The case can be made that if not for grass Fort Myers would not be the vibrant city it is today. In 1885, when the population was about 349, Thomas Alva Edison came to town on a hunt for the ideal filament for his incandescent light bulb. He believed the answer might be in the bamboo that grew in abundance along the Caloosahatchee River. He was wrong but he fell in love with the little hamlet and bought property for a winter retreat he called Seminole Lodge. He would be at least a part-time resident for the next 45 years. His friend Henry Ford would move in next door.
While in Fort Myers Edison set up a botanical laboratory to search for a way to make synthetic rubber. It is said he conducted over 500,000 tests on a different plants and trees, eventually settling on the weed Goldenrod to produce a latex. They were never able to produce rubber on a commercial scale, however, and the laboratory would be shut down after Edison’s death. But Edison’s botanical legacy continues in Fort Myers. In the 1800s he began planting rows of magnificent Royal Palms on the road near his home, giving Fort Myers its nickname today - “City of Palms.”
Fort Myers itself was named for Colonel Abraham C. Myers who never visited the place. The fort was one of many constructed along the Caloosahatchee River as a base of operations against the Seminole Indians in the 1830s. It was Fort Havrie then and it wasn’t particularly important until a hurricane blew away forts closer to the coast. The fort was abandoned for awhile and rebuilt in 1850 when hostilities flared again with the Seminoles. This time it was named Fort Myers for the man who was preparing to marry the daughter of commanding General David E. Twiggs.
The fort was abandoned after the Seminole Wars ended in 1856 but was re-commissioned with Union troops during the Civil War. After 1865 it was abandoned again and this time there would be nothing for troops to come back to as settlers trickling into the area helped themselves to the pine beams, windows, flooring and whatever else they could cart away.
The federal government would return to the site one more time, however, to build the grandest building in downtown Fort Myers on the site of the old fort and that is where we will start our walking tour...
Whitehurst Federal Building (Sidney and Berne Davis Art Center)
2301 1st Street
This building was lauded as one of the most attractive post offices in any town the size of Fort Myers in America when it was dedicated on December 9, 1933, as much for its building material as for its Neoclassical lines. Embedded in the walls of Florida Key limestone are coral and seashells. During its days as a post office, which ended in the 1960s, customers could pick up their mail any time of day from the open air lockboxes. Today, the building is now home to the Sidney and Berne Davis Art Center.
AT THE INTERSECTION OF JACKSON AND 1ST STREET, ACROSS JACKSON STREET, ON THE SAME SIDE OF 1ST STREET IS...
northwest corner of First Street and Jackson Street
Harvie E. Heitman hailed from Lexington, North Carolina and came to Fort Myers in 1888 at the age of 16 to work in his great uncle’s general store. In 1897 he built the first brick commercial structure in Fort Myers here. He went on to develop many buildings along First Street and was busy expanding his interests through southwest Florida when he died unexpectedly in 1922 at the age of 49. The Heitman Building has had many tenants and alterations through the 20th century and is currently restored to its 1920s Mediterranean Revival appearance.
ON THE OPPOSITE CORNER IS...
Bank of Fort Myers
2282 First Street
The Bank of Fort Myers took its first deposits in 1906, laying claim to being the first hometown bank. In 1911 this became the town’s first building designed solely to house a bank. Harvie E. Heitman, a director of the bank, helmed the construction of thethree-story corner brick building. Originally the first floor served as the bank lobby, office space was on the second floor and the third floor was the home of Lodge 631, Independent Order of Odd Fellows. When the Great Depression piled on Florida’s own economic difficulties of the late 1920s, the Bank of Fort Myers went under in 1931. The post-bank years were not kind to the historic building - J.C. Penney’s was here for awhile and other businesses but the second floor was not occupied after the 1960s and the third floor was vacant since the 1930s. Stuccoed plywood covered the brick facade and the arched arcade removed. In a 2006 restoration the entrance came back and the brick and terra cotta details on the facade cleaned as the century-old building regained its original appearance.
BEGIN WALKING EAST OF 1ST STREET, PAST THE FEDERAL BUILDING, WHICH WILL BE ON YOUR LEFT.
Franklin Arms Hotel
2320 1st Street
This building began life in 1889 as a boarding house operated by Mary Hill and her daughter Flossie. In 1918 W.P. Franklin purchased the Hill House and gave the three=story structure a Mediterranean Revival makeover in the style of the day. Six years later, with the Florida land boom in full swing, the Franklin Arms Hotel sunk $300,000 into a seven-story addition and Fort Myers had its first skyscraper. The hotel boasted a rooftop garden and restaurant that quickly became the town’s hottest reservation.
FOLLOW 1ST STREET OUT TO ROUTE 41 AND CAREFULLY CROSS. ON YOUR LEFT IS...
The Murphy-Burroughs Home
2505 1st Street
This Georgian Revival adaptation of a Victorian mansion was built in 1901 by Montana rancher John T. Murphy for $15,000. Following Murphy’s death in 1914 the home changed hands a few times before being purchased by businessman Nelson T. Burroughs in 1919. His daughter willed the property to the City upon her death and it looks much as it did when John Murphy first clambered up the steps to the wraparound porch.
