Since a community-wide resurgence in interest and involvement, the Island Inn & Commons Project on Ocracoke Island has made waves of progress in the past few months.
Starting the year as a bare landscape with the historic 1901 structure as the main focus, Ocracoke’s summertime visitors now encounter a budding park with newly installed benches, local wildflowers and live oaks, and artworks that border the perimeter of the site in the heart of Ocracoke village.
It’s a work in progress to be sure, but the Ocracoke residents who are powering the years-long project have made great strides in a short amount of time, and there’s a lot more to look forward to as time goes on.
A quick recap of the Island Inn Project
The two-story Island Inn is an unmissable site along N.C. Highway 12, and the structure was first constructed in 1901 as a lodge for the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, with Ocracoke’s K-12 school operating on the first floor until a new school was built in 1917.
As tourism trickled into the village after World War II, the structure became one of the island’s first hotels – the Silver Lake Inn – and it doubled as a dance hall and a social gathering spot for residents.
The site remained a popular hotel, restaurant, and social hub until the 2000s, but it ran into financial issues and eventually fell into foreclosure, as well as disrepair.
In the mid-2010s, the Ocracoke Preservation Society (OPS) was presented with a plan by a group of concerned Ocracoke citizens to purchase and preserve the site. The complicated sale took a year to piece together, but the renovation itself would prove to be a much bigger challenge.
Situated at ground level for its entire lifespan, the Island Inn had seen untold cycles of flooding over the course of 120 years. By 2018, the “new” additions to the property – and namely the wings that were added after World War II – were completely unsalvageable.
The OPS subsequently razed and removed these add-ons to the structure, including both wings, the kitchen and apartment portions, and two small outbuildings, leaving the original 1901 structure standing alone.
The OPS had funds in hand to start installing public restrooms and elevate the property, but before these next steps could occur, Dorian hit Ocracoke Island in September 2019, and everything came to a standstill. Additional restoration work was piecemeal as funds and labor became sporadically available, and the grounds surrounding the structure remained bare.
The Coronavirus pandemic prolonged the sluggish progress for several more years, and it wasn’t until the past 6-12 months that the project sprang to life.
It takes a village
The community-wide effort arguably began in December 2022, when Ocracoke Alive and local students planted dozens of heritage fig trees on the property grounds.
From there, the enthusiasm for the community-planting event spread, and a new team of local volunteers came to the rescue. Spearheading different aspects of the project – including landscaping, the installation of restrooms, and fundraising – these veritable sub-committees have been concurrently working to make great strides in the multi-pronged effort to restore the Island Inn, and to create a new public space where visitors and residents can relax, explore, and even plan special events.
The long-term plan
The long-term game plan for the Island Inn & Commons Project is both functional and decorative, adding a bit of color and enchantment to a multi-acre site in the heart of the village.
The 1901 lodge itself will be transformed into a visitors’ center, with information about Ocracoke Island and its attractions stationed on the first floor, and non-profit offices taking up the bulk of the second floor.
A new public restroom will replace the pair of port-a-potties that are currently on the edge of the property, and the surrounding grounds will be a mixture of gardens and greenspace, with pergolas and power outlets that can be used for special events, like public concerts or private weddings.
Located an easy stroll away from the Ocracoke Lighthouse and Howard Street, and adjacent to one of Ocracoke’s Village’s eight tram stops, the Island Inn & Commons will eventually be an attraction in its own right, as well as a much-needed outdoor space for events of all varieties.
Where we are now
Debbie Welles, who took the reins of the landscaping aspects of the project, has had a busy year.
Starting with a blank canvas and envisioning a landscaping project in three parts, Welles has already conducted the first wave of planting that will serve as the baseline for the many green changes to come.
In the winter and spring, Welles and her team planted live oaks along the perimeter of the property, installed arbors and benches, and then went to work adding the flowers, vines, and bushes that are growing strong today.
Transplanted Jobells, honeysuckle, jasmine vines, blueberry bushes, and Myrtles are not dotted throughout the highway-facing portion of the property, and Welles is a constant presence in the new garden to see how the newly transplanted additions are faring.
