The home of a Roaring Twenties tycoon embodies the welcoming spirit of past owners.
By Rebecca Burns
In 1955, a couple from Decatur, Georgia, visited Jekyll Island and fell under the spell of an abandoned historic cottage called Villa Ospo. Entranced by its decaying grandeur and striking architecture, Dewey and Grace Scarboro signed a long-term lease with the state. When they returned to their newly acquired property, they were greeted by a huge rattlesnake in a grate at the entryway. The flooded basement was home to a knot of water moccasins and cottonmouths.
Once they’d banished the serpents, the Scarboros began restoration of the weather-rotted manse, the 1920s vacation home of Walter Jennings, a former Standard Oil director. Dewey, a real estate developer and former Georgia Tech football star, half-joked in 1958 to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter that he’d erected entire subdivisions faster than it took to restore the moldering stucco and crumbling woodwork of Villa Ospo.
Dewey scoured New Orleans for lavish antiques, and Grace, an artist, obsessed over the Spanish Eclectic exterior. They transformed the property, called Ospo after the original Native American name of the island, into a lavish showplace and for several years operated it as an attraction. Guests could sleep in a bed rumored to have once belonged to Napoleon’s second wife.
The luxe furnishings wowed 1950s visitors but were not in keeping with the original decor of the home, which Jennings built as a winter getaway for his family in 1927. Like many of the Northern industrial tycoons who built retreats on Jekyll, the Jennings embraced a relaxed style. “They would have been comfortable here, but [the house] was not furnished in the same style as their mansions up North,” says Andrea Marroquin, curator of the Jekyll Island Museum.
But like the Scarboros, the Jennings filled the home with people. Walter and his wife, Jean, were deeply involved with the Jekyll Island Club and made it a mission to greet newcomers and visitors to the island, turning Villa Ospo into an informal welcome center.
The club members considered themselves a close-knit family, and in the case of Jennings, that was quite literal; his three sisters were also members. In 1927, just a year after joining the club, Jennings assumed the club presidency following the death of his brother-in-law, Dr. Walter James.
Designed by John Russell Pope, architect of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., Villa Ospo is one of the most modern structures in the island’s National Historic Landmark District, reflecting the Roaring Twenties. The building contains ten bedrooms, five bathrooms, and a magnificent great room. As with a good vacation home, there’s a seamless connection between indoors and out. The grounds include a cypress-lined alley and a secret garden with a lily pond. A notable feature: historic Jekyll’s only garage. Jennings and fellow auto enthusiasts would bring their cars on their yachts, or send them by train to be brought out by barge. Like the furnishings, the island cars were comfortable. “They’d bring their beaters so they could drive them around on the beach,” says Marroquin.
Jennings’s enthusiasm for driving led to his death just six years after the villa was completed. A collision with another motorist left him battered and weak and contributed to a fatal heart attack.
Over the years, visitors to Villa Ospo have claimed encounters with Walter and Jean Jennings: a creak here, a rumble there, the scents of cigar and perfume. For curator Marroquin, it’s a different kind of spirit that echoes in the mansion, part of which now operates as a special events facility and is outfitted with period fixtures in keeping with the original decor. “There is a real openness and welcoming spirit of the house,” she says.
Villa Ospo houses the offices of the Jekyll Island Foundation. The home and grounds can be rented for special events through the Jekyll Island Museum (call 912-635-4168 or visit jekyllisland.com/villaospo).
“It’s a photographer’s dream,” says Brooke Roberts, who is based in Brunswick, Georgia, and has shot several weddings at the site. “It encapsulates the feeling of Jekyll and the Golden Isles, the way the outdoors is incorporated into the home.”
While the interior is not part of regular tours, you can walk the grounds, including the signature cypress-lined alley. 381 Riverview Drive, 912-635-4036