Elegance recalled: Beaufort's Gold Eagle Tavern and Lodge

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Elegance recalled: Beaufort's Gold Eagle Tavern and Lodge

By JASON RYAN<br>The Beaufort Gazette<br>
Published Sunday, September 4, 2005 in The Island Packet  |  996 Words  |  /BeaufortGazette/local_news

Jane McManus remembers the immaculate white uniforms of the waiters as they strode to tables in the Gold Eagle Tavern and Lodge, a silver platter of fried chicken in one hand, a silver platter of the tavern's famous rice and curry in the other.'
World War II had just ended, and the wide-eyed blonde was just entering her teens and making visits to the Beaufort landmark at Bay and New streets owned and operated by her grandparents, Luther and Mary Bellzora Wilder.'
Sampling dresses from a Bay Street clothier, sitting in the leather armchairs in the Gold Eagle's musty lounge and gorging on extravagant Sunday dinners -- such was the ritual of a visit to the 31-room hotel in The Point.'
"It was just a wonderfully comfortable place to be," McManus said Wednesday, during a visit to a Beaufort from her home in Columbia. "I thought it was very elegant."'
Destroyed in the 1960s, all that remains of the Gold Eagle are parts of the foundation, now incorporated into a private home.'
The musty odor of the leather lounge chairs have long since melded with thick, ripe, marsh breezes, and the veterans clubs don't gather in the basement anymore to escape the scrutiny of law enforcement charged with enforcing strict alcohol laws.'
The celebrities -- bigwigs and men of letters who patronized the hotel, such as actor Clark Gable, English novelist Somerset Maugham and politicians Adlai Stevenson, James F. Byrnes and L. Mendel Rivers -- all have died.'
And the striking architecture of the lodge, most notably a cylindrical tower installed by the lodge's most enterprising owner, Kate Gleason, has been torn down, leaving invisible gashes in the city's infant skyline.'
<b>Intrepid owner</b>'
Gleason was a bulldog of a woman.'
Impetuous and persistent, the Rochester, N.Y., businesswoman was a tour-de-force saleswoman for her family's lucrative gear business, the first female president of a national bank and a residential developer who used unique concrete home-building techniques she developed from training as an engineer at Cornell University.'
She also was a philanthropist, helping to rebuild the French village of Septmont after World War I, a favorite spot to visit for Gleason during European sales calls.'
Four years after an introduction to Beaufort in 1926, Kate Gleason purchased the Gold Eagle and transported elements of Septmont to her beloved coastal, winter haven, including the eccentric tower that split the tavern.'
"She just got enamored of French provincial architecture and kind of imposed it on Beaufort," said Larry Rowland, history professor at the University of South Carolina Beaufort, whose mother worked as a secretary to Gleason.'
Although Rowland never met Gleason, he said the never-married woman had a profound impact on his mother, Libby Sanders, who spoke of her years afterward.'
Upon Gleason's death at 67 in 1933, Sanders was given Dataw Island, the barely developed escape where Gleason would sail her yacht, Eleanor of the Isles, to the entertainment of guests.'
The strong-willed Gleason was the daughter of an industrialist and a women's suffrage supporter, and counted leading suffragist Susan B. Anthony as a family friend and mentor.'
"I think she had a difficult personality ... but she knew how to get things done and get what she wanted," Rowland said. '
"She was in a hurry, she did not hesitate with anything she did."'
Known for her charming wit and conversation, Gleason split time between Europe, Rochester, Beaufort and Sausalito, Calif., in the last years of her life and developed a hobby of residential development.'
In Beaufort, she developed the county's first residential golf resort, said Rowland, building Colony Gardens on Lady's Island across the river from The Point.'
The resort ultimately fizzled, but Beaufort attorney Reeve Sams Sr. remembers rowing a boat to Lady's Island with a group of friends and swimming in the community's saltwater pool.'
"People sort of jokingly said she was trying to make a little Florida out of Beaufort by 'stucco-ing' everything," he said.'
Despite eccentric architectural tastes, Rowland said she commanded respect in each community she patronized.'
"You had to describe her as a progressive feminist," Rowland said. "The economic impact of what she did was very important because Beaufort was very poor in 1926."'
The gilded wings start to fail'
When Gleason purchased the Gold Eagle in 1930, she hired the Wilders to run the tavern that became a popular Sunday dining spot for Columbia's well-to-do and a cool reprieve for residents and guests who visited the bathhouse at the end of a dock on the Beaufort River.'
After Gleason died, the Wilders became owners and passed down operations to their daughter L.E. Samuel, who ran the lodge and tavern until 1961, according to St. Helena Island resident Sally Chaplin, McManus's friend and amateur historian of the hotel.'
By 1961, business was dismal, as guests demanded modern amenities such as air conditioning and telephones that the tavern was without, McManus said.'
Rowland said renovations would have been extremely costly and guests were unwilling to deal with discomfort.'
"It never struck me as suitable architecture for a hot and humid climate," he said of the building, which was demolished a few years after it closed. The lodge drew its name from former owner Henry De Saussure, a U.S. Mint director who oversaw the creation of "gold eagle" dollars.'
Despite a name to the contrary, it enjoyed a sterling reputation, said Bet Martin, another childhood friend of McManus's who likened dinner to eating at the White House.'
"They served ice cream in a silver compote and you drank out of silver goblets," she said. "It was first class."