October 15, 2010

Ocracoke preservationists are concerned about the century-old Island Inn


"Foreclosure Auction, Ocracoke Island Inn" reads the newspaper ad in Ocracoke's local newspaper. "Sold at public auction to the highest bidder on the courthouse steps, October 21, 2010."

For over a century, the lovely Island Inn has stood in quiet elegance in Ocracoke village, not far from the Lighthouse, an island institution of historic proportions. Listed now on the National Register of Historic Places, it is the oldest inn on Ocracoke and has been claimed to be the oldest continuously operating inn on the Outer Banks.

The property where it stands was deeded by Janus and Zyphia Howard. The original center portion of the inn was built in 1901 by Charlie Scarborough, a prominent carpenter, using, in part, lumber salvaged from shipwrecks. The first floor served as a schoolhouse until 1917 and the second floor as the Odd Fellows Society meeting room
In 1920, Benjamin O’Neal bought the building and had it moved across the street through the deep sand.

Blanche Howard Jolliff, an Ocracoke native who grew up on the island, recalls the move, saying, “How in the world they moved it, I don’t know!"

It became their private residence until the O’Neals moved to Morehead City. Sometime around 1940, Ocracoke native Stanley Wahab bought the building for $700 and opened the Wahab Coffee Shop, making it a great success.

Blanche Jolliff remembers a barber shop located in the building for a short while, dances that were held there, and buying homemade ice cream to take home to her parents. She remembers seeing a picture of the old schoolroom which included her uncle, Lawrence Howard, when he was a student there.

During World War II, Stanley Wahab rented the upstairs of the coffee shop to construction crews brought in to build the U.S. Naval Base. The building became the Officers Club --known as the "Crow’s Nest" --  from 1942-46.

After the base closed, Wahab bought some of the barracks and moved them to the property, using them as a dance hall and later apartments. When he moved back to the island, he added a second floor, a dining room, kitchen, and more bedrooms, calling the establishment the Silver Lake Inn.

While away, Wahab hired a couple, Mr. and Mrs. Godfrey, to manage the place. One day Mrs. Godfrey mysteriously disappeared, and she was later found murdered. Her ghost is said to still haunt the old building.

The Silver Lake Inn was a favorite destination for many visitors to the island in those years. Wahab eventually sold the building to Doward Brugh who re-named it the Island Inn, and he later sold it to Bill and Helen Styron. Over time, an east wing and a dining room were added, as well as a swimming pool.

In 1978, Ocracoke native Larry Williams, along with his partner Foy Shaw, bought the Inn and spent nearly 20 years redecorating and upgrading it. They built an additional 19 rooms on the other side of Light House Road. They sold it in 1990 to Cee and Bob Touey, who moved their family to Ocracoke and took over running the establishment.
The Island Inn’s dining room has been featured in such publications as Southern Living, Cuisine, The Saturday Evening Post, and Fodor's, and has housed such notable guests as entertainer Jimmy Buffet, actress Michele Pfeiffer, and astronaut Scott Horowitz, according to a story by Kevin Scott Cutler.

The economy and banking woes have not been good for the Island Inn, however, and the historic building is in jeopardy. The foreclosure auction planned for 12 noon, Oct. 21, at the Hyde County Courthouse will place the inn in the hands of whoever bids the highest.

There are concerns that someone who does not care about the island or the significance of its historic inn will place the highest bid with thoughts of tearing it down.

In the past, many people who love Ocracoke have stepped up to try and save those places that make the island special. As far back as the ‘50s, when the Cape Hatteras National Seashore was created and Ocracoke’s magnificent beaches preserved, Ocracokers have supported conservation efforts.

They have come together to help save many of the island’s historic buildings, including the Community Store, the Ocracoke Fish House (now Ocracoke Seafood Company), the David Williams home (now the Ocracoke Museum), and most recently, the Emma and Simon O’Neal house, located on Lighthouse Road.

The creation of the historic district, of which the Island Inn is a part, provides an incentive for individuals to preserve and restore Ocracoke’s historic buildings, as Phillip Howard, Tom and Carol Paul, and many others have done.

The Ocracoke Preservation Society presents an annual award to encourage such preservation efforts, and winners include, among others, John Thomas and Mildred O’Neal and Blanche Howard O’Neal. The attainment and preservation of the beautiful and historic property, Springer’s Point, is another example of how people who loved Ocracoke came together, working with the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust, to save a wonderful island landmark.

Presently the Ocracoke Foundation is working on a grant to preserve the Community Square, of  which the Community Store is a part. Another such effort, saving the Berkeley, has not yet succeeded.

The Island Inn is a much loved Ocracoke icon that most islanders and visitors would like to see preserved, and it is hoped that whoever bids on it on Oct. 21 will do so with this goal.

Blanche Howard Jolliff expresses the view of many when she says that "I hope very much that whoever gets it will not tear it down, but will continue to run it as an inn."

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