The Isle Dauphine Club is nestled among the sand dunes of Dauphin Island, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. Measuring fourteen miles in length and varying from one-quarter mile to a mile in width, the island lies just thirty miles south of Mobile’s city center. During much of its history, Dauphin Island was held by the federal government as a military reservation, with the early nineteenth-century Fort Gaines guarding the mouth of Mobile Bay at its eastern end. When a bridge to the mainland was completed in 1955, finally allowing easy vehicular access, development of summer residences began immediately.
The Isle Dauphine Club, built in 1956–1957 and owned by the Dauphin Island Property Owners Association, was part of an effort by local boosters to make the island a “Modern Vacation Mecca,” similar to resorts then going up in Florida and California. The club’s modernist style embodied the optimism and prosperity of post–World War II America. Today the building remains one of Alabama’s prime examples of 1950s modernism. Mobile architects Arch Reese Winter and T. Howard Ellis designed the club, which was erected by the Manhattan Construction Company of Houston, Texas, at a cost of $425,000. Upon completion, the Isle Dauphine Club and its private beach were valued at approximately one million dollars.
The club is positioned on pilings sunk deeply into the sand dunes. In design concept, it is a series of intersecting circles and arcs—rounded, flat-roofed modules varying in size and scale. Alabama architectural historian Alice Meriwether Bowsher notes that the building’s free-flowing geometry creates a dynamic atmosphere of recreation and fun that is perfectly suited for the clubhouse’s purpose. Sleek expanses of glass look out over the Gulf, while banks of glazed doors open onto surrounding terraces and walkways. A round stair tower constructed of oblong concrete blocks links dining room, ballroom, and cocktail lounge (originally decorated as a Polynesian tiki bar). There is a circular pool with its own bathhouse, and an adjoining terrace that affords dramatic views of the white sandy beaches that stretch for miles to the west. Antique brick is used throughout the building, both structurally and for interior features including the bar of the Brigantine Room, which opens onto both the beach and the swimming pool. The corridor leading from the club’s foyer to the main dining room features an interior wall of antique brick and an outer wall of glass shielded from the sun by louvered persiennes manufactured in Cuba. In its iconoclastic departure from established forms, along with its casual reference to the past (antique brick) and the supposedly exotic (the tiki bar), the Isle Dauphine Club captures the architectural paradoxes of the decade in which it was built.
To attract vacationers who did not own island property, recreational facilities for the general public were developed at the same time as the privately owned Isle Dauphine Club. The Sand Dunes Casino offered gambling in addition to restaurants, an air-conditioned lounge, and a bathhouse. It overlooked a mile-long, public beach with a three-hundred-foot long fishing pier. This decade also saw a bird sanctuary established on Dauphin Island, and Fort Gaines preserved as a historic site.
The tourism boom so confidently anticipated never really materialized. By the early 1970s the casino building was gone, the fishing pier needed replacement, and the public beach was littered and neglected. The Isle Dauphine Club also fell on hard times, but it hung on until September 2012, when the Dauphin Island Property Owners Association closed the club and its adjoining golf course due to a lack of funding.
In recent years, a new restaurant has opened up in the Club. For a modest fee, people can come to the club, relax at the pool, or spend a day at the beach. Plans for reopening the golf course are also being explored. But despite these efforts, the Isle Dauphine Club remains threatened. Having survived over a half century of hurricanes—including the powerful surge from Hurricane Katrina in 2005—this colorful bit of 1950s Americana could yet be lost to development.
Arch Reese Winter Papers, Draughon Library, Auburn University, Auburn, AL.
Bowsher, Alice Meriwether, and M. Lewis Kennedy, Jr., photographer. Alabama Architecture: Looking at Building and Place.Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001.
“Dauphin Island.” Vertical Files: SG6890, Folders 34-35. Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, AL.
“Dauphin Island.” Vertical Files: SG6891, Folders 1-2. Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, AL.