New NHR nomination shows few changes, still raises questions

January 23, 2021
By Marcy Shortuse

BY MARCY SHORTUSE – The newest rendition of the nomination of the Boca Grande residential historic district has come into circulation, and it appears the changes are minor when comparing it with the old one.

The biggest bone of contention with the last nomination was the inclusion of Gilchrist Avenue. Not only did the Boca Grande Historic Preservation Board reject the nomination in a 4-2 vote, Lee County Commissioners voted to reject the proposal when it came back before them if Gilchrist Avenue was still included.

The new nomination does have added history regarding the Crowninshield and duPont families who lived in homes in the district, as well as a few other well-known families. However, language regarding Olmsted Brothers involvement is still in the new proposal, even though it has come to light their actual involvement was more about rerouting the railroad line from along the beach to a location closer to the center of the island. They were requested to help plan the downtown area, but after more than a year of verbal skirmishing by letter and telegraph, almost none of their plans were ever executed.

The same could be said of Carl Rust Parker, who was working independently when he was involved with Boca Grande town planners. He did have input as to some plantings around town and on the Gilchrist median strip, but they included nominal offerings of palm trees and bushes. The palm trees that are currently planted on Gilchrist Avenue are nothing like the ones Parker had envisioned.

In Section 8, Page 4 of the nomination it states, “Parker’s principles were based on the Olmsted philosophy, that each designated space should have a single coherent sense of character. This was perhaps best demonstrated in the layout and landscaping of Gilchrist Avenue, a grand 120-foot wide boulevard that extended four blocks through the center and where the most desirable and costly lots of the new town were located.”

This statement is misleading in the fact it is gross speculation to assume what Parker’s principles were truly based upon, particularly as he did not work for the Olmsted firm at that time. It also starts to mention Gilchrist Avenue again, which is not supposed to play a part in this nomination.

In fact, Gilchrist Avenue descriptions still play a prominent part in the dialog of the nomination, whether it is listed as contributing or not. This is also misleading to the layman reader, as it is not supposed to have any bearing on the nomination at all, but its historical significance is touted highly in several narratives. For instance, in Section 7 Page 8 of the nomination titled, “Integrity,” it states, “The district still functions as a primary residential core of the community of Boca Grande … the layout of the community has been largely retained, especially along Gilchrist Avenue. The character defining medians of Gilchrist Avenue, which comprise the largest open public space in Boca Grande have been retained …”

Not only does this focus on Gilchrist, a topic that is supposed to have been completely taken out of the nomination, it is also not necessarily true. The Wheeler Road ballfield and the accompanying tennis courts across the street from the ballfield would also be considered open public space, and there is actually room there to hold sports events or other events. It is currently supposed to be used as a dog park one day, but that remains to be seen.

If it had stated Gilchrist median was the largest open space in the historic district, that would have been true, but there is no record of anyone ever using the median strip for anything other than parking.

Much of the information that was added to the new nomination seems to have been taken from a report given by Janet Murphy, an architectural historian from Florida’s east coast: Her report was handed out to many after the last local meeting.

The information regarding the Olmsted Brothers is confusing, there is little new mention of some of the more prominent and unique architectural features of some of the homes and discussion regarding a 1925 plat that contained some valuable information was not included in the new nomination either.

Whether the new nomination is passed by the BGHPB and Lee County Commissioners is basically up to one point: Who has supported the nomination from the start, and who has not. Because of COVID-19, there are many island property owners who haven’t spent much time on the island, and out of the people who are here, many don’t feel comfortable attending the meetings that have been held up to this point regarding the nomination. That has left neighbor-to-neighbor contact as the primary source of information, and much of that has been convoluted to the point of being erroneous.

Commissioners unanimously voted on December 1 that the nomination should be remanded back to the Boca Grande Historic Preservation Board’s custody, in order to remove the Gilchrist Avenue element from the equation. They asked that another public hearing be held in front of the local board prior to it being heard in commission chambers again. Commissioners also said if the process could not be completed within 60 days, like the BGHPB the action they would take would be denial.

This matter is scheduled for public hearing before the Boca Grande Historic Preservation Board during its March 10, meeting to allow adequate time to provide notice to affected property owners.

If you are interested in receiving a pdf copy of the newest National Historic Register nomination, contact mshortuse@bocabeacon.com.