The swans are kissing. Necks craned back, beaks thrust forward, swans are kissing all around this big, bright splash of a house that has been known for decades as the Whalehead Club. The birds float motionless as lily pads above the windows, doors, and arbor, an unbroken chain of lovebirds in permanent displays of affection.
The swans aren’t noticeable at first; they’re so well hidden in plain sight, so seamlessly sewn into the scenery of this architectural wonderland. But once they’re spotted, there’s a sense of discovery, as if happening upon a rare bird in the wild.
In architectural parlance, this design feature is called a frieze: a band of sculpted or painted decoration on a wall. This whole house, wildly out of place as it appears to the uninitiated, is a monument to things wild, bold, and beautiful. It’s painted a sunshiny yellow. The bedrooms are hues of lilac, periwinkle, and leafy green.
Door handles are shaped as duck bills. The kitchen is pinker than a filleted salmon.
The Whalehead Club — the name inspired by the tradition of whale hunting in the area — displays an architectural style called Art Nouveau. It’s a form that integrates designs of plants, flowers, birds, and lots of curvy lines. Standing there in all its swanlike stateliness, guarding Currituck Sound like a fortress, the Whalehead Club is a marvel. It’s something straight out of The Great Gatsby, that great American novel about the great American decadence of the 1920s, when the wealthy weren’t about to let Prohibition crash their party.
After the house’s completion in 1925, it was a stunning anomaly, more a product of Long Island’s mansion-studded Gold Coast, where Gatsby was set, than of this backwater coast in North Carolina. These days, people from all directions of the breeze come to peer through the home’s mahogany doors and stand in the glow of its Tiffany glass sconces. And they will invariably inquire: What was such a showstopper house doing here?
Ann Sensibaugh, director of education at the Whalehead Club, is as struck as anyone by the audacity of it all: “It’s just the notion that this thing was out here in the 1920s. Why would they come out here?”
A century ago on the Currituck Banks, swarms of birds would grow so thick during the fall and winter, they resembled great clouds of smoke against the horizon. Snow geese. Canada geese. Widgeons. Canvasback ducks. In the years after the Civil War and into the early 20th century, businessmen from Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York flocked to the region, buying huge tracts of land for hunt clubs. They built spacious yet unpretentious houses, rustic by their standards, where club guests could retire at the end of a long day afield. One of those was the Light House Club, established in 1874 and named for the redbrick Currituck Lighthouse near the village of Corolla.
Among the well-heeled wildfowlers who fell for Currituck Banks was Edward Collings Knight Jr. Knight was a businessman, an artist, a big spender, a big dreamer. His father, who amassed millions in railroads, steamships, and sugar refineries, died when Knight was 29, bequeathing a chunk of the fortune to his son. The inheritance allowed Knight to develop his passion for residential architecture and landscape design.
Dividing his time between Philadelphia and Newport, Rhode Island, he hired an esteemed architect to design a French-style townhome in Philadelphia. He eventually grew burned out on big-city life and chose to move his family to Newport. That’s where he bought a couple of acres on Narragansett Bay to build a classic Georgian-style estate, employing the same architect who designed his townhouse. He named it Claradon Court, a sweet homage to his wife and daughter, both of whom were named Clara.
In the years following his wife’s death in 1910, Knight maintained his stature among Newport’s nobility. He did some traveling, he did some entertaining. He met another woman, Marie-Louise LeBel Bonat, a French-Canadian 12 years younger with expensive tastes in fashion. She was the consummate party host, given to sparkly getups that got men’s heads turning. Wealthy in her own right, she had commissioned Steinway & Sons to design a six-legged grand piano just for her. That very piano, perfectly tuned, once again graces the home’s library.
Marie-Louise was fussy about etiquette and hyper-attentive to detail (it’s said she used a ruler to measure the proper distance between silverware and china). She was bossy, sassy, and often tipsy, someone Knight saw as the yin to his yang. But, for all her feminine sensibilities, she had a most unladylike zeal for gripping a 12-gauge shotgun and slogging through mud. Women had just won the right to vote and, so help her, she wasn’t about to wait another 50 years for the whole women’s liberation movement. She was ready to eat, drink, and go hunting — never mind that ladies generally weren’t allowed to have membership in hunt clubs.
The more time Marie-Louise and Edward spent on the Currituck Banks, the deeper their longing to put down roots here. “They could have gone anywhere in the world, and they chose here,” says Ray Meiggs, executive director of the Whalehead Club. In April 1922 the deed was done: The Light House Club became the sole property of Edward Collings Knight Jr. He acquired a tract that swept four and a half miles from one end to the other and built his home in the shadow of the Currituck Lighthouse. The site was also near the Currituck Beach Life-Saving Station, where a telegraph machine gave him a vital link to the world beyond.
