The property was sold last week to SAGA Construction of Kill Devil Hills, and while for now there’s little indication that a change has occurred – with the exception of a new Kees Vacations placard that’s subtly tucked under the main Sea Gull Motel sign – the owners, locals, and long-time visitors alike are fully aware that in a small town like Hatteras, the transfer comes with a big dose of sentimentality and nostalgia.
After all, the Sea Gull Motel has been in the Oden family since it was first built in 1955 – a year after Jeff Oden’s grandfather started operating the adjacent Durant accommodations.
And the motel has a legendary status among many who remember it as one of the few businesses in eastern Hatteras village that was able to reopen somewhat intact after 2003’s Hurricane Isabel – a rare feat considering that a wall of water effectively crashed through this portion of the island.
The future looks bright for the property, which has undergone more than its fair share of setbacks since it first opened a year after Hurricane Hazel. The new owners plan to keep it open at least for this year.
SAGA eventually hopes for a resort-style hotel and a fishing pier on the site — both of which could bring a lot of much needed income to Hatteras village throughout the year, and could even rejuvenate the area’s short-term accommodations market.
“The aspiration is to have a quality resort hotel there,” says Eric Kaplan of the Hatteras Island Ocean Center. “SAGA feels that the best use of that property is a new hotel, and if everything works, the next step would be a pier.”
But even so, the Sea Gull Motel was a local icon of sorts for folks-in-the-know, and it’s hard not to be a little wistful, and think back fondly on its long role as the place to stay for Hatteras beach-goers.
Jeff Oden has been in Hatteras since he was 3 years old, and his parents opened the Sea Gull Motel in 1955 with just seven rooms. “When we were first there, people were coming here for the beach, and they were coming for the fishing,” he says. “And that was pretty much it.”
The rest of the motel grew over time over the next 20 years or so. Another seven apartments were added in 1957, and during the next phase, 11 more apartments were added, as well as the motel’s office.
It took a total of five phases to bring the Sea Gull Motel to its final, pre-Isabel complex of three buildings and a swimming pool, with the last building being constructed in 1978.
“That’s the building that’s still there,” says Jeff, “the last one we built.”
During this time period, the motel welcomed a regular series of guests under the management of Jeff’s parents, Carlos and Jo Oden, who ran the Sea Gull for 27 years.
A relative took over for a couple years after Jeff’s parents handed over the keys, and then Jeff and Katie took the reins for the next three decades or so. Because Jeff, an established commercial fisherman, was out in the water for most of this time, Katie took over the bulk of the business.
“We thought it was the best place on the beach for many years, and I’m sure others would challenge that, but in any event is it was an established business that was doing well until Isabel hit. After Isabel, It it never really came back.”
There were actually two events that almost put an early end to the Sea Gull Motel. The first was a property dispute in the late 1970s, after the motel had already been established for 21 years, that resulted in a lawsuit and an eventual settlement to keep the Odens from years tangled up in the court system.
The second major event was Hurricane Isabel.
The storm destroyed much of eastern Hatteras village, including two out of the three buildings that encompassed the Sea Gull Motel. The second story of one of the two buildings actually floated 1/8th mile until it was stopped by another Hatteras village structure, while the rest of the property was hollowed out or destroyed altogether, with eerie remnants – like a staircase, a lone toilet, or hanging lamps – still standing.
The final building, which was built with bricks on wood, survived the storm, but, nevertheless, sand piled into the structure, and accumulated so high that it reached the windows.
During the storm, however, the Odens were more concerned about their daughter, who was at the motel.
“She called me at around 8 that morning and I was pretty upset because I told her not to stay there,” says Jeff. “Then she tells me, ‘The water is up to my chest and coming up higher.’”
Jeff, who was in the village at his mom’s house, spent three hours trying to figure out how to get to his daughter. He first tried to drive a friend’s truck to the site, but even with the massive tires, it didn’t take long until the truck began to float. He then stopped by Slash Creek where condos were being built and tried to commandeer a forklift, but there were no keys available.
Finally, the water started to back off – though it was still high and strong – and Jeff and a friend headed to the motel with a surfboard that he used as a makeshift lifeboat.
“It was all I could do to hold on, because it was still blowing,” he says. “We made it out to her, finally, and saw that one of the buildings had drifted out to the road.”
His daughter had smartly made it to the attic in the lone intact building with her dog, where she stayed until helped arrived.
“I didn’t expect to see her again,” says Jeff. “It was pretty traumatic for her, and for me too until I found her.”
“The building was elementary after that.”
Out of the 45 units that comprised the motel, only a handful survived. But, nevertheless, Jeff and Katie rebuilt the motel and amazingly – like most folks in Hatteras village that were devastated after Isabel – counted their blessings without complaint.
“Our village truly came together after Isabel. We were all meeting down at the shower stalls and taking baths together or having a cocktail together. It was pretty amazing to see the community come together. It really was. It gave us all perspective, I think,” says Jeff.
“When Isabel came through, truly it was a blessing to us. A lot of the building was very old — so much would have to be renovated — and once it washed away, I was able to fish and not worry too much about Katie being able to take care of the 15 rooms, whereas with 45 rooms she had a lot more to handle.”
With limited funds to completely start from scratch, the Sea Gull Motel has stayed the same size since it was forcibly reduced to 15 units by Isabel. But that hasn’t stopped visitors from making an annual trek to the site to continue a generations-old tradition.
John Morrissey started going to the Sea Gull Motel in 1988 with a group of fishing friends from Old Dominion.
“We stayed at the Sea Gull Motel because, at the time, it was the only motel in the AAA book in Hatteras village,” he says. “And it was great – it had a pool, and was right on the beach. From that point on, we started staying there every year.”
John and his friends continued to stay at the Sea Gull Motel for their annual trips, until Hurricane Isabel hit, and their plans – like many Hatteras visitors in 2003 and 2004 – were put on hold.
“Until Hurricane Isabel, it was me and my buddies, and we’d spend days there fishing and hanging out at the beach.” he says. “When Isabel came, it knocked us out for a few years, and when we returned, there were four families. We all went there together, and everyone loved it – even the kids loved it.
“It’s been our go-to place in the summer for many, many years” says John. “We made our reservations for this year with Ms. Oden on the way out the door [during last year’s vacation].
And while John is among other visitors who are worried it won’t be the same without the familiar faces that have been around for a couple decades or so, he’s nevertheless coming back for another trip.
“We’re going to give it a chance, and come down and see,” he says. “We love the area, and Hatteras village especially.”
The Sea Gull Motel has had a host of guests over the years who have been coming down for decades, or who have simply returned because they remember going to the motel with their parents.
This is all in addition to a number of distinguished guests.
“We have had a few interesting characters who came through the door, and a lot of governors would show up here for the Marlin Tournament,” says Jeff. “We’ve also had a few famous actors.”
And while the transfer of the Sea Gull Motel will be a transition for a lot of people – especially the Odens – it’s certainly not the last chapter in the property’s long story.
“It’s hard to drive past there, and not pick up the trash on the lawn,” says Jeff. “I’m going to miss it in a lot of ways. The property has been in the family for a long time, and it’s hard not to be sentimental.
“But we’ve been there for a long time, and it’s time for someone else to do something good. I’ll miss the business, and the people. There were so many [guests] there we knew.”
“And if I see the grass getting high, I’ll have to call the manager and tell him it needs to be cut,” he said with a laugh.