Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Mrs. Knight and the Whalehead Club

By all accounts Marie Louise Josephine LeBel was a trailblazer...a woman who loved to hunt, and according to some, was "a foul-mouthed, hard drinking woman, who thought nothing of killing a neighbor's dog with a shot from her pearl-handled pistol."[1]

Marie Louise Josephine (LeBel) Knight; courtesy of Find A
Grave volunteer Doc Wilson

Since 2003 visitors to the Outer Banks of North Carolina know her as the second wife of Edward Collings Knight, Jr., who built the magnificent Beaux Arts home known as the Whalehead Club for her after she was denied membership to all the hunt clubs along Currituck Sound because she was a woman. Currituck County was one of the premier waterfowl hunting regions along the east coast. Before hunting regulations, men often bagged several hundred birds in a day.

Whalehead Club circa 2002; courtesy of Wikipedia.org

The father of Marie Louise's husband developed the Knight sleeping car, a company he eventually sold to George Pullman. These railroad cars became known as Pullmans. His son was heir to a great sugar refining and shipping fortune and he was adept at spending that fortune. The Whalehead Club cost $383,000 and three years to build. All of the materials were shipped by barge from Norfolk, Virginia. According to Outer Banks Architecture: An Anthology of Outposts, Lodges, and Cottages, written by Marimar McNaughton, the "cottage" had a reinforced steel I-beam frame, a sixteen-room basement, an electric generator, a coal-fired furnace, steam radiators, an Otis elevator, a dumb-waiter, fresh and salt running water, brass pipes, and lead drains. It was approximately 23,000 square feet. The Knights only lived at the Whalehead Club during the autumn and winter months. They had an apartment in the Plaza Hotel in New York City and a summer cottage in Newport, Rhode Island.

Edward Collings Knight, Jr. died on 23 July 1936 in Newport. His wife, Marie Louise, died several months later on 29 October also in Newport. In her will (a transcription is available on North Carolina GenWeb), she left her estate to Edward's granddaughters by his first wife, Dorothy Colford de Sibert and Clara D. Doreau. They were married and living in Europe and had no use for the Whalehead Club.

Over the years, the house became a private school for boys, a Coast Guard training station during World War II, and was later owned by Atlantic Research Corp. and used to test fuel for rockets. In the 1980s a group of investors purchased the Whalehead Club and planned to turn it into a golf resort. However, they lost $12 million in the savings and loan scandal before work could start. In 1992 Currituck County bought the house and several acres around it for $2.2 million. Restoration was completed in 2003 and the house and grounds are now open to the public for a nominal entrance fee.

My cousins and I discovered the Whalehead Club in 1984. We were vacationing several miles down the banks in Southern Shores and heard about a seafood festival in Corolla. We had to go. At that time, the road to Corolla was usually closed to the public and could only be accessed by residents with a permit. My family had been coming to the Outer Banks since I was five years old and I was dying to learn what was "up the banks" beyond Sanderling. After attending the festival, we continued up the road and, lo and behold, saw the Whalehead Club for the first time.

Whalehead Club, 1984; photograph taken by my cousin, Constance Jean Hudson

We wandered all around it and found an open window. Who could resist?

Whalehead Club kitchen, 1984; personal collection

My cousins in Marie Louise Knight's bedroom, 1984; personal collection

Marimar McNaughton's book described the bedroom, "...one on the southwest corner for Mrs. Knight, the other on the northwest corner for Mr. Knight. Both rooms offered views of Currituck Sound through glass doors that led to an open balcony on the west elevation. Each room had a fireplace. Mrs. Knight's mantel and surround were carved wood in a leafy anthemion pattern..."

In 2003 my entire family (parents, siblings and their spouses, and nephews) rented a house in Nags Head. One rainy day Mom, my husband and I drove up to Corolla and toured the Whalehead Club. I took photographs of many of the architectural and decorative aspects of the house.

Water lilies carved in the door frame, 2003; personal collection

Tiffany wall sconces, 2003; personal collection

Again, from Marimar McNaughton's book, "The sixteen Tiffany wall sconces -- eight in the dining room and eight in the grand hall -- had brass bases with white and green globes also inspired by the water lily. The waterlily motif continued in the custom furniture; it was hand-carved into the legs of the dining room table and across the facade of the breakfast sideboard. These and the Steinway are the only authentic furnishings and fixtures in the house today."

The Steinway piano, original to the house, 2003; personal collection

The piano was custom built for Mrs. Knight in 1903 and moved to the Whalehead Club in the 1920s. It was restored in 1995. I have a photograph from 1984 when my cousins and me took our private tour of the piano but I cannot find it at this time.

How many of you have visited the Whalehead Club during your Outer Banks vacations? I'd love to hear your story.

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[1]"Built for spite, saved for grace," The Baltimore Sun, 9 June 2000 (accessed 13 March 2016)

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