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RUSTIC RECOGNITION: Ad-hoc group looks at historic structures

August 14, 2013
By BOB PETCHER ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Older structures on Ester Island are getting a new look in terms of historical importance reflected through interest, significance, recognition and, possibly, off-island designation within County, State or National registries.

Recently, an ad-hoc committee for the Town of Fort Myers Beach Historic Preservation Board reviewed a brochure and an application for determination of such importance. Committee members are encouraging Beach cottage owners and other owners of older structures to preserve the traditional design of their structures to aid in the "keep it funky" character of the island.

The project is aimed at the average homeowner or one who possesses a structure that has some historical value.

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Members of the Historic Preservation Board ad-hoc committee are looking at older structures on Ester Island and reviewing their historical importance for plaque presentations.

"This is a very casual, very voluntary program for people who own residences or structures or properties on the island to participate in a celebration of our history and the collecting of this information," said Historic Preservation Board and ad-hoc committee member Joanne Sharp. "It's basically a low key, laid back recording of our history and a celebration of our past."

Sharp stated the program began as a collaboration between the Historic Preservation Board, Historic Advisory Committee and the Ester Island Historical Society and has been ongoing to recognize historic structures and sites on the Beach and encourage preservation among property owners that qualify.

"The HPB established the ad-hoc committee to do the preparation work to get the plaque program in full swing," she said. "We are laying the groundwork for educating the community and encourage the community to participate in the program and to recognize our historic structures and celebrate the cottage design that is sort of the fabric of our island neighborhoods."

Fact Box

The seven historical structures already designated:

--The Historic Cottage construction 1921; 161 Bay Rd. (2010)

--Rain Barrel construction 1946; 161 Bay Rd. (2010)

--The Annex construction 1960; 161 Bay Rd. (2010)

--Beach Elementary construction 1948; 2751 Oak St. (2010)

--Carter cottage construction 1937; 251 Pearl St. (2011)

--Smith cottage construction 1950; 385 Ester Blvd. (2011)

--St. Raphael Episcopal construction 1953; 5601 Williams Dr. (2011)

In past years, the Town has observed "higher level" structures -ones that constitute a significant site and/or were either Town owned or held religious or historical esteem in nature and may be consider for state or national registry- through plaque ceremonies. However, this search has the ad-hoc group looking at historical importance in a variety of individual structures that contribute to the overall meaning of a community.

"This next level that we are looking at are ones that may be community residences, commercial structures or social structures like the Beach Woman's Club that we want to celebrate but would not be subject to being sent to the state historical file nor be subject to regulation from the Town Land Development Code," said Sharp. "We are hoping to do some books about island style and history and collate information on our older structures. This is a more casual, less formal designation than the higher level ones that we have already done."

To gain an inventory, Sharp, AJ Bassett and Fran Santiago recently toured the island and identified 350 properties that could fit the mold. Before that, involved records-digging narrowed the field.

"We began with ones that were already listed in our comprehensive plan from two surveys done by Lee County in 1986 and 1992," said Sharp. "Then we added to that with ones that were recommended by the Historic Advisory Committee. Then we searched through Lee County Property Appraisal records, especially the historic districts that were established in the bayside and the early beachfront on Ester Island for structures that appeared to be old enough."

The early bayside district, now known as Old San Carlos Boulevard, was also looked into.

"We did drive along Old San Carlos Boulevard also, but some of the older structures are gone," said Sharp. "We tried to identify the handful that are still there and were helped by a 1951 phone book."

Sharp said the brochure "describes the different styles of structures and defines the different characteristics of what we are looking for." It states the Historic Preservation Board is encouraging preservation of Beach history by determining the importance of historic structures, districts and properties by identifying them with plaques while pushing owners of cottages to keep their cottage design.

Property owners that may qualify are asked to pick up a "very user-friendly" application and fill it out for such history preservation based on structure, district and property age, condition, location/setting, function and architectural style/design. The Historic Preservation Board will review applications on a probable quarterly basis.

"Basically, we are trying to honor the tradition of cottage design on Ester Island with an applied program that spotlights and seeks to preserve our historic structures and historic districts," Sharp said. "We want to honor the buildings that were constructed prior to 1960 or another set year that retain some of their original character."

The determination of the category of historic importance of each structure will be in accordance with guidance from the Lee County Historic Preservation Guide and the Town's Land Development Code. A yet-to-be-determined nominal fee may be required to cover the production of the plaque, which could be visibly displayed on the structure.

The ad-hoc committee expects to send a packaged report to the Local Planning Agency for a targeted October discussion. The process will eventually lead to the Fort Myers Beach Town Council for decision-making.

The two local weekly newspapers will be asked to publish some highlighted cottages and structures to drum up interest that will begin the celebration of island history.

Cottage history and design

The brochure also gives an interesting historical account of a cottage and its design.

It reads: "Early homesteaders settled on Ester Island in the late 1800s, many in fishing shacks. By the 1930s, cottages were built as second homes for winter visitors.

Most cottages were of wood-frame vernacular, a simple and small scale to minimize the transport of materials from the mainland. They were designed for comfort and practicality in our subtropical climate at a time prior to running water, air conditioning and insect control. Airflow through the cottage was maximized by large window openings, louvered shutters, high ceilings and ceiling fans. Airflow underneath was encouraged by elevation on piers or pilings with lattice shirting. Shade was created by covered porches, wide eaves and well-placed landscaping. Interior walls and floors were insect- and mold-resistant wood. Roofs were usually gable or hip, covered in pressed tin shingles or sheet metal. Gutters, rain barrels and cisterns captured rainwater. Siding was wood and later replaced by asbestos shingles after the 1944 hurricane. Fireplaces provided heat if needed and were sometimes decorated with local shell or coral rock.

Early structures faced destruction by storms or the development of high-rise condominiums. Due to the sensitivity of our community, many historic buildings remain standing. While precise identification of the style and importance of some structures can be difficult if they have been enlarged or updated, variations serve to illustrate the evolution of our community's cottage style over time and contribute to the feeling of an historic district."



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