Thursday, January 9, 2020

An Island Icon - The General Oglethorpe

What if I told you that we have near us a "friend" who lived through the Great Depression and Prohibition. A friend who served our country in World War 2, and who welcomed me home from the first Gulf War with open arms and a cold beverage. A friend who can undoubtedly claim a role in the creation of some of the people living in Savannah today. This friend was once an Olympic Star and could be holding the truth of Jimmy Hoffa's whereabouts under a cement secret. This friend has been a white elephant and an object of desire. It will shortly be a movie star - again! If places could talk, this place could surely tell some amazing stories.

A beautiful structure rising from Wilmington Island, today's Wilmington Plantation Condominium has enjoyed a long and storied life. Photo by Daniel Foulds (Click image to view full size.)

By now you should know we are discussing the General Oglethorpe Hotel on Wilmington Island, completed in 1927. I first visited the property shortly after my arrival in Savannah in 1989, after being invited to attend a "Thursday Night Sunset Party" at what was then "The Sheraton Savannah Resort and Country Club." As the blue-black hue of the sky deepened and a spectacular sunset fired up the western horizon, we strolled the space around a beautiful swimming pool laying at the edge of the Wilmington River. Guests enjoyed enchanting views, live music, and the ever-present chance to "hook-up" with a new friend for a romantic evening. I daresay that many long-term relationships were born as a result of those sunset parties. And inevitably, over the years, some kids were born as a result too.

Several times during my first years here, while I was serving in the 3rd Battalion of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, we held our annual formal-banquets at the Sheraton. I stayed in the corner room on the second floor on the right-wing (as you look at the building.) It was a grand old place, with a fine ballroom built for fun. It was classy and made us feel special.

Image Courtesy "Mob Island" Facebook page. A film with the same title is in the works. Visible at the left is the dock and deck created for the 1996 Olympic sailing events, along with the infamous "helipad." Click image to view full size.

The General Oglethorpe Hotel and Resort was the brainchild of Mr. Henry Walthour and Mr. Thomas Saffold, both prominent citizens and island residents in the early 1900s. They sank pilings cut from island timber into the soft island mud and formed a foundation strong enough to support a towering superstructure. They spared no expense and ignored no detail during the creation of their resort. I used the word "Icon" in the title because this building is indeed an icon. It is instantly recognizable, visible for miles around, and was copied in many ways by the people who built the condominiums across the island on the Bull River. 

Bull River Condominiums

The views from the added upper floors of the old Oglethorpe are spectacular. As the upper units are all vacant, I was able to visit and take some photos.

The Donald Ross-designed golf course is now owned and operated by O.C. Welch.
Photo by Daniel Foulds (click image to view full size)

The Pool Deck is beautiful today, as it was during "Thursday Night Sunsets"
Photo by Daniel Foulds (click image to view full size)
In a classic example of bad timing, the Great Depression wrought havoc on the nation's economy shortly after the General Oglethorpe was completed. If you ever saw the film "The Legend of Bagger Vance," you know that the struggling golf resort portrayed in that film is none other than the General Oglethorpe.  So in a sense, the General has been a movie star for decades. A few years later a film titled "The Gift" was made in and around Savannah, and a scene displaying infidelity and lust was acted out at the old golf-course clubhouse. (The D.A. did it) 

The only thing better than reading about our maritime history is seeing it in person from the water. Get the picture! Call 912-657-5222 to schedule your personalized tour.
Booking tours now with Bull River Cruises

A new film project promises to bring our old friend into the limelight once more, it's an expose of the General Oglethorpe's years as a mob-property, titled "Mob Island."

From "Once Upon an Island" by Elizabeth Carpenter Piechocinski, "The old hotel was the site for the International Monetary Conference in March of 1946. Two hundred and fifty delegates from forty-five nations, along with more than a hundred financial writers, photographers, and newspaper reporters, attended this conference ... to promote foreign trade and to organize a World Fund and Bank (added: World War Two had just ended and much of the world was devastated.) One of the delegates to the conference was Lady Nancy Astor ... She referred to Savannah as 'a lovely lady with a dirty face."

That is arguably the most famous descriptive quote about Savannah, referring to a time when our city was down on her luck, and it was uttered at the General Oglethorpe! 

During the years when the Teamster's Union owned the property (1961-1982) (the mob connection) the likes of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra performed at the waterfront restaurant and club. The Union's pension fund had loaned $2.4 million to the hotel company that owned the Oglethorpe. That loan went into default and the General Oglethorpe, the Desoto Beach Hotel, and the Savannah Motor Lodge were purchase at auction at the Chatham County Courthouse for $1.9 million in 1961. Mobsters liked visiting the property for precisely the same reason that it was never a commercial success, its secluded isolation at the end of an island! 