ACROSS THE STREET IS...
Corner of First Street and Hough Street
This grand Prairie School residence with more than 5,000 square feet was built for banking and railroad impresario Walter Galloway Langford in 1919, one year before his death at the age of 47. Langford hired celebrated architect Frances J. Kennard of Tampa to replicate a similar house he had admired in Jacksonville. In 1925 the house was sold to Kokomo transplant George Kingston who invented the first carburetor widely used in the early American automobile industry in 1902. After being owned by the First United Methodist Church for a half-century the red brick house was donated to the City of Fort Myers who moved it here from its original location at Fowler and First streets.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS BACK ACROSS RT 41 ON 1ST STREET. TURN RIGHT ON BAY STREET, WHICH ANGLES OFF OF 1ST STREET.
2267 Bay Street
This theater was originally a vaudeville house when it opened in 1908. Fort Myers resident Thomas Edison sat in the auditorium to view his first films, along with his friends Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone. The Arcade, which features passage through the block to 1st Street, was eventually converted to a full-time movie house. In 1991, with the theater in tatters, Mikhail Baryshnikov headed a benefit that raised enough money to completely restore the Arcade; in 1998 it became the permanent home of the Florida Repertory Theatre.
2224 Bay Street
This riverfront warehouse was built in 1925 and was used to process fish for several years before it was abandoned during the Depression. After many years of vacancy it was resurrected as the Dew Drop Inn in 1946. It has hosted dining and entertainment operations sporadically ever since.
TURN LEFT ON DEAN STREET.
2207 1st Street at Dean Street
John Morgan Dean was a furniture dealer in Rhode Island who came to Fort Myers at the turn of the 20th century when in his forties. He purchased 38 acres of swampy lowlands along Billy’s Creek for $8,500 and set about improving his property. He bought a dredge and pumped in 150,000 cubic yards of sand. In 1914 he opened Fort Myers’ first residential development that he called Hyde Park; to day it is Dean Park Historic District. Dean next turned his sights downtown to build a hotel in 1923. He carved out a new street on this property so that his Mediterranean-flavored Morgan Hotel could have rooms facing on both First Street and Dean Street. The new guest house opened with 22 rooms but another 70 were soon added.
TURN RIGHT ON 1ST STREET AND TURN QUICKLY LEFT ON BROADWAY.
Samuel Henry Kress was an art enthusiast and he wanted his five-and-dime stores to stand as public works of art. In Fort Myers $200,000 was spent to build this buff brick three-story structure.A reported 6,000 people showed up for the grand opening on September 18, 1928. S. H. Kress & Company only stayed here about twenty years but the building today still looks much as it did when those first shoppers went in looking for bargains.
Post Office Arcade
This building was designed in 1925 by New York City advertising executive George R. Sims; it housed the town’s second post office until the Federal Building was constructed by the Works Project Administration during the Depression a few years later. It is currently part of a hotel complex.
The building was erected by Henry Colquitt, a real estate developer from Detroit, Michigan, in 1925, and later sold to W.H. Rynolds, Sr. to be used as real estate offices. Modernized several times, the facade, as you can see in the ornamental stucco work and bell tower, retains the character of the Spanish-Mission style prevalent in the Florida boom years.
TURN RIGHT ON 5TH AVENUE AND WALK DOWN TO THE RIVER. WALK A FEW STEPS TO YOUR LEFT.
Lee County Courthouse
2120 Main Street between Broadway and Monroe Street
Early government business is southwest Florida was conducted from Key West, a logistical nightmare that was relieved with the formation of Lee County, named in honor of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, in 1887. The first courthouse was constructed here in the county seat in 1895 at the cost of $3,640. Within twenty years it could no longer handle the affairs of the growing county. In 1915 this Classical Revival hall of justice was raised from plans drawn by Francis J. Kennard. The price tag was $85,000. In 1989 the venerable courthouse received a facelift, just before a star turn in the Sean Connery vehicle, Just Cause.
TURN LEFT ON 2ND STREET.
2nd and Jackson streets
The first schoolhouse in Fort Myers was a modest log cabin raised in 1873. Early education in the town was plagued by fires, political indifference and a lack of adequate facilities. Andrew D. Gwynne, a wealthy cotton broker and wholesaler who led the Tennessee 38th regiment in the Civil War, was a Fort Myers winter resident who championed education in Lee County. Colonel Gwynne died before he could build the school he wanted but his family donated $8,000 and additional monies were raised so that Fort Myers was able to get its first modern schoolhouse in 1911. The final cost for the brick academy was $45,000.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS BACK TO HENDRY STREET AND TURN RIGHT, HEADING TOWARDS THE WATER.
Robb & Stucky Building
1625 Hendry Street
Virgil Robb and W.R. Lee opened a general merchandise store in 1915 and were joined by Harry Stucky two years later. The business flourished and after Lee departed the company in 1925 and operations for the newly named Robb & Stucky moved into this four-story brick warehouse and showroom. Company tradition maintains that Thomas Edison and Henry Ford both bought their furnishings here. The company would grow to 30 showrooms and would almost make it to its centennial before filing for bankruptcy after 96 years in 2011.
