In search of historic buildings on the Treasure Coast

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The Treasure Coast is steeped in history.

Indigenous peoples lived in Florida more than 12,000 years before the arrival of the first European settlers.

And even a newcomer like me knows the area takes its name from the many treasure ships which have experienced their untimely demise offshore, some of which have been lying on the ocean floor for centuries.

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But it seems that old historic buildings are relatively rare here.

There are some, however, including the building that houses the Stuart Heritage Museum, who just turned 120 this week. It’s not the oldest building on the Treasure Coast, but the list of older intact buildings in the Tri-County area is short.

Visitors and volunteers arrive at the Stuart Heritage Museum on Southwest Flagler Avenue to celebrate the building's 120th anniversary on Monday, July 19, 2021 in downtown Stuart.  Museum staff organized an open house with cakes, donuts, coffee for the visiting public, as well as tours of the historic building and history of the Town of Stuart.

George Washington Parks built the structure that now houses the museum in 1901 to serve as a general merchandise store. At the time, Stuart was known as Potsdam, named after a city in eastern Germany, and the city was within the county limits of Dade.

As its namesake was at the national level, Parks played a major role in the city’s history over the next several decades. He was a highly regarded businessman and civic leader who served as city councilor and later mayor in 1918 and 1919.

The Geo. The W. Parks General Merchandise store has become an important gathering place in the community. It was enlarged several times until the store was four times its original size. In 1925, the building was moved approximately 40 feet from its original location to accommodate a road widening project.

In addition to the other products sold at the store, Parks became the town’s local supplier of kerosene, lubricating oil and gasoline. He died in 1943 from injuries sustained when one of his fuel cans exploded.

In a gesture of respect, other local businesses are said to have closed their doors during Parks’ funeral.

Ownership eventually changed hands, but the building remained in operation as the Stuart Feed Store until 1988, when the city purchased it.

“When we received it it was not in perfect condition,” said Mary Jones, executive director of the museum.

An additional layer of flooring can be seen inside the Stuart Heritage Museum on Southwest Flagler Avenue during an open house to celebrate the building's 120th anniversary on Monday, July 19, 2021 in downtown Stuart.  The flooring is Dade County Pine, a special type of dense wood used to build older homes in South Florida.  The extra layer of wood is where heavy barrels of kerosene and other objects were once brought into the building during Geo's time.  W. Parks general merchandise store in the early 1900s.

The city eventually managed to raise enough money to put the building back into service in its current role in 1992.

In my opinion, it was money well spent.

The building, located at 161 SW Flagler Ave., is said to be one of the few remaining examples of Dade County pine-framed vernacular commercial architecture in the region.

Or, as Jones puts it, buildings in this style “were all built like old western towns.” This is exactly the impression I had as I approached the museum on my first visit. I almost expected to see Clint Eastwood ride around the corner with a cigar stuck between his teeth.

Inside there is a lot to be treated visually. First of all, the building is much bigger than it looks from the outside, perhaps because of all the expansion work that has been done. And it is full of more than 10,000 articles relating the history of the region.

There is a section devoted to Native Americans who predated European settlers in the area. There is another section dedicated to when Stuart was known as “the Chrysanthemum Capital of the World”. (As opposed to its current nickname “Sailboat Capital of the World.”)

There is a section dedicated to the days when pineapple cultivation was a big part of the local economy. And another section devoted to local law enforcement.

There are collections of old telephones and old sewing machines. There is an antique cash register and the type of metal boxes used as food containers at the start of the building as a store.

Gloria Fike (left to right), volunteer tour guide, explains some of the history of the Stuart Heritage Museum to Mary Kriske, of Hobe Sound, Autumn Kriske and her son Kai, 5, of Port Salero, and Rob Kriske, of Hobe Sound, as they stroll through the museum halls on Monday, July 19, 2021, in downtown Stuart.

The basement (how often do you find them in Florida?) Contains an assortment of farm tools, Stuart Town signs, paintings, and a merry-go-round horse.

The upstairs, where Parks and his family lived, has been converted into the museum’s trading office, but it also contains decorative touches like an antique wall telephone and paintings from the grocery store.

Downstairs, Jones said one of the more popular neighborhoods is a section filled with high school annuals, where people can see what their great-grandparents looked like during their time. glory.

“People stay here for hours, browsing old annuals,” said Jones, whose birthday (but not the birth year) is the same as the building she works in now.

Another popular item is the soda fountain salvaged from the old Rexall Pharmacy in downtown Stuart.

“We all love it,” Jones said. “It was (the pharmacy) the meeting place.”

As mentioned, the museum is not the oldest building there yet.

For example, the House of Refuge at Gilbert’s Bar, located at 301 SE MacArthur Blvd. at Stuart, was built in 1876 as a station to provide aid to survivors of the shipwreck. the PP Cobb Building opened in downtown Fort Pierce as a trading post in 1882.

However, if you study the buildings in Indian River, St. Lucia, and Martin counties that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, many were built in the 1920s or even later.

The original Methodist Church was located outside the first city limits at the corner of 16th Avenue and 19th Street.  This location is across from the Freshman Learning Center and was previously where the high school was located.  The church burned down in the 1950s and the Edmar Apartments were built on its site.

In Indian River County, for example, the Old Palmetto Hotel at 1889 Old Dixie Highway in Vero Beach was built in 1921 and the first Methodist Episcopal Church in Fellsmere was built in 1924.

In St. Lucia County, the Sunrise Theater in downtown Fort Pierce was built in 1922 and the Old Fort Pierce Town Hall, also in downtown, was built in 1925.

In Martin County, the Golden Gate Building south of Stuart was built in 1925 and the Old Martin County Courthouse in downtown Stuart was completed in 1937.

There are reasons why I think Florida hasn’t grown faster and therefore has older buildings.

Air conditioning was not invented until 1902. Insect repellents were not widely used by the public until 1957. It’s hard for me to imagine what life was like here without this modern convenience.

Hurricanes have undoubtedly wreaked havoc on many buildings, old and new, across the state. And I imagine the humidity and salty air along the coast are having a negative impact on construction.

Heather Ward and Chris Ward, of Montgomery, Alabama, photograph the waves on Monday, September 21, 2020, at Ross Witham Beach, near the House of Refuge Museum on Hutchinson Island in Martin County.  Winds approaching tropical storm force with a cold front on weekends and high tides from Hurricane Teddy damaged the shoreline and created dangerous sea conditions on the Treasure Coast.  On Monday morning, the National Weather Service issued a gale warning covering counties from Brevard to Martin with gusts of wind recorded between 30 and 35 mph, as well as heavy rain and lightning.

Still, Ruth Stanbridge, president of the Indian River County Historical Society, said these are all relatively minor factors in the grand scheme of things.

“The problem is usually development,” Stanbridge said. People push old buildings to replace them with new ones.

It’s a sad reality, not just in Florida, but in many places. Many people would rather live or work in shiny new buildings instead of ones that might lack modern conveniences, but have character and history.

Which makes it all the more important to preserve and appreciate the old buildings that we still have, like the Geo. W. Parks General Merchandise Store.

This column reflects the opinion of Blake Fontenay. Contact him by email at [email protected] or at 772-232-5424.


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