In October 1922, Edward and Marie-Louise were married in Baltimore, and the newlyweds moved to the Currituck Banks to spend the cold weather months in the Light House Club, the weather-beaten house that provided temporary quarters during the construction of their showpiece estate.
During that first year of construction, the couple invited fashion-forward friends from the Northeast, entertaining them at the Light House Club and taking them hunting. By the end of their first season, the Knights and their guests bagged 751 birds. Mr. Knight, with his impeccable penmanship, wrote down the name of every hunter, every species of bird killed, and every location of the kill, logging it all in the score book and register left behind inside the club’s massive Victorian safe. It’s a tradition he would continue as long as he lived at Corolla.
The Knights knew precisely what they wanted when designing their new home: It had to complement the coastal environs, to exist in harmony with them, yet be bold enough to make waves. They created their own little private island — literally, an island — dredging a 5-to-13-foot-deep channel from the Currituck Sound, looping it around the yard, and naming the estate Corolla Island.
With no roads (Corolla wouldn’t have a paved road until 1984), all the materials had to be hauled in by boat. “The Currituck folks knew how to move — anything — by water,” Sensibaugh says. “Pianos, elevators — they could move anything by water.”
After three years of construction and a cost of $383,000 — about $4.3 million in current dollars — the house on Corolla Island was standing in all its majesty: 21,000 square feet of floor space, 10,000 copper tiles on a steeply pitched roof, 18 dormer windows lined up like birds on a wire.
To tour the house today is to see it much the same as it was when the Knights were living large here. There’s the library, well-suited not just for reading a Fitzgerald novel or New Yorker magazine, but also for hosting cocktail parties and after-dinner card games. The grand mahogany staircase still leads guests upstairs. The cavernous kitchen still has its 1920s-era Frigidaire. There’s even a vintage Otis elevator, one of the first elevators installed anywhere east of Rocky Mount, for easy access to the home’s four floors.
Nobody on this remote coast lived like this. Nobody here dreamed of living like this. So when one man’s castle began to rise from the dunes, the locals were awestruck. Some of them had even been hired to help build this spectacle by the sound. “It was a magical place,” says Meiggs. “The weird thing about this house is how little, really, was family space. Most of it was for the operation of the house.”
The Knights, after all, needed rooms for their dozen or so servants. The house has a basement (a first on the Outer Banks) for the draining system and all the brass pipes for plumbing. It has a cellar for storing 125 tons of coal to heat the water and fuel the furnace. It has five chimneys, including one in the middle — the one unconnected to any hearth — whose primary function was to provide ventilation for the home.
This being the era of Prohibition, the Knights needed space to spirit away … the spirits. The house has a wine cellar down in the basement and various cubbyholes around the house “where they could have hidden it,” says Sensibaugh. “There are secret compartments up in here — we really don’t know what that’s all about,” she says, grinning.
The Knights also generated their own electricity and pumped their own water. They relied on underground lines hooked to a diesel-powered generator and a 2,200-gallon Delco water pump in the boathouse, built on stilts along the canal. This was another dramatic first for the Outer Banks; nobody else would have power out here until the early 1950s.
It’s a house that comfortably fits plenty of company, with its dozen bedrooms and bathrooms. The servant staff lived on one side of the house; the Knights and their guests occupied the other. Edward and Marie-Louise each had their own bedroom, complete with fireplace, closet, bathroom, and doors to access the balcony. Mr. Knight had the bigger room and, curiously, the much bigger closet. “You’ll notice he was very dapper,” Meiggs says, pointing out the suits hanging in the closet.
The Knights’ guests from the Northeast didn’t come for quick weekend getaways; they stayed for at least a couple of weeks. The couple hosted some 30 visitors a year, mostly between October and March — prime hunting season on the Atlantic Flyway. They traveled by train to Norfolk, Virginia, where they would be shuttled, or “caddied,” east to Virginia Beach and driven along the hard-packed beach itself — if the weather and tides were right — 33 miles south to Corolla.
Another way of getting here was to board a small steamer ship in Norfolk and cruise along the Intracoastal Waterway to Edward Knight’s boat. He kept one docked on the mainland to ferry guests across Currituck Sound. Once they arrived at the estate, guests would be shown to their rooms upstairs, each with a bathroom tiled in canary yellow and supplied with hot water. This was yet another fabulous amenity unheard of on the Outer Banks: indoor plumbing.
After a long trip, guests would doubtless need a drink and a satisfying meal. Edward Knight was a masterful cook who would treat his new arrivals to hors d’oeuvres of marinated artichokes, celery, and anchovies, followed by a main course of roasted lamb or duck or seafood chowder with tomato aspic and whipped potatoes, all topped off with apple cake. “There’s indication under that table that there was a radiant panel that would warm the table to keep the food warm,” Sensibaugh says.