According to Jerry Hogan (quoted in Island Memories by Marianne Heimes), "They didn't dress like Savannians. They wore long Bermuda shorts with black knee-high socks and sandals and bright Hawaiian print shirts over T-shirts" Jerry also observed that the "wise guys" brought their "nieces" with them. Indeed.

Turner's Creek and Turner's Rock are visible to the northeast. The property sits on a peninsula.
Photo by Daniel Foulds (click image to view full size)

In "Island Memories" Ms. Heimes tells of Albert Fendig living at Maridon on Wilmington Island during World War Two. In an essay, Fendig recounted that "Savannah was far away, and each morning as Dad drove us to school and himself to his office, he would stop by the Wilmington Hotel Bachelor Officer's Quarters to pick up two young ensigns..."

The view of the Wilmington River from the upper floors, added during the renovation, is stunning.
Photo by Daniel Foulds (click image to view full size)

This is the only reference I can find to a "Wilmington Island Hotel" and I surmise that he can only have been referring to the General Oglethorpe. During the war, the entire country "mobilized." Everyone and everything was affected, and the idea of the Navy requisitioning or contracting for rooms isn't at all far-fetched. If that's the case - the General Oglethorpe is a veteran of wartime service!

Later, the hotel became a franchise and then a wholly-owned Sheraton Hotels property. This was the situation when I got here in 1989. The next few years were good ones, at least from my perspective, but it seems the resort had three things going against it; location, location, and location. It sat out on its own on a small island without much else for visitors from out of town to do beyond swimming, golfing, and drinking. Unlike the hotel properties downtown which are within walking distance of - well - just about everything, the Sheraton was out on its own. In 1994 it closed for good.

An Olympic Performance:

The strategically located property was selected as "The Olympic Marina" during the 1996 sailing events.  As the picture below shows, the United States Coast Guard staged from the large dock - still there today. Competitor boats were put in the river by crane and either sailed or were towed to the day marina - a temporary structure moored in Wassaw Sound. Yep, the General Oglethorpe was an Olympic Star!

The USCG provided support for the 1996 Olympics.

Black = Marina'sBlue = Alpha courseGreen = Bravo courseYellow = Charly courseRed = Delta course
Site plan of the 1996 Olympic sailing events. The General Oglethorpe/Sheraton was the Olympic Marina

Image result for 1996 olympic sailing sheraton savannah
The Day Marina in Wassaw Sound.

In 1998 a developer purchased the property for conversion to condos, but the renovation and additions were plagued with problems.  Lawsuits were filed. More recently, a friend and condo-owner active in the homeowners association, Mr. Dennis Barr, took on the task of managing the project to completely correct the discrepancies. If you live near here you probably remember the scaffolding that surrounded the entire structure for several months. Dennis told me that "it's the hardest project I ever took on." The pot of gold at the end of the renovation rainbow is that the property has room for lots more development - and the current condo owners own that property. I hope they reap a fine reward for all of their frustrations.

Looking at the stunningly beautiful property today, with all the work he has coordinated now largely complete, I think Dennis' neighbors are in his debt. And I am glad the old 'Oglethorpe will live to see a hundred years on the Wilmington. After all, it's an Icon.

With all her discrepancies corrected, the Wilmington Island Plantation offers
a one-of-a-kind waterfront living experience. Photo by Daniel Foulds
Click image to view full size

I would like to thank my friend Rusty Hunter for taking me on a tour of the Wilmington Plantation/General Oglethorpe Hotel and allowing me to take many of these pictures. That's his truck in this picture and it's there on purpose. Rusty owns "Roof Hunters" a roofing and general construction and repair company - and he and his team can fix anything anywhere on any structure. From high-rise buildings to residential fencing, Roof Hunters makes it right - as they did at this beautiful property. Tell Rusty we sent you. (912) 342-3338

The General Oglethorpe Hotel and Golf Club, Wilmington Island, Savannah, Ga.
Postcard image courtesy Boston Public Library "with no known restrictions"

1 comment:

  1. The Oglethorpe Hotel as it was originally named in 1926 when it was built was used in the 1980 Movie "HOPSCOTCH", a CIA thriller, starring Walter Matthau and Ned Beatty. It shows scenes of when a plane lands in the Wilmington River in front of the hotel and a passenger disembarks and walks the dock to register at the front desk. (the scene was supposed to be in the Bahamas) A long time Tybee resident now deceased named Parker Harris was hired to sit in a boat under the dock in case an accident happened. A view out of one of the windows overlooking the Riva is also in the movie.


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