Jekyll Island Club History
At the turn of the century, tycoons, politicians, and socialites flocked to Jekyll Island to revel in their own luxury and America’s burgeoning wealth. Our historic Georgia Club was described in the February 1904 issue of Munsey’s Magazine as “the richest, the most exclusive, the most inaccessible club in the world.” Its impressive members included such luminaries as J.P. Morgan, William Rockefeller, Vincent Astor, Joseph Pulitzer, William K. Vanderbilt, and other recognizable names on the roster were Macy, Goodyear, and Gould.
A Historic Georgia Site With An Aristocratic Past
It all started with a little-known, but extraordinary man named Newton Finney,who served briefly on Robert E. Lee’s staff as captain of engineers during the Civil War. Newton Finney and his brother-in-law, John Eugene DuBignon, were the early developers whose plan for a hunting club for wealthy northerners hatched into the most exclusive social club in the United States. Between 1879 and 1885, the two men worked on acquiring ownership of this Georgia historic landmark and convincing investors of the merits of the idea. Finney lived in New York and, having connections to members of such institutions as the Union Club, the so-called “mother of clubs,” he carefully built the membership and early foundations for the Club. After Dubignon, the lone original member from the south, purchased the island, he in turn sold it to the newly incorporated Jekyll Island Club and its original 53 members/investors, among whom were Marshall Field, Henry Hyde, J.P. Morgan, Joseph Pulitzer and William K. Vanderbilt.
Ground was broken for the Clubhouse in mid-August 1886, and the club officially opened its doors in January 1888. Designed by Charles Alexander of Chicago, the original clubhouse reflects the Queen Anne style, incorporating into its plan the turret which dominates the roof line, extensive verandas, bay windows, extended chimneys and, overall, an asymmetrical design. Handsome interior details include Ionic columns in the dining room, twelve- and fifteen-foot ceilings, oak wainscoting and other intricately detailed woodwork, as well as leaded art glass and ninety-three distinctively detailed fireplaces.
Because of the concentration of internationally prominent business leaders, the Jekyll Island Club has been the scene of some important historical events, such as the first transcontinental telephone call placed by AT&T president Theodore Vail on January 25, 1915.
Finance, as well as politics, was of paramount concern to many club members. J.P. Morgan could create or quell economic panics on Wall Street with the financial resources at his personal command. George Baker, head of the First National Bank of New York, and James Stillman, head of the National City Bank of New York, also members of the Jekyll Island Club, were nearly as wealthy as Morgan. In 1907 when a particularly virulent economic panic caused a run on the banks, one of these three men paved the way for a secret meeting on Jekyll. Traveling under assumed names, Senator Nelson Aldrich, four other bankers of national importance, and the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury made their way to Jekyll posing as duck hunters. Meetings the following week led to the development of the Aldrich Plan, which called for a centralized banking structure for the country. Although Congress did not pass the plan in 1912, President Woodrow Wilson and others used the Aldrich Plan as the basis for another plan that became the Federal Reserve Act, establishing the Federal Reserve System.
With the advent of the first “season” on Jekyll, the elite club members gathered their families and boarded their yachts, all with expectations for having a grandiose time. Morning hunting trips, lawn parties, carriage rides, leisurely afternoons on the beach…the likes of the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers passed their summer days in a state of lavish splendor on their Southern playground. For years there was unofficial competition among the yachting members to see who would arrive in the most impressive and beautifully appointed vessel. Dinner each evening, however, was the high point of the day as the dining room grew rich with white-clad waiters, bow-tied gentlemen and stately women.
Between 1888 and 1928 these wealthy northern families built their winter homes, or “cottages” as they were called, designed to house entire families with staff. Hardly cottages, they exemplified Victorian tastes in architecture. Two of these have been restored and are part of the Jekyll Island Club’s historic accommodations.
Among them is Sans Souci, meaning “without care,” which was built in 1896 and owned in part by J.P. Morgan. This six-unit building is considered to be one of the first condominiums built in this country. The floors, leaded art glass, stairway and skylight are all original.
Crane Cottage, in the style of Italian Renaissance, was built in 1917 for Richard Teller Crane, Jr. and his wife. It is the largest, most lavish of the cottages and has a landscaped formal sunken garden with fountains and upper terrace.
Cherokee Cottage, as beautiful as the wild rose for which it was named, is also Italian Renaissance architectural style. Constructed in 1904, the cottage reflects the tastes of the Shrady family for whom it was originally built. The three arched, double front doors welcome guests into a light, spacious great room, and its ten accommodations express a life of elegant leisure.
Several other cottages that have been restored, but are not part of the Hotel, are open to the public. The Indian Mound Cottage, built with twenty-five rooms for the Rockefeller family, and the Goodyear Cottage completed in 1906 by the firm of Carrére and Hastings are two examples.