A grand time to be had by all; Historic Belhaven manor and marina to open under new ownership

Published 4:19 pm Tuesday, May 23, 2023

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Music, laughter, dancing with a side of food and drinks will make for a grand time at a historic manor and marina in Belhaven. 

The Grand Manor, formerly known as the River Forest Manor and Marina, was purchased earlier this month by Larry and Gina Holbrook of Lake Mary, Florida, a suburb of Orlando.

When asked how she and Larry found Belhaven, Holbrook said, “Belhaven actually found us.” They planned to fly into Raleigh to look at a different marina in the area; however, their broker called shortly after they landed to say they’d look at one in Belhaven instead.

“We were really blessed to find out the beautiful manor came with the marina,” Holbrook said. 

The Holbrooks owned and operated an HOA management company for 20 years called Premier Association Management of Central Florida Inc. Larry is retired from the military having served 32 years in the U.S. Air Force. While most people pick up a hobby when they retire, or even move to Florida, the Holbrooks decided they “wanted to do something fun for retirement.” 

As they transform the Grand Manor into their own, they recognize how “iconic” the estate is to Belhaven and how important it is to locals who grew up going to events there, Holbrook said. 

“I think it’s important for us to keep the manor as close to the original as the Wilkes built it. That’s what the people in the community remember,” Holbrook said. She continued to say all historic details and fixtures that can be kept, will be refurbished. 

“Our goal is to keep the house as true to Belhaven as we can,” Holbrook said. 

Holbrook said many locals have shared their stories with her of attending Mother’s Day brunches with their grandmothers at the estate, or smorgasbords or eating the very popular oyster fritters. 

The Holbrooks’ plan is to take what Belhaven residents love about the manor and “elevate it” to provide the best service to customers. The Grand Manor will be a marina and event space with rooms available for wedding parties to book. The Holbrooks are putting their own twist on it by adding two bars, a restaurant, a spa and salt room to the property.  

Their plan for the estate is divided into three phases – Phase one will be improvements to the marina which are anticipated to be finished in the next 30 days. Phase two will be a bar inside the manor which will take about six months to complete, but phase three – adding a restaurant – is expected to take a year. 

After the three phases are finished, the Holbrooks plan to add a spa and salt room to the property. They also plan to turn the Bungalow suites into an outdoor bar and patio area. 

For the restaurant and outdoor bar, they are looking to have a simple menu which offers farm to fresh meals. Holbrook said the oyster fritters will be making a comeback.

It is important to note that other than wedding parties who want to stay there, the Grand Manor will no longer operate as an inn. “We’re no longer doing that, because we want to do just the events here and want to focus on doing the restaurant and with people staying in the house, we don’t want to disturb them,” Holbrook said. 

Now that she has spent time in Belhaven, Holbrook has observed the “laid back” atmosphere of the town and that it is, in her opinion, a family-minded community. “Everyone knows everyone here,” she said.  

“The first thing several people said was, ‘Gina, just wave to everyone. Eventually, you will get to know everyone. Everyone here waves,’” she shared. “It’s a very friendly town.” 

Gina, Larry and their teenage son are in the process of moving from Florida to Belhaven to run The Grand Manor, full-time. They have purchased a home, separate from the manor. “We’re invested in the community and we’re here to stay,” Holbrook said. 

It is her hope that future visitors will experience the “history, the beauty of the manor, a sense of relief and relaxation and calmness of the friendly community.” 

“It’s important to us that every new visitor to the community feel like they want to come back and they feel part of the town. That’s certainly what’s kept Larry and me here. That’s the heart of the community and what we really love about it,” Holbrook said. 

The Grand Manor was commissioned in 1899 by John Aaron Wilkinson who was president of the J.L. Roper Lumber Company and vice president of Norfolk Southern Railroad. It was a private residence whose intricate details from tradesmen across the state made it one of a kind. It features ornate plasterwork and medallions on the ceilings that were sculpted by Italian craftsmen whose work can also be viewed at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville. Construction of the more than 13,000 sq. ft. home was completed in five years. “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,” according to the River Forest Manor and Marina website. 

The home had two owners after Wilkinson’s death, one of which was Axson Smith who is credited with transforming the manor into an inn, restaurant and marina. The Smith family owned the estate from 1947 to 2011 when it closed in disrepair. Three years later, a group of investors purchased it and turned it into an event space once again hosting parties and events, per the River Forest Manor website.