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Editorial: What is historic in Boca Grande?

January 12, 2024
By Garland Pollard

The Boca Grande Historic Preservation Board had only one item on the agenda Jan. 10, namely the designation of 446 4th Street East as officially “historic.” The building, which houses Bowen Construction and Newlin’s Mainely Gourmet, is located in the county’s Boca Grande Historic District. But it had not until this week been officially listed as “contributing” to the district.

It is refreshing to see a new structural addition to the story of Gasparilla Island, Cape Haze and Florida. So much of the visual proof of the Florida story has been lost, and to reclaim even a modest frame building, what architectural historians call a “vernacular” structure, is refreshing. Why is this important? 

The key notion about the historic district is that it is a set piece; it is of a whole, a total ensemble. It only works as one. Certainly there are buildings in the district, which if everything else were gone, would be strong enough visually to survive no matter what sort of structure was put across the street. The Gasparilla Inn and the railroad depot would be examples. But the smaller buildings help to make the place. Indeed the smaller buildings help to make the hotel much more grand. 

These small buildings, of which our Boca Beacon structure at 431 Park Ave. is one of many, pay dividends far beyond simple frame and concrete exteriors. They attract us. It is stunning that in this day and age, a humble small town, with functioning buildings, is seen as an attraction. But here we are. Tourists come from around the world and sometimes do not even see the beach. They marvel at The Gasparilla Inn, but they stay, and decide to move here, because the hotel is set in this wider, and intact historic village. It is not cute, but it is real, handsome, and beautiful. And it is officially historic, using the same criteria as Mystic, Key West and Old Salem.

Here is what America used to look like, when there were independent stores, small businesses and people who walked to work. Not only do people value that, Americans and all people need to see it. It gives us hope that all of the world is not about money or glitz or the latest fad.

What is “historic” can be debated, but there is also the legal “historic.”

The National Park Service runs the designations for historic buildings in the U.S., and leaves the daily administration and nomination of buildings and districts to each state. This process dates from 1966, with the Oct. 15 creation of the National Register of Historic Places. The act created corresponding State Historic Preservation Offices. Lee County is only the administrator of a locally designated historic district. The protection of the district is a county concern; the federal interest is mostly honorary and about documentation, though it does have many useful legal uses and tools when federal money is involved.

Residents of Boca Grande played a key part in the creation of the idea of historic preservation in the U.S. One of the pioneers in historic preservation was Henry F. duPont, who had a house on Banyan Street. His work in developing Delaware’s Winterthur, and his interest in scholarship, helped to excite Americans on the importance of historic buildings. DuPont’s architect assistant, Thomas T. Waterman, was the first director of the Historic American Buildings Survey, the predecessor to the National Register. Also key in the passage of the act was Sen. Mike Mansfield, who regularly came to Boca Grande with Charles Englehard and led the Senate from 1961 to 1977. Mansfield was close to Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, a passionate advocate for American history.

Also important in the movement was Jane Englehard, who worked closely with Jackie Kennedy and later administrations to restore the White House. There are letters and correspondence from Boca Grande that talk about that committee, which served as a fulcrum to put our nation’s shared history at the center of politics and social life. (A note that Jackie loved Boca Grande so much that they considered buying a house here.)

So Boca Grande is not only historic, but its historic importance is gained because of its role in historic preservation.

That story of preservation and the island is too long for this space and column. But what is important to note is that the creation of the National Register came two years after the demolition of Penn Station. The outrage over the loss of that grand building helped to spur an equal and grander ambition to preserve the buildings and landscapes, great, and small, that help make us what we are. Even Jackie, with a nation’s sadness for her over the assassination, could not save it.

So here we are in 2024, with our new historic frame shop. That small frame shop is now a part of something that Lee County is mandated to protect. That is no small thing, as we have seen with other recent issues over historic preservation on the island.

So how we are to define what is historic? Many residents of this island might feel historic, of course. But there is a legal status to historic, in cars, buildings and landscapes.

In Florida, a car is historic, and can be considered for historic status and plates, if it was built before 1945, or 30 years old. Ergo, a 1994 car, if intact, can be historic.

In the notes on the 4th Street designation, Lee County reminded that the Bowen Construction building was almost a century old, which was well beyond the 50-year mark of “historic.” While the building was not historic in the sense that something famous happened there, that is no matter. Instead, it plays a part in making the district. And in a fully restored condition, it gives us all a sense of the place in which we live.

A key idea of historic preservation is subsidiarity, namely that “social and political issues should be dealt with at the most immediate or local level that is consistent with their resolution.”

That means, in short, for good or bad, that Boca Grande and Lee County have to continue to define and defend what is historic. That is not an easy task, especially as real estate valuations on the island are now in the tens of millions.

And that means, for good or bad, that it is up to all of us what the future of Boca Grande will look like.

While there has been sadness at the scale of new construction, the elevation of one small building should give the island some hope that all is not lost. 

Garland Pollard is editor of the Boca Beacon. We want to hear from you. Email with letters and essays.