Fort Myers Historic River District – First Street

The Downtown Utility Replacement and Street
Project is summarized on a plaque on a brick sidewalk on First Street, dated November 2005
to 2009. It reads, “The City of Fort Myers project
beautified the downtown area and replaced all underground utilities in over 50 city
blocks. More than 500,000 historic bricks that shaped
our city streets in an earlier time have been recycled and are now visible on First Street,
Hendry Street, and Main Street. Thank you to the Citizens and friends who
live, work, and visit the River District for your support in restoring the charm of old
Fort Myers. From the 70s through the 90s, downtown Fort
Myers was largely vacant and neglected with many of the grand old buildings marred by
years of attempts by owners to update the buildings facades to keep up with the times. All that changed after the turn of the century
when Andrés Duany, an American architect and urban planner, created a comprehensive
plan for the revitalization of downtown Fort Myers. The Community Redevelopment Agency followed
his plan and created a revitalized, and vibrant city, where people can live, work, shop, dine,
socialize, and be entertained with so many amenities. The Fort Myers Historic River District has
more buildings on the National Registry of Historic Places than any other city in southwest
Florida. The Fort Myers Regional Library has become
a light in the darkness by reinventing itself from a building filled with books to a high
tech, state-of-the-art facility that is also available online 24/7. It is a community hub providing both information,
entertainment, and a wide range of programs for all ages. The design of the library, completed in 2013,
is a perfect fit in the landscape of the Fort Myers Historic River district. When day turns to night, hundreds of letters
appear on the walkway, steps, and facade of the Sydney and Berne Davis Art Center at First
and Jackson Streets. In front of the building, two bronze cylinders
with letters cut into them and lit from within, cast light on the building in a magical display
of light. One cylinder contains the names of 500 botanical
plants that were among the thousands of plants that Thomas Edison, a pioneer Fort Myers winter
resident, studied in his pursuit of alternate forms of rubber. The second cylinder contains the letters of
a Creek Indian legend. The legend was told to James Oglethorpe by
Tchikilli, a Creek leader. The legend is about the migration of Native
Americans to the Southeast. The building is on the site of a Calusa Indian
settlement. The kinetic sculpture was crafted by Jim Sanborn. The sculpture is bronze with text cut with
a water jet cutter. It has a pinpoint light source within the
cylinders. The sculpture, also known as Lux, named for
a unit of illumination, was installed in 2001 in front of the museum. In 1889, Franklin Arms had as its roots the
Hill House and was operated as a boarding house by Mary F Hill with the help of her
two daughters. In 1918. Walter P Franklin bought Hill House and renamed
it the Franklin Arms Hotel. He remodeled the building and expanded it
around the original two-story wood frame structure and its spacious porches, surrounding the
exterior with brick. in 1924, a seven story addition was built
at a cost of three-hundred thousand dollars with an estimated eighty-four rooms, steam
heat, and a roof garden. The addition was known as the first skyscraper
in Fort Myers. By the end of World War II, the hotel had
added a cocktail bar, private baths, and a veranda to the list of amenities. Gilmer Heitmann Junior later bought the Franklin
Arms Hotel, renovated, and reopened it in the 1970s. It became the Edison Regency Hotel. The building is Fort Myers only tall building
to express the Beaux Arts architectural style of the early 1900s. Today, the 1924 high-rise addition is the
Franklin Arms Court, and the street front section of the building houses Rochelle and Andres, LPA. Harvie Heitman said, “I have always stood
squarely for everything that would help toward the advancement and up-building of Fort Myers.” He was known as “The man who built First street.” He built the Heitman Grocery, the first brick
building in town, and the Bradford Hotel, which adjoined his grocery. He built the Earnhardt building across the
street from the hotel, livery stables, and helped found the Bank of Fort Myers. The Bradford building occupies most of a city
block and was built in the early 1900’s by Harvie Heitman with a loan from Tootie McGregor
with the stipulation that the new hotel be named after her son, Bradford. The McGregors were art patrons and developed
the boulevard that bears their name. The building was later converted into apartments
over the street level storefronts and the Arcade Theater. The theatre opened in 1914 as a touring Vaudeville
house before becoming a movie theatre in the 1920s. In 2019, the Florida Repertory Theatre, which occupies the Arcade Theater, bought the Bradford Building. Harvie Heitman’s store, built in 1898, still
stands next to the Bradford building. The most influential men in building and developing
downtown Fort Myers