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Remnants of a gilded age live on in historic district

JEKYLL ISLAND, Georgia - Once you have visited the Goodyear Cottage, walked through the Mistletoe Cottage, had dinner at the Crane Cottage, and over-indulged at the brunch in the elegant Jekyll Island Club Hotel, it is natural to ask: Are you sure this is a Georgia state park?

Georgia bought this jewel of an island in south Georgia in 1947, and an impressive chapter in the gilded age of American wealth and society was included.

Jekyll, nine miles long and 1 1/2 miles wide, is the smallest of Georgia's Golden Isles.

Fortunately for today's visitors - which include northern snowbirds in winter - the 240-acre National Historic Landmark District on the island preserves Jekyll's history when it was a retreat for several of America's prominent families. Their summer homes, called cottages, and a grand hotel are among highlights of the district that can be seen on walking tours, drives, carriage rides, or by tram. The island cottages were no doubt smaller than their original owners' palatial homes in Newport, R.I., New York, and other northern cities, but they are far from being small and cozy as we think of a cottage today. Instead, the cottages that were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s were mansions designed by famous architects of the period, with huge rooms for entertaining and with many bedrooms and baths.

The cottages were built near the Jekyll Island Club, which remains the focal point of the historic district as it did when its members owned the island and developed their little world to escape the stress of the business world.

Club members, including J.P. Morgan, Joseph Pulitzer, William K. Vanderbilt, Marshall Field, and many more notables, formed a hunting club to take advantage of the game on the island. As a group they bought the island from the descendents of the Christophe DuBignon family that had owned it since 1792 for $125,000. In 1887 the members built the club house, which is a beautiful hotel, and began to build cottages nearby. Still called the Jekyll Island Club, it is a magnificent hotel built in the Queen Anne style, with a high turret that peers over giant oaks and down to the croquet course on the front lawn. The hotel has 157 rooms and suites.

One island history book suggests that when club members were all in the club dining room they represented one sixth of the world's wealth.

Of the 16 original cottages, 11 remain and have been restored to what is proclaimed to be their original splendor. The Moss/Macy Cottage, which underwent five years of restoration from 1992 to 1997, is a green-shingled, three-story house with six bedrooms and two baths on the second floor and seven more bedrooms and two baths on the third floor. It was built in 1896 by William Struthers of Philadelphia but purchased in 1911 by George Macy, president of the Union Pacific Tea Co., or A and P. The Crane Cottage, designed as an Italian villa, was built by Richard Crane, heir to the Chicago plumbing fortune, with 20 bedrooms and 13 bathrooms. It is now operated as a branch of the hotel with lodging and a public restaurant.

The Goodyear and Mistletoe cottages are showcases for local art work. In the Mistletoe the artistry of island sculptor Rosario Fiore is displayed on both floors. Mistletoe, named for the prolific mistletoe that was once on the island, was built for Henry Kirk Porter, a U.S. representative from Pennsylvania and founder of the YMCA, but was last owned by John Claflin, founder of Lord and Taylor. It is described as a Dutch Colonial Revival house. Like many of the cottages the entrance is on the side to reserve the front for a better view of the Jekyll River and the sunsets through large windows. On a tram tour visitors learn that Porter's wife gave frequent tea parties and always covered the lawn with white rugs to protect the hemline of her guests' long dresses.

The second reason to visit the Goodyear Cottage after seeing and perhaps buying paintings, pottery, jewelry, and other artwork by local artists, is to imagine the lavish lifestyle of the Frank Goodyear family when they lived and entertained there in the early 1900s. Goodyear was a lumber baron from Buffalo. The landscaping at the Goodyear Cottage is claimed to be an accurate copy from the period.

The cottage next door to the Goodyears', named Indian Mound, is being reconstructed as it was when William Rockefeller owned it. Rockefeller, a director of Standard Oil Co., purchased it from the estate of Gordon McKay, and made several additions, including a covered driveway. Rockefeller's wife is said to have requested the driveway to protect the crushed red velvet carpet in the parlor. McKay was the inventor of the Stitchery, a machine that made boots that could be worn on either the left or right foot. When President Lincoln ordered 25,000 pairs of boots for the Union Army McKay was on his way to fame and fortune, so the story says. The island museum and tram and carriage ride headquarters are in the former stable, which is one of 33 of the original out buildings in use.

The harbor marina continues to be important to the island, as it was in club days. J.P. Morgan is said to have had the largest yacht. It was 343 feet long and as it neared the harbor, a canyon was shot to alert a steamer that Morgan and his guests would need transportation to shore. Latitude 31, a favorite island seafood restaurant, is near the marina.

The colony began to fade after the stock market crash of 1929. Death and loss of interest were other causes for its demise until 1942, when the last club members came to Jekyll. The state of Georgia bought it in 1947 for $675,000, but the reconstruction of the historical district did not begin until the 1960s.

Outside of the historic district, Georgia state law dictates that 65 percent of the island will remain undeveloped. There is no traffic light on the island and you won't see any of the familiar fast food signs. There is no shortage of large oaks dripping with Spanish moss, sea oats, or wide barrier beaches and dunes.

Miles of hiking and biking paths are carved through the island's deep forests and vast marsh areas. The island also has three golf courses, a soccer field that draws tournaments from other states, and a tennis center with 13 clay courts.

Ardent fishermen say they catch the big ones at the pier at the north end of the island, and children enjoy Summer Waves, a water park. No doubt the campground is the biggest contrast to the large cottages that ruled the island when the elite colony was in full swing. The campground, on 18 wooded acres, has 206 campsites from tents to full hookups, showers, laundry facilities, and a store that sells bait and rents bicycles. That's when you know you are in a state park.

IF YOU GO

•Jekyll Island is about nine miles via causeway from Brunswick, Ga. Brunswick is halfway between Savannah, Ga., and Jacksonville.

•Admission to the island is $3 per person, and is called a parking ticket.

•Several motels are on the island in addition to the historic Jekyll Island Club Hotel. Three motels are under construction. Rental cottages are available through real estate agencies.

•Formal and casual restaurants feature seafood. A Sunday brunch, $28.95, is popular at the Jekyll Island Club Hotel.

•The Georgia Sea Turtle Center is an educational center combined with a hospital for sick and injured sea turtles. Daily programs for children and adults are scheduled. Admission is $5.

•Informative 90-minute tram rides through the historic district are $16. Tours of two cottages are included.

Contact Mary Alice Powell at: mpowell@theblade.com

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