Guests indulged in a full-bodied dinner accompanied by the finest wine from the cellar. After dinner, they retired to the library for rounds of cocktails — sloe gin with a splash of orange and lime juice; Red Deaths, a blend of vodka and amaretto; Mary Pickfords, a concoction of rum and pineapple juice; or, simply, cognac.
The Knights likely kept some of the hard stuff stored in the loft of the boathouse across the canal. The 18th Amendment never technically banned people from drinking “intoxicating liquors”; it only outlawed the making, sale, and transport of said liquors. Out here, in one man’s castle, on one man’s island, the chances were near nil that the feds would come ruin happy hour. “You were totally isolated,” Meiggs says.
So the glasses clinked, and the cigarette and cigar smoke mingled in the air. Maybe Mrs. Knight would play a few numbers on her Steinway, something along the lines of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”
And, of course, they danced. They probably danced the Charleston (oh, behave!). Or the Cake Walk or the Turkey Trot or the Black Bottom or the Shimmy. They danced on floors made of cork — formal areas throughout the entire house have humidity-resistant cork floors. It’s rumored that Mrs. Knight also wanted cork floors for their sound-absorbing qualities, just in case anyone was having too much of a good time.
This is a house tailor-made for late-night partying. But it also was built for early-to-rise sportsmen, eager to tote Winchesters into the shallow sound and deep mud to fire at the billowing smoke of birds. They would be out there day after day, planting themselves in gunning spots with names such as Willow Cove and Shell Point and Pete’s Corner. Mr. Knight continued to meticulously document every kill.
People who visited were invigorated by the experience, beguiled by the wildness, gentleness, openness, and hiddenness of the place. To get away from the office heights of Manhattan and the high society of Newport was nothing short of soul-cleansing.
Edward and Marie-Louise Knight enjoyed nine years in their estate on Corolla Island. Back in Newport, they sold their old house and built a new one in nearby Middletown, Rhode Island, naming it Stony Brook. They spent their summers up there and winters down here.
As secluded as they were on Corolla Island, they didn’t segregate themselves from the locals. “Every family got a ham and turkey at Christmas,” Meiggs says. “And they brought in crates and crates of fresh fruit for families to have when they were here.”
The roaring decade ended with a whimper once the stock market crashed. In the early years of the Great Depression, the Knights hired unemployed locals to cut trees and do maintenance work on their vast property. After decades of hunting, the waterfowl population was declining, right along with Mr. Knight’s health. On November 23, 1934, after suffering a mild heart attack, he and Marie-Louise left their beloved Corolla Island, never to return.
Edward Knight died in 1936. Three months later, Marie-Louise passed away from a possible aneurysm. “The romantic always say it was from a broken heart,” Sensibaugh says.
This house, this great house, stood still and lifeless. The music had died. Mr. Knight’s two granddaughters inherited it, but legend has it that they called it a “shack,” took two bottles of the finest wine, and ordered that it be put on the market immediately.
In the depths of the Depression, there was little demand for a sprawling estate on a sparsely populated stretch of coast. Finally, in 1940, a businessman named Ray Adams from Washington, D.C., bought the house and nearly 2,000 acres for a mere $25,000. He renamed it the Whalehead Club.
Adams, too, was quite the entertainer and sportsman with wide-eyed visions of making Whalehead a year-round tourist destination. He even built a landing strip by the water’s edge. But on New Year’s Eve 1957, he died — his dream on the skids and the house again on the market.
In the following years, the club had different owners with different missions. It served as a boys school for a time, and then as a testing base for rocket fuel, and then as an abandoned curiosity. The colors faded, the snakes invaded, the weeds grew.
By 1992, what was once a home of eye-catching splendor had become an eyesore. The community had to do something, so the Currituck County Board of Commissioners spent more than $1 million on a restoration project, a cost that drew the ire of some locals. But the original sunshine yellow came back. The copper roof, the cork floors, the bedrooms with the flowery colors, the piano, the dining room table — it’s all back.
“The house should be gone,” says Ann Sensibaugh. “But the fact that it survived, and now it’s come back to this, it’s just amazing. It’s come back to this level of opulence.”
Now the guests are coming back, guests who wear bright sneakers and sunglasses and puffy jackets. They come from Raleigh, Charlotte, Chicago, the West Coast, and overseas. “I love the architecture,” says Heidi Horn of Holland, Michigan. “How the house is laid out, all of the unique molding.” Her husband pipes up: “For that time period, to have had electricity and generators and elevators — an Otis, of all things.”
Visitors stroll among live oaks that are considerably taller and fatter than when the Knights planted them. The home isn’t so much away from it all as it is in the middle of it all: The Currituck Banks are now a bank of vacation houses brushed against pines.
But the house the Knights built is still as much a marvel as it’s ever been, one that commands attention and admiration. And wonder. It still radiates like a sunburst over this seaside domain of ebbs and flows and shifting sands. And the swans are forever in love.