Sea Island and The Cloister:  A Historical Perspective

Long ago, the elegant retreat that is Sea Island was once a fishing ground for Native Americans, a conquest of European explorers and the site of grazing pastures. From these humble beginnings sprang the roots of one of the world's finest resorts and residential communities. First called Fifth Creek by Native Americans, the resort's name has changed from Isle of Palms to Long Island, Glynn Isle and finally, Sea Island. Many would argue that Sea Island is the gem of Georgia's coastline. Its founder, Howard Coffin, must have thought so for the island's transformation was his vision and life dream.

An engineer by trade, Howard Coffin made his first fortune as the inventor of the affordable automobile. As a founder of the Hudson Motor Company, Coffin's dream to build a motor car that would retail for under $1,000 became reality when he made the "Model  20," a four cylinder roadster selling for $900. In 1911, while seeking a haven for relaxation and a respite from the stressful business world, Coffin and his wife, Matilda, fell in love with the beautiful islands of coastal Georgia and purchased Sapelo Island, just north of Sea Island, for $150,000.

It would be awhile, however, before Coffin had the opportunity to spend much time on Sapelo. In 1915 he was appointed to serve on the Naval Consulting Board and was later named chairman of the Committee on Industrial Preparedness by President Woodrow Wilson. His unfailing commitment to serving his country coupled with his knowledge of industry, transportation and new technology led to President Wilson assigning Coffin to his war cabinet which kept Coffin busy until the end of World War I. During the war, Coffin became involved in aviation and his experience with war planes led to the creation of what would later become United Air Lines.

Once Coffin's focus turned back to Georgia, his personal interest in the area soon turned into a business opportunity with the formation of his new company, Sea Island Investments, Incorporated, which was later renamed the Sea Island Company. In addition to Sapelo, he purchased Sea Island and land on St. Simons Island, including Retreat Plantation, an antebellum Sea Island cotton plantation, eventually amounting to thousands of acres of holdings.

Coffin originally planned to construct a resort hotel at the Retreat Plantation site; today it is the location of the Sea Island Golf Club. But it was his young apprentice, friend and cousin Alfred William (Bill) Jones, who persuaded Coffin to build instead on newly acquired Sea Island. Jones was supervising Coffin's interests on Sapelo Island when the older gentleman called on him to manage the Sea Island Company. Young Jones was faced with initiating what many called a bold concept. At that time, there were no resorts between Pinehurst to the north and Daytona to the south and many were skeptical that people of means would be attracted to a resort hotel on a remote Georgia island.

And the obstacles didn't end there. Both physical and operational problems had to be solved. There were no public utilities on the island; an electric plant had to be built; a telephone system had to be installed; the causeway to Sea Island required work. In addition, the remoteness of the island caused transportation problems for potential guests. In order to overcome them, Jones formed a transport company to shuttle guests to and from Savannah and Jacksonville, the nearest ­transportation hubs. Since there was no rail service to Brunswick at the time, Jones approached Seaboard Air Line Railroad and, after extended negotiations, a stop was added at Thalman, 12 miles north of Brunswick, to provide service for Sea Island guests.

Famous for his work in Palm Beach, architect Addison Mizner was commissioned to design The Cloister, and the result reflects the acclaimed architect's penchant for Mediterranean design. Set back from the ocean, the sprawling stucco building with terra cotta tile roof feels at once both comfortable and grand. The signature Spanish lounge features high‑beamed ceilings and clerestory windows, and sunlit patios and cloistered terraces add to the casually elegant ambiance. The design of the hotel proved to be a complement to the property's beautiful natural setting which was carefully enhanced at the hands of talented landscape architects. Among the clusters of stately palms and graceful live oaks, stretches of green grass and expansive carpets of colorful flower beds were added.

At the same time the hotel was being constructed, several other Sea Island Company projects were also in production and shaping the area and Sea Island into a premier resort and residential destination. George Bull, Coffin's own architect, was building the first seven cottages on the island and the residential community started to emerge. Also during this time, one of the era's most highly regarded golf course architects, Walter Travis, was overseeing the final touches on the Plantation Course which was situated at the former Retreat Plantation on St. Simons Island. The course was playable in the summer of 1927 and the area soon became known as a world‑class golf destination. An early preservationist, Coffin was an advocate of adaptive reuse and the old corn barn of Retreat Plantation was converted into the golf clubhouse.

Coffin's dream was realized when The Cloister opened its doors on October 12, 1928. The first decade and We impact of the Great Depression proved trying for the young Sea Island Company. Coffin died in 193 7 and the future of Sea Island became the responsibility of Alfred W . Jones. Through his persistence, dedication and business acumen, The Cloister continued to offer its guests charm and seclusion, a wealth of sports and impeccable service. Its reputation as a sophisticated resort of international appeal grew rapidly, drawing authors, politicians, royalty, dignitaries and celebrities such as Eugene O'Neill, Somerset Maugham, Lillian Gish, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Hopalong Cassidy and Jimmy Stewart. Having famous visitors plant oak trees on The Cloister lawn became an early tradition and even today, guests can see the "Eisenhower Oak," "Coolidge Oak" and "Queen Juliana Oak" among others.

Since its inception, the resort has always been owned and managed by the Sea Island Company. Alfred W. Jones III has assumed the duties of CEO and chairman of the board from his father, Alfred W. Jones, Jr., maintaining a family tradition of 70 years. The dedicated Jones family's hands‑on management style has been integral to Sea Island's success as an award‑winning destination resort. And the property is a family resort in more ways than one. Over the years, Sea Island and The Cloister have been welcoming generation after generation of some of the same families, and many families have been employed at the property for decades, including some fourth generation employees.

Since its opening in 1928, The Cloister has grown to 286 guest rooms, offering countless amenities and recreational pursuits. It remains an international cultural and social icon and also a vital link in the community's thriving economy as the largest private source of employment in Glynn County.

The Jones family continues in Coffin's footsteps to build upon the resort he founded and insure its preeminence into the future. Today, exciting enhancements and additions are underway at Sea Island as golf is refocused from the fine offering it has traditionally been to a world‑class facility on par with the country's most memorable golf experiences. Opening in 2001 will be the much anticipated Lodge at Sea Island Golf Club with 40 sumptuous guest rooms and suites situated over a new clubhouse with a trophy room highlighting Sea Island's extraordinary place in the history of golf. Also opening in 2001, The Cloister's Ocean Houses will feature 5 6 luxuriously spacious oceanfront guestrooms and suites, and the Sea Island Beach Club is on deck to be renovated and expanded in carefully planned phases to make certain that guests will not be inconvenienced. The expansion will include more pools and dining venues, children's areas, private party spaces and accommodations.

Sea Island, including The Cloister, is one of We finest resort and residential communities in the world and has been the recipient of countless awards, accolades and distinctions from such respected publications as Conde Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Golf Digest, Golf Magazine, Town & Country and others. It's little wonder the property has drawn discriminating travelers for more than 70 years. And its history and commitment to excellence guarantee the Golden Isle will continue to be a luxurious haven for many years to come.