Visitors to Florida generally don’t have history on their minds. It’s all high-rise condos, malls and theme parks. Right?
Wrong. Just ask the Naples Historical Society which offers tours of the oldest part of town, founded in 1889 when Kentucky newspaper publisher Walter N. Haldeman, who shrewdly bought up most of what is now the historic district, opened a hotel on the narrow spit of land between Naples Bay and the Gulf of Mexcio. At the time, the only way to get there was by boat so the pier just west of the hotel served as the reception desk, welcoming sportsmen who came to fish for giant tarpon and hunt for game in the nearby Everglades. But word got out--especially among wealthy Midwesterners--and pretty soon families arrived with heavy steamer trunks, eager to frolic on 7 miles of silvery sand lining the warm gentle waters of the Gulf.
Along the way from the pier to the hotel, folks passed a cottage built by Haldeman for Henry Watterson, the editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal who spent 11 winters there, telegraphing editorials that won him a Pulitzer Prize during World War II back to the paper. Overflow guests from the hotelwent on to win a Pulitzer Prize. After Haldeman's death the cottage went through other hands until 1996 when it was restored as a museum by the Naples Historical Society.
Historical Society tours like the one I took last winter meet at Palm Cottage, as it’s called, where visitors get acquainted with an historic architectural style once common in the area (the subject of “Dream Houses: Historic Beach Houses and Cottages of Naples,” by Joie Wilson and Penny Taylor), characterized chiefly by Tabbie foundations made of sand and sea shells. One of the last remaining Tabbie homes, Palm Cottage is entered through a screened-in front porch where people slept on hot night, decorated with green wicker furniture (thought to have come from the old Naples Hotel) and a Gulf shell collection. Inside are two floors of rooms with whirring ceiling fans, Dade County pine plank floors, leather-backed Stickley chairs, vintage photos (including one of the Orange Blossom Express train which reached Naples in 1927), a graceful cantilevered staircase, fully-equipped circa 1930 kitchen and other period accoutrements like a Naples mink, a kind of loosely-knitted stole with pompoms, much cooler than the furs ladies could leave at home when the came to Naples in the winter.
I’d spend my winters there, too, if I had a place like Palm Cottage. Of course, development has eaten up many historic district classics. The beachfront around the pier is now lined by walled estates, though high-rise buildings aren’t permitted.
Thankfully, some of the old places remain on the streets and narrow back alleyways around Palm Cottage where the tour continued. We passed secretive little Mandalay House (1908) just off the beach, the former home of Dr. Earl Baum (1921), a community notable with a passion for taxidermy, at 107 Broad Avenue, and Martha‘s Cottage (1922), 205 11th Avenue, made of board and batten. Another residence built in 1935, but now clearly a fixer-upper, had flyers from a real estate company that said the asking price was $1.6 million, including the guest cottage behind.
I could spend my golden years there, no problem. For the moment, though, it was golden enough to walk through the banyan and orchid tree-lined streets of old Naples with a historical society docent.