Millionaires’ Island

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Not surprisingly, furniture, clothing that had been stored and forgotten, and books and documents disappeared at a rapid rate. Vandals did their work; people cruised by on the river and stopped for souvenirs; antiques dealers appeared from Atlanta and left with booty. Charlie Lynch, a local librarian, did manage to save fortytwo boxes of the club’s hotel registers and checkbooks, which form the heart of the present-day archives.

Since Tallu Fish took up residence in William Rockefeller’s Indian Mound, its rooms have probably remained more intact than others. She opened a small museum there and charged admission to support herself and her work. When, in 1969, the state decided to start real restoration of the properties, it was at the Rockefeller cottage that work began. In a letter announcing her retirement that year, Tallu wrote: “For fifteen years, I have gathered material, archives, stories, data, and pictures pertaining to Jekyll. Nobody has these facts but me.” Since then many of her “facts” have been questioned, and her book on the island’s history isn’t considered reliable, yet nobody doubts Tallu’s contributions to what has become the Jekyll Island Historic District.

With evident energy and pleasure, many of the residents still give their time to maintaining the houses. A woman on duty at the DuBignon house proudly pointed to a stairwell where she had scraped away five coats of green paint. The eleven remaining houses, plus outbuildings, servants’ quarters, and the lovely little Faith Chapel, display a variety of styles: a tropical adaptation of a Flemish roof line here, Spanish tiled roofs and stucco walls there, across the road a cedar-shingled cottage with a wrap-around porch. With little private land they stand almost in neighborly discourse in a parklike setting of massive live oaks, beautifully articulated palms, and groves of pine. Few of the houses have kitchens. This is because everyone would gather for meals at the sprawling, turreted clubhouse that was—and happily is again—the sparkling centerpiece of the whole enterprise.

In 1904 a magazine called it the most exclusive playground in the United States; forty years later, it was condemned.

The state’s attempt to run the club as a hotel in the 1960s proved disastrous. A metal service elevator replaced the massive central staircase, with its fine hand-turned oak railings. Walls of delicate gold leaf were slapped with thick white paint. Nowvaluable iron beds and wicker chairs were put up for sale or carted away. Floorboards were rotting and the roof was leaking just five years ago when a local reporter saw “the massive Corinthian columns of the formal dining room … shrouded with cobwebs and mildew.”

Still, the clubhouse was fundamentally sound, and several years ago the state looked for someone to save it. A package of tax incentives, bond financing, and private funding was arranged by a Denver developer, who took the hotel on a fifty-year lease, since all land on Jekyll Island remains under state ownership. Somehow the immaculate restoration was completed in 1987, just in time to celebrate the structure’s hundredth anniversary.

To the Millionaires this was a retreat of simple comforts; to the modern eye the clubhouse stands for the curiously accessible amplitude of their lives at the end of the last century. Most of us wouldn’t have lived so well, but in this place it’s not beyond imagining. Wandering the broad verandas of the hotel, enjoying its river views, I thought of Tallu Fish. “I always knew that some day, somehow,” she told a reporter, “I was going to finally unpack right here.”

—Carla Davidson TO PLAN A TRIP