The Knights and Whalehead Through the Years in Corolla, NC
1922-1936 – Marriage, Hunting and Constructing a Getaway
Edward Collings Knight, Jr., a keen waterfowl hunter, nature lover and conservationist, purchased the Lighthouse Hunt Club in Corolla, North Carolina, with a 4.5-mile tract of land on the remote Currituck Outer Banks in 1922. The land they purchased stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Currituck Sound, and the area was just a sleepy little village. Shortly after, he and his second wife, Marie Louise Lebel Bonat Knight, honeymooned there and began building the winter residence we today call Whalehead that would mirror their privileged lifestyle in their Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Middletown, Rhode Island, homes. In 1925, with their new home finished, they demolished the old clubhouse. The Knights also changed the property’s name to Corolla Island, a reference to the new dwelling’s building site on an island created by dredging a boat basin and canals. By choosing Corolla, NC, a remote spot far from their other northeastern residences, the Knights ensured themselves a true getaway where they could enjoy their love of hunting.
Whalehead – A State-of-Nature Community
Building the strong, 21,000-square-foot, five-floored structure of Corolla Island demanded impressive skills. Most of the required building materials were shipped to Corolla and assembled there. Eighteen-inch-thick walls reinforced by steel beams framed the building, which boasted five chimneys, a copper-shingled roof and humidity-resistant cork floors. A diesel motor and 2,200-gallon pumping system in the boathouse provided electricity and water to the main house through underground lines.
The Corolla Island structure combines several styles, including Pennsylvania farmhouse, French-Canadian country and Art and Crafts. But many of its architectural features and decoration, such as the curved rooflines, ornamental chimneys, paint colors, Tiffany lighting, distinctive porches and friezes, display the curling lines and nature-inspired images of Art Nouveau. Since the Knights were nature lovers, and the site is in a uniquely beautiful natural environment, it was not surprising that they adopted the Art Nouveau style when they built Corolla Island. Because of the Knights’ design choices, today’s Whalehead contains some of the most important examples of Art Nouveau ornamentation in America.
1937-Present – Whalehead Re-purposed, De-purposed then Re-envisioned
After the Knight’s deaths in 1936, Edward’s two granddaughters inherited the property and put it up for sale. In 1939, an ideal buyer was found. Ray T. Adams, a wealthy meat packer and avid sportsman from Washington, D.C., purchased the property and changed the name to the Whalehead Club. Adams had longed dreamed of owning such a place where he could hunt and entertain friends and business prospects.
A Fancy Bunkhouse for the Coast Guard
Shortly after Mr. Adams purchased the Whalehead Club, the United States formally entered World War II in December 1941. This crisis stimulated a flurry of defensive measures among which was the Coast Guard’s leasing of the Whalehead Club from Mr. Adams for the rest of the war. With Whalehead as its center, the Coast Guard rescued seamen and conducted mounted beach patrols. Its facilities served as a receiving station where Coast Guard recruits awaited reassignment after they finished basic training. After the war, the Whalehead Club was demobilized and returned to Mr. Adams.
By the 1950s, Ray T. Adams had begun plans to develop some of his property’s real estate and drew up plans to subdivide the land. Unfortunately for Adams, a proposed road to Corolla, NC, could not get funding, and thus investors were not willing to support such development at that time. The Adams era ended when he died at the Club in 1957.
Whalehead as a School, then as a Rocket Fuel Test Site
Following Adams’ death, the property was sold to George McLean of Portsmouth, Virginia, and William Witt of Virginia Beach. Soon after, they leased it to a visionary educator, Hatcher Williams, who considered the still isolated Currituck Outer Banks to be an ideal location for Corolla Academy, a summer boarding school for boys. Corolla Academy succeeded in offering both excellent academic and recreational opportunities. The school closed in 1962 to make way for another transition for the property.
The Whalehead Club joined the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1962 after being leased by the Atlantic Research Corporation of Alexandria, Virginia. The company specialized in rocket fuel research for the military and space programs. Finding a solid rocket fuel for aerospace applications was their prime focus at Corolla, and ultimately they contributed to America’s successful development of large booster rockets. Corolla’s remote seaside location was so ideal for such work that the company purchased the Whalehead property in 1964. In 1969, the company moved its test firing facilities and the property was sold.
From this period until 1992, a succession of owners launched resort development projects on the 4.5-mile tract of land associated with the Whalehead Club. The Club itself was not as much of a priority as was the ocean to soundfront property. Consequently, it became abandoned in 1970 and was left to deteriorate.
Whalehead Finds New Life
In 1992, Currituck County wanted to ensure public sound access and was able to purchase the property for this purpose. By 1994, the county owned 39 acres surrounding the Club’s main building and was able to put together funding that also allowed for the preservation of the Whalehead Club. Aggressive restoration began in 1999. By 2002, the property had been restored to its original 1920s grandeur, attracting thousands of visitors each year to tour this grand jewel of the Outer Banks.