“I’m here every day for some amount of time, even if it’s just to do a walkthrough,” she said. “The main thing is just to keep them all watered, and we’ve been able to do that.”
A new irrigation system has recently been installed, and trenches have been built in the past several weeks to house the water and power lines that will be added in the near future. Though the landscape is a little messy due to this utilitarian work, visitors passing by still pause to admire the flowers, take a rest on one of the new benches, or just take stock of how much has been achieved in a couple of months.
“All of the benches and arbors have already been funded,” said Ken DeBarth, President of OPS. “We sold sponsorship for the benches, and sections of the fence and the arbors, and the trees, and all of those are going to have little brass plaques to honor [donors or their loved ones].”
Welles also used a little ingenuity to minimize costs during the first phase of the landscaping project. Her friend, who runs a landscaping business in Chapel Hill, was able to get her the live oak trees at a discount, and many of the Jobells were moved from the Inn site, to Welles’ own porch where they could be nurtured, and back to the Inn again.
“We knew they were going to be cut down when the new drainage field was added, so we dug a bunch of them up, put them in pots, and took them to my house,” she said. “Somehow they thrived, so when the flower beds were established, we just brought them back to their new home.”
In addition to the new flowers, trees, and sitting areas, 12 pieces of Ocracoke-centric artworks have been added around the perimeter, thanks to a partnership with Ocracoke Alive. Mainly created by local students, the artworks will be auctioned off to the public later in the year, will all funds going back into the community, and the project.
Construction of the much-anticipated public restrooms is expected to begin in the middle of October, and should be completed by the end of the year. Already funded thanks to the Tourism Development Authority and a portion of the county’s occupancy tax, the restroom will have two unisex bathrooms as well as decking, and will be designed to match the Island Inn, with a white exterior that fits in with the landscape.
As for the Island Inn itself, there has been hefty progress on the structure as well, although there’s still a long way to go. Renovation of a routinely-flooded and disregarded structure is hard enough, but it’s even more complicated when it’s a historic building, and special attention needs to be paid to all the details – from the red cedar roof shingles to the uniquely-sized and custom-made windows.
“If we won the lottery tomorrow and had a billion dollars, it would still take a couple of years,” said DeBarth. “But we’re still a lot farther along than we were a year ago.”
Progressing in a series of small steps, the next phase for the Island Inn is the roof. As of last week, the specialty roof shingles had just arrived, and the new roof will likely be finished by the end of the summer. “Once that’s done, we can start working on the siding – using as many original pieces as we can – as well as the windows,” said DeBath. “They have to be custom-built, so they’re going to cost about $2,000 a piece, and we’re trying to scrounge up as much money as we can.”
Welles is already getting her ducks in a row for the fall planting season, when another wave of flowers, bushes, and trees will be added to the public park-like landscape. A drainage field and water pipes will be added soon to make way for the new restroom, (which should be done by the end of 2023), and grant applications and fundraising efforts continue as new opportunities arise.
There’s still a long way to go before the complete Island Inn & Commons is a vivid reality, but considering the years-long gap of activity following Dorian and the pandemic, the folks who have been involved with the project since the beginning are thrilled with the progress.
“After Dorian and after Covid, everybody took some time to recover,” said DeBarth. “But then there was a burst of energy in the village… to see all the volunteers coming to help, and to see all the changes to the grounds and the Inn – It’s all pretty exciting.”
How you can help the OPS and the Island Inn project
About the OPS
The Ocracoke Preservation Society is a non-profit, community-based organization dedicated to the preservation of Ocracoke Island’s rich historical and cultural heritage. Founded in March 1983, OPS has maintained a free admission museum at the century-old David Williams House since 1992, and has assisted with other landmark projects and events in the Ocracoke community over the past four decades, including the 300th-anniversary event of the death of Edward “Blackbeard” Teach in 2018, and the 2018 purchase and restoration of the Island Inn property.