The Promenade: A piece of island history with a ‘Grande’ past

June 12, 2020
By Olivia Cameron

BY MARCY SHORTUSE- Without our history, it’s difficult to remember where we came from. These words of wisdom have been repeated quite often as of late, but they take on a new meaning when pertaining to the island. Gasparilla Island has changed so much, it’s difficult to picture what it used to be like. 
A particularly good example of that is The Promenade, a narrow strip of land that runs along the sea wall from 1st Street to 4th Street. This piece of earth has seen the feet of Rockefellers, du Ponts, Morgans, and many other people who made this country what it is today. 
In the golden days of our country it was a social event to promenade. You had dinner, maybe a few drinks, then you headed down to the beach in your floor-length dress with your frilly parasol and … well, you promenaded.
Up until recent years it wasn’t unusual at all for people at the beach accesses in town to see someone walking out from behind one of the property walls. If you have always wondered where those people were coming from, the answer it simple. They were promenading.
If you didn’t realize you were allowed to do that, you are. This land has been publicly owned since a deal was struck for one dollar in April of 1927. Unfortunately, a few homes have not kept their end of the bargain and parts of The Promenade have been almost entirely blocked from foot traffic. 
According to records obtained from the Boca Grande Historical Society, the original 1897 Gilchrist plat shows the six-block area of what is today first to third Streets, and Gilchrist Avenue to Palm Avenue.
Years later another land ownership document, this one from April 12, 1927, shows an indenture between the Boca Grande Corporation and Boca Grande Associates, Inc. This document reads:
“The party of the first part (Boca Grande Corporation), for and in consideration of certain good and valuable considerations and the sum of one dollar, lawful money of the United States of America, to it paid by the party of the second part (Boca Grande Associates, Inc.) … the receipt whereof is hereby acknowledged, has granted, bargained, sold and conveyed, and by these presents does grant, bargain, sell and convey unto the said party of the second part and to its successors and assigns forever, all the right, title and interest of the party of the first part in and to that certain piece or parcel of land situate, laying and being at Boca Grande, in the county of Lee … bounded northerly by a line in continuation westerly to the Gulf of Mexico of the southerly line of Fourth Street … easterly by line coinciding with the westerly line of Blocks 17, 1 and 2 and the westerly ends of Third, Second and First Streets, as shown on said map; on the south by the southerly line of First Street …”
Paragraph two: Subject also as to the walk which now extends north and south along the easterly side of said premises in front of blocks 17, 1 and 2 and said Third, Second and First Streets … to the use thereof by owners of lots in Boca Grande, members of their families and guests …”
What that means is that the people of the community of Boca Grande have the right to, as the document states, “bath and promenade,” and that “no fences or other structures of any kind shall be built …” on the walkway along the beach. It doesn’t specifically name unruly bushes, though.
According to Chief Deputy James A. Sherron, a chief deputy at the property appraiser’s office, and Lee County Property Appraiser Ken Wilkinson, the property does not belong to the homeowners along those lots … and yet, in a way, it does.
Sherron said when they list subdivision property on the tax roll, it gets listed as ‘common element’ for classification purposes; the listed ownership also reflects interpretation of the subdivision property.
“I have nothing to indicate that the land in question should be in the name of individual lot owners,” Sherron said earlier this year. “I am saying, currently, this office looks at that land as being a common element and part of the subdivision. That said, and as you are aware, the question of ownership and title is best left up to the court when there is a question.”
So while the answers afforded by the property appraiser’s office make all of our questions as clear as mud in some ways, we can now look at the property appraiser’s maps at and clearly see where the original “subdivision property” begins and private property ends …that is, of course, until the subject of litigation is broached.
Earlier this year, right about when we were making phone calls to the county about this very issue, we noticed that the property lines had been slightly changed on the Lee County Property Appraiser said. There is a clear path that is marked along the seawall, a small strip of property that is not owned by the property owners along the beach. If you would like to see the newly-redone property lines for yourself on the website, type in an address on the western side of Gilchrist Avenue, click on “aerial viewer” mode, and you will be able to scroll up and down.
There is more to the story of how The Promenade was created, though, and it seems the more people are acquainted with history, the more they treasure it. We thought you might be interested in the following tidbits of information that have been gathered through various sources and documented by former island resident Peter Ffolliott, who lived at the end of 3rd Street. His house is gone now, and a new one has been put in its place. 
In 1927 the owners of the beachfront property from 1st Street to around 10th Street constructed a seawall made of a line of pilings, backed up by three layers of lapped cypress sheathing. By the late 1940s this wooden structure began to deteriorate, and Mr. S. Findley Griffin, an island contractor, was hired to build a concrete sea wall in front of the homes from 7th Street to 13th Street. Other parties were interested in having their sea wall repaired at the same time, including Rodney Sharp, Roger Amory, Van Beuren, J.C. Clark, the Bradleys and the Lindseys. 
