A Historical Southern Landmark
Commissioned in 1899 by John Aaron Wilkinson, president of the J.L. Roper Lumber Company and vice president of Norfolk and Southern Railroad, the waterfront mansion took more than five years to build. A private residence planned to host and entertain out-of-towners, it was constructed by talented tradesmen from throughout the state featuring detailed finishes and ornate ceilings with carved plasterwork and medallions sculpted by the same Italian craftsman who contributed to the intricate designs at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville.
Upon its completion in 1904, the mansion had carved oak mantels with decorative tile inlays around each of the home’s eleven fireplaces, Honduran mahogany wainscoting in the dining room, sparkling leaded glass windows, two bathrooms with oversized soaking tubs and glittering crystal chandeliers in nearly every room of the house. Mr. Wilkinson and his young New York bride lived in the grand estate for many years hosting decadent parties and rich events for family and friends and businessmen who were interested in the coastal area, the town, and the railroad.
Following Mr. Wilkinson’s death, the manor was sold to J.W. Hines of Rocky Mount in 1933 and then to Belhaven resident and hospitality industry veteran Axson Smith in 1947. Mr. Smith and his family appointed the vast property as the River Forest Manor & Marina and turned it into an inn with a full-service restaurant and bustling marina.
Under Mr. Smith’s ownership, the River Forest Manor & Marina flourished gaining the attention of national newspapers and magazines including the National Geographic. The Manor also attracted celebrities, politicos and wealthy stakeholders including American actor and dancer James Cagney, cartoonist Robert Ripley, businessman Harvey Firestone and British model Twiggy. The Marina became the must-visit stop along the Intracostal Waterway and a meeting place for boaters from all over the East Coast. The Smith Family owned the River Forest Manor & Marina until it closed in disrepair in 2011.
History in the making
Purchased by a group of Belhaven residents and local investors in October 2014, the River Forest Manor & Marina has been transformed to meet Mr. Wilkinson’s original vision of a grand place to entertain the most lavish parties and events.