EDITORIAL: Parking subterfuge and dangerous precedents … it must be season again
October 19, 2023
By Marcy Shortuse
By now you’ve probably already read the story on the front page about how the Lee County Hearing Examiner announced her ruling in favor of the property owner at 161 Gilchrist Avenue. Discussion about this particular Certificate of Appropriateness at the Boca Grande Historic Preservation Board meeting last spring was supposed to center around the proposed home with a plan for both 161 and 181 Gilchrist Avenue, which are the two lots the property owner purchased together. They apparently could not be combined intAo one strap number at the time, due to one being contributing (the one in front, where the old cottage used to be) and one that was noncontributing (the parcel with the home, Gulf side).
There might be a lot of people angry about that decision, and many of those people will give the argument that the proposed home is “too big.” Those people will also more than likely bring up the Whispering Bench, a round seating area that was located on the Gulf front parcel, a seating area with particular acoustics that allowed a person to just barely whisper at one end of the circle but amplified that whisper so everyone in the circle could hear it clearly. It was a parlor trick bench that Louise du Pont Crowninshield had built back in the 1920s, because she thought other benches of the sort that she had seen were pretty cool. She wanted one, she had one built by a rather famous architect, and her guests enjoyed it until she was gone. After that the property had different owners prior to the current property owner, ending with the Sligar family who built the existing house there.
None of those property owners felt the need to call attention to any special qualities or historic significance of the Whispering Bench.
At the meeting in the spring when the proposal for a new home at 161/181 Gilchrist Avenue was presented, there were a lot of people there. Most of them came to hear what was going to happen to the Whispering Bench. It wasn’t on the agenda, and it wasn’t up for discussion, because in the eyes of Lee County or anyone looking at the existing structures and features on the two lots, there was only one that was listed as a historically contributing structure – a small cottage that stood next to the sidewalk by Gilchrist Avenue.
So why were so many people there on behalf of the Whispering Bench? As anyone knows who has lived in a small town, word gets around quickly. The word that had been going around was that the Whispering Bench was going to be demolished if the new house plan passed, and everyone wanted to have their say about it. Who knows who started the chatter, and who knows why it was suddenly determined that the Whispering Bench was something that needed to be saved at that very moment in time? But the people were there, the faces were frowning, and the folks who came to support the C of A for the new house had a big job in front of them.
As you might have guessed by this point in the story, the Whispering Bench had already eclipsed discussion surrounding the plan for the proposed home, even before the meeting was called to order. Decisions had already been made in people’s minds that they had to do whatever it took to make sure that Whispering Bench wasn’t destroyed. And if that meant denying a proposal to make it happen … oh well.