which boasts a lush sunken garden; Sans Souci, which was owned by J.P. Morgan and was one of the first condominium buildings in the US; and the Cherokee Cottage, built in 1904). The rooms in the clubhouse, though, are especially lovely. The decor is a perfect blend of modern, sleek, and clean with touches of Victorian charm. It's also where you'll find the Grand Dining Room. If you're just visiting the Island for a day, make sure to drop in for their Victorian tea, offered on Fridays and Saturdays between 4 and 5PM. You can also take a carriage tour of the district, play a round of golf on their world-class courses, enjoy their nine miles of pristine beach, lounge by the pool, or even go on a horseback ride the way visitors back in the day might have!
As you set out from the clubhouse to further explore the quaint cottages (okay, so maybe "quaint cottages" isn't the best description; some of these buildings are mansions), admire Villa Ospo. The Spanish Eclectic-meets-Italian Renaissance building was designed and constructed by famed architect John Russell Pope for Standard Oil exec Walter Jennings in 1927. It was one of the last homes built during the Club's heyday. The name "Villa Ospo" comes from the Guale Indian term for the island, "Ospo." Jennings, who had served as President of the club, reportedly died at the home in 1933. Today, it's a rental venue; weddings and parties are held in its gorgeous courtyard.
Another mansion-turned-rental venue is Villa Marianna. It was built in 1928 for Frank Miller Gould, who was lucky enough to be a second-generation member of the esteemed Jekyll Island Club. The mansion was designed for Gould by Mogens Tvede, whose use of Spanish Eclectic and Italian Renaissance elements gave the cottage an exotic flair. Gould named it for his daughter, Marianne. One of the first buildings renovated, it once housed the offices of the Jekyll Island Authority.
Continue your tour of the island with a stop at Faith Chapel. Built as a non-denominational church in 1904, it was commissioned by club Member Frederic Baker, who requested a chapel that was “worthy of the island.” It's made of brick and wood, with a vintage A-frame foundation. The details are what truly made it worthy of the club, though. Stained glass windows by Louis Comfort Tiffany and Maitland Armstrong (check out Tiffany's "David's Window"), lots of elegant hardwood details, and gargoyles that are replicas of Notre Dame Cathedral’s gargoyles give it a luxurious, Gothic Revival-meets-Jekyll Island feel. Tours are offered daily between 10AM and 4PM, as the chapel is set aside for contemplation between 8 and 10AM.
This isn't the original location of the club's 1930s Skeet House; the house was taken apart piece by piece and reassembled as part of its preservation, thanks to the Jekyll Island Museum. The Skeet House was the spot where club members who enjoyed skeet and trap shooting socialized. Skeet shooting was a major activity at the Jekyll Island Club, which was originally founded as a hunting club. Today, the Skeet House serves as exhibit and educational space. Be sure to poke in and check out the informational display on skeet shooting at the club!
For the very best look at the island and club during its golden years, stop by the Jekyll Island Museum. It's free, and offers a look at the rich and fascinating history of the club through videos, artifacts, old photos, maps, and tons more. You can even learn about the natural history of the island, and about its Native American past. There's also a great little gift shop on site as well. Pro tip: This is where you can snag tickets for the trolley tour of the district, which is an awesome and in-depth guided look at some of the buildings and unique features of the island.
The Dubignon Cottage is one of the older buildings in the Jekyll Island Historic District. It was the home of wealthy entrepreneur John Eugene Dubignon, who owned the island. Seeing its potential as a hunting club, he opened the Jekyll Island Club with his brother-in-law, Newton Finney, in the 1880s. In 1886, Dubignon sold the land to the Jekyll Island Club Corporation, which marked the start of the Jekyll Island Club era. His cottage was built in 1884, and was moved from its original location to where it presently sits in 1896 to make way for the Sans Souci apartments. It remains one of the more modest homes on the island, but is still quite an impressive sight to see.
Indian Mound Cottage is one of the more well-known Jekyll Island Club homes. That's because it was owned by a Rockefeller; William Rockefeller, to be specific. This is an older home, built in 1892, but between 1912 and 1917, Rockefeller made some swanky upgrades to the three-floor, 25-room mansion. These included an elevator, hot and cold saltwater taps in the tubs, a cedar-lined safe, and its signature Indian mound in the front yard, which gave the home its name. The mound was thought to be a burial mound, but it wound up being made of shells left behind by Native Americans. Today, the cottage is a museum, and tours of it are offered by the Jekyll Island Museum.
Moss Cottage was built in 1896, and its rustic design highlights how originally, club members came to Jekyll Island as a casual hunting escape-- before things gradually became more opulent. It was built of locally-sourced materials for William Struthers, Jr. in 1896, and eventually came to be owned by the Macy family. The name comes from the Spanish moss that drips from tree branches on the island.
Goodyear Cottage was built in 1906 for NY-based lumber baron Frank Henry Goodyear. The white stucco Mediterranean Revival home was designed by NYC architects John Carrere and Thomas Hastings. It was restored back in 1974, and is worth a visit today because it houses the Jekyll Island Arts Association and the Jekyll Island Pottery Guild. You can see rotating exhibits from local and visiting artists on display.
Mistletoe Cottage was one of five Jekyll Island buildings commissioned by architect Charles Alling Gifford. The unique Dutch Colonial Revival home was originally built in 1900 for Henry Kirke Porter, a politician and manufacturer from Pittsburgh. After Porter died, John Claflin, an original member of the club, purchased the cottage.
As you stroll (or ride a carriage or trolley) along the shady paths of Jekyll Island, soaking in the warm sun and coastal breezes, history seems to feel a lot closer than it does in a book. Whether you're picturing the grand, historic events and sumptuous parties that once occurred on the island, or are simply trying to find an idyllic escape the way the Gilded Age elite once did, Jekyll Island is something special.
Nestled on the Georgia coast lies the mainland city of Brunswick and its four beautiful barrier islands: St. Simons Island, Sea Island, Little St. Simons Island and Jekyll Island. Pristine stretches of marshland, punctuated by small islands, define the Golden Isles' breathtaking landscape.