R.Q. Richards Building
1615 Hendry Street
R.Q. Richards owned the Royal Palm Pharmacy and chaired the Fort Myers Kiwanis Club baseball committee. His main job as chairman in the 1920s was to sell one of the 16 big-league clubs on coming to Fort Myers for spring training. The owner he hooked was the immortal Connie Mack who brought his Philadelphia Athletics to town to train every spring from 1925 through 1936. During that time the Athletics had some of the biggest stars in baseball - Jimmy Foxx, Al Simmons, Lefty Grove, Mickey Cochrane - and won two World Championships, spreading the name Fort Myers across the country and establishing the town’s spring training baseball tradition. Today tow teams - the Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins make Fort Myers their spring training home. R.Q. Richards purchased this Mediterranean-flavored building, erected in 1923, in 1945.
Lee County Bank
2229 Main Street at Hendry Street
James A. Hendry constructed this corner building in 1911 for his general store. In 1927 the Lee County Bank & Trust moved in, stuccoed over the brick and contributed a Neoclassical look with a pair of fluted Doric columns framing the corner entrance. The bank failed a few years later during the Depression and was reorganized as the Lee County Bank, that stayed around until 1965. Look up to see the ornate clock in the broken pedimented entrance. A colorful tile mosaic of Lee County namesake Robert E. Lee, astride his horse Traveler, was added in a recessed part of the wall along Hendry Street in 1951.
1533 Hendry Street
Fort Myer’s best example of Art Deco styling is the Edison Theatre that opened its doors in 1941 with a Charlie Chan double feature, Rio and The Mystery Ship. Like many of its downtown theater cousins, the Edison fell on hard times in the 1970s and closed in 1981. The splendid facade was preserved as the building was converted into office space. After 40 years of showing movies, the Edison made its big screen debut in the movies in 1985. Film director George Andrew Romero, legendary for his low-budget zombie classics, was living near Fort Myers and used the downtown as the backdrop for his thIrd vision of zombie apocalypse, Day of the Dead. The Edison can clearly be seen in the opening set-up shots.
WALK ANOTHER BLOCK ON HENDRY STREET TO 1ST STREET. ACROSS THE INTERSECTION, TO YOUR YOUR LEFT IS...
2235 First Street at Hendry Street
As Harvie E. Heitman began rebuilding First Street on this corner he found a crumbling structure from the 1870s. In is stead Heitman poured $40,000 into what he planned as the most modern hardware store in America. The crisp orange-bricked commercial building featured twelve-inch thick walls and the latest fixtures that included a large Otis safety elevator to move goods to the third floor. His promotional literature boasted, “Traveling representatives from the largest cities of the north and east (and they ought to know), say that this store has no equal in the United States.”
ACROSS THE INTERSECTION ON YOUR RIGHT IS...
Florida Gulf Bank (Bradford Hotel)
2247 1st Street at Hendry Street
Ambrose McGregor, one of John D. Rockefeller’s most trusted lieutenants, came to Fort Myers in 1892 to help fortify the fragile health of his son Bradford. When McGregor himself succumbed to cancer in 1900 at the age of 57 he was considered one of America’s ten wealthiest men, leaving an estate of $4.5 million. Before he died, McGregor had become friendly with shopkeeper Harvie E. Heitman who would eventually translate McGregor seed money into some 30 properties around town. This building began life in 1904 and opened on November 12, 1905 as the Bradford Hotel, named for Bradford McGregor, who had survived his father by a scant two years. The Bradford originally had forty-one rooms with a large dining room on the second floor but expanded through the years as the building has adapted through the decades.
ON YOUR IMMEDIATE RIGHT IS...
First National Bank of Fort Myers
Southeast corner of First and Hendry streets
Dr. Thomas E. Langford brought his family to Fort Myers in 1880 where he forged one of the largest cattle operations in southwest Florida. After his son Walter graduated from Stetson College he joined his father running cows and also became active in land development. After Walter Langford was not named to the Board of Directors of the newly formed Bank of Fort Myers, he organized the First National Bank of Fort Myers in 1907. He was only 33 at the time. When this Neoclassical vault was constructed in 1914 it was hailed as the “finest and best appointed bank building in Florida.” It was the only structure in town to be crafted from granite and made generous use of marble inside.
TURN RIGHT ON 1ST STREET.
2260 First Street
Entrepreneur Harvie Heitman transformed First Street by tearing down wooden frame buildings and replacing them with modern structures in the years before the First World War. He used buff brick to fashion this two-story commercial building that stretched 193 feet down the middle of the block and carried, appropriately Heitman’s middle name, Earnhardt. Heitman invested $85,000 in the block that included the only public bathroom in downtown Fort Myers that even provided shoppers hot and cold running water. The longest tenant here was McCrory’s five-and-dime, a Pennsylvania retailer, that was a fixture here for more than a half-century. Across the street you can see the other side of the Arcade Theatre that extends to Bay Street.
WALK A FEW MORE STEPS TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT AT THE INTERSECTION OF 1ST STREET AND JACKSON STREET.