In 1973 George W. Headley added a shell grotto to the grounds of the Headley-Whitney Museum. The building was transformed from a three-car garage into a shell grotto with thousands of shells attached to the building's interior. Headley worked with assistants for nearly a year gluing commercially available shells and polished stones to the walls, doors, and window moldings. In addition, Headley's collection of shell and fossil specimens, acquired and purchased during his travels are displayed throughout the room.
From the coral slabs of the floor mined in the Florida Keys to the four mosaics on the ceiling created by artist and friend Carl Malouf, Headley created an exotic sea environment full of intriguing furnishings and fanciful objects decorated and constructed with shells.
The inspiration for Headley's shell grotto came from architectural precedents of seventeenth and eighteenth-century France, England and Italy. The airy buildings and artificial caves decorated with shells, generally built in the gardens on the estate of the aristocracy, appealed to his aesthetic and taste in things European. Like the aristocracy, Headley intended the grotto to be a distraction from the formalities of life in the main residence. For him it was both a place for quiet contemplation and for entertaining.
One example of a grotto that Headley was probably familiar with was the Grotto of Thetis built in the park at Versailles by Louis XIV in 1679. It is possible that Headley utilized a number of elements evident in the grand French grotto for his structure. For example, the classical architectural features of a triple doorway and columns with shell capitals of the Grotto of Thetis are a part of Headley's grotto. Similarly, furnishings of shell encrusted chandeliers and fantastic shell masks, illustrated in the drawings of Thetis, are also part of Headley's twentieth century American shell grotto.
The book illustrating the Grotto of Thetis and many other grottoes from Europe and the United States is available for study in his library.