On November 2, 1948 a man named Harold Tattersall, an engineer who was hired by Howard Haskell, sent a memorandum to the beachfront owners who were neighbors of Mr. Haskell’s. They included F.B. Crowninshield, H.F. du Pont, H.G. Haskell, S.J. Smith, K.N. Gilpin, M. Gavin, Mrs. Russell Alger, H.L. McVicker, Thomas Metcalf, B.W. Crowninshield, a Mr. Collier and Rodney Sharp.
The engineer pointed out that a concrete sea wall could be built much more economically than after a collapse of the one they already had, because the current sheathing could be used as a back form for the new wall. This, the engineer pointed out, would save a lot of excavation and shoring.
Griffin estimated that the cost of the wall would be about $45 per “running” foot (the same as a standard foot), including the sidewalk and parapet.
On Feb. 25, 1949 the property owners between 1st Street and 4th Street held a meeting to discuss the question of building a concrete sea wall in front of the present wood bulkhead. The estimated cost of that was $50 per foot.
There were four choices presented after extensive discussion: 1) A new concrete sea wall and sidewalk, at a cost of $51.75; 2) a new concrete sea wall and sidewalk with the addition of a cut-off wall (this meant placing a wooden sheet piling under the toe of the concrete to prevent the undermining of the sea wall in case of very severe erosion of the beach at a cost of $74.35); 3) to repair the current wooden bulkhead, at a cost of $33; 4) to repair the current wooden bulkhead with treated pile, at a cost of $35. After discussing the matter, a vote was taken of those who wished to proceed with the work after getting competitive bids. Everyone presented voted “yes” with the exception of a man named McVicker, who wanted time to think it over.
Eventually the consensus was to go with option 4, for those who are interested. The job began on June 29, 1949 and was done by the end of the year.
Less than two years later the community was in a quandary again, as they needed to find a way to construct jetties between 1st Street and 4th Street to slow down erosion and damage to the newly-repaired sea wall. After much deliberation the five jetties, each 150-feet long, were placed approximately 245 feet apart between 1st and 4th Streets. They cost $4,504 each. 
Time passed, and by 1961 the old neighborhood began to change, as did the old wooden sea wall. In 1967 the property owners held a meeting to discuss building a concrete sea wall. It was determined that a concrete sea wall was the only way to go this time, and they called for a contract with a company out of St. Petersburg to be drawn up. The structure was positioned two feet in front of the old wooden wall. 
The property owners on the strip of beach between 1st and 4th Streets at that time included the Smiths, the Griswolds, the Ffolliotts, the Houghtons, the Humphreys, the Newberrys and the Stillmans. They were called the “Seven Sons of the Beach,” even though three of the property owners were female. The cost that they footed was $63.29 per front foot. This included a return wall on 4th Street for protection, as the Gasparilla Inn Beach Club did not yet have their own concrete sea wall (but very soon after they did build a sturdy wall, from the south corner of 4th Street to tie in with Mr. Sharp’s wall at the north end of 7th Street).
Life returned to normal on the beach, particularly after the series of wooden stairs were put back in place. It wasn’t long, though, before there was a noticeable absence of sand. People began experimenting with different ways to attempt to slow the beach erosion, including “dog bone” jetties placed in a zigzag fashion from the beach out into the Gulf. Mr. Sharp was very enthused about the idea, and with the permission of the neighbors he had eight of these “bones” installed along the beach. Unfortunately, any success with the bones in other areas was not apparent here, and the erosion continued. 
Eventually, there was next to no sand left on the beaches of Boca Grande. In 1973 property owners realized if they wanted to protect their concrete sea wall, they needed to do something … and fast. They determined that a rip rap revetment was in order, and they placed it at the base of the sea wall. Only one property owner declined the rip rap, with the logic that their sea grapes would hold off the sea if the wall was breached. 
In 1986 the rip rap was not looking good. Not only had the rocks making up the barrier moved and appeared to have broken up and become much smaller, but the top of the sea wall was showing severe signs of deterioration.
The property owners gathered together once again, this time including the last names of Burdge, Fleitas, Palermo, Ffolliott, Houghton, Lerchen, Newberry and Davidson. All except the Newberrys wanted more rocks, and everyone but the Burdge family wanted a new sea wall cap. 
As you can see, decision-making in Boca Grande has never been easy.
The historical documentation ends in 1994, which Ffolliott talking about work that was done by Charlotte County Seawall. They replaced the entire cap on the wall at that time, and additional rip rap was added.
In 1993 the beach was renourished, but it didn’t last long. Since then beach renourishment has taken place a handful of times, including the last time in 2018. 
Mother Nature does she wants, though, and just a few storms that aren’t even of hurricane strength can take the beach back down to nothing. The wall still stands, though … for now … as a reminder that no matter the state of the beach, everyone loves to come down and look at the Gulf.