Built for spite, saved for grace


Opulence: A mansion created as an exclusive hunting lodge for a woman scorned by Outer Banks residents survives to become a museum.

June 09, 2000|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

COROLLA, N.C. - Edward Collings Knight Jr. was a railroad executive and amateur artist who "exhibited more talent at spending money than making it."

Marie Louise LeBel was his foul-mouthed, hard-drinking wife, who thought nothing of killing a neighbor's dog with a shot from her pearl-handled pistol.

The couple caused quite an uproar in the early 1920s, when they arrived on North Carolina's Outer Banks to hunt ducks and geese in Currituck Sound. But that was nothing compared to the fury that erupted when the menfolk barred Marie Knight from joining their hunting clubs because of her gender.

Instead of settling the score with her pistol, she calmed herself and decided that living well would be their revenge. She persuaded her husband to buy a rundown hunting lodge, tear it down and build the Whalehead Club, the most opulent and exclusive hunting lodge in the region.

Now, local preservationists are hoping that the 22-room mansion will be the major drawing card for a Corolla Historic District that includes an 1875 lighthouse and a tiny fishing village.

"The club is such a wonderful piece of North Carolina history," says Lloyd Childers, executive director of Outer Banks Conservationists Inc. "To have it here on Currituck Sound is just phenomenal."

Currituck is an Indian name for "Land of the Wild Goose." Waterfowl of all kinds found a winter refuge in the sound behind the Outer Banks, and in the late 1800s, the hunters found them. The marshes became a hunter's paradise; "Currituck Duck" appeared on the menus of the finest restaurants in Baltimore and Philadelphia.

During their heyday, from 1870 to the late 1920s, more than 100 hunting clubs lined the marshes along the Virginia-North Carolina coast. Wealthy hunters paid $100 a day for lodging, meals and a guide. Some clubs recorded incredible hunts, with one bragging of killing 414 ducks, geese and swans in a single day.

It was into this that the Knights stepped to make their grand statement. The mansion for the club cost $383,000 and took three years to build, with all the materials shipped by barge from Norfolk, Va. With its elevator, swimming pool and basement - all firsts for the Outer Banks - the Whalehead Club became the talk of the region when it opened in 1925.

Of course Marie Knight could get local tongues wagging as well.

"By 10 o'clock, she was three sheets to the wind. She would shoot at just about anything," says Childers. "When the villagers heard she was out riding, they would grab their cats and their children and go inside."

The couple spent 11 hunting seasons at the house (the rest of the year they lived at the Plaza Hotel in New York City) before Edward Knight died in 1936, and his wife several months later.

How exclusive was the Whalehead Club? Only 25 visitors stayed there during the Knights' ownership.

The house changed hands over the years, becoming a private home, a summer school for boys and a Coast Guard training station during World War II. After the war, a company used the property to test fuel for rockets. In the go-go 1980s, a group of businessmen bought it, but before they could build a golf resort, they lost $12 million in the savings-and-loan scandal.

Finally, in 1992, Currituck County bought the house and 40 acres for $2.2 million and set about restoring it for use as a wildlife and decoy museum.

"The house is an architectural wonder," says Reid Thomas of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History.

The mansion has five chimneys, cork floors, copper shingles and a pink-tiled kitchen. It had central oil heating and an electric generating station. The beams are steel, the walls are brick, three layers thick. The downstairs doors are mahogany.

Door hinges are shaped like water lily buds, and the dining-room walls are adorned with hand-carved water lilies. Signed Tiffany lighting fixtures hang overhead. A Steinway piano, now valued at $285,000, sits in the living room. The club's safe is disguised as a marble-topped Victorian sideboard with wood carvings of ducks, fish and flowers adorning its sides.

Upstairs, four bedrooms - each with a bathroom - are set aside for guests. Marie Knight believed in the medicinal powers of salt water, so each bathroom has hot and cold fresh and saltwater spigots.

Servants, a dozen of them, were not allowed on the main floor of the house. They passed through basement and attic corridors to do their chores.

But Edward and Marie Knight were not completely without heart. His valet, known only as Mr. Starkey, had a suite of rooms on the third floor. The cook, Miss Rose, worked in the rose-pink tiled kitchen.

"The sheer size is just amazing," says Thomas, a restoration specialist for the state. "It's a great hidden treasure, if you can call a 22-room house hidden." He has helped the nonprofit Whalehead Preservation Trust locate period woodwork and a match for the paint used in 1925, but covered over by subsequent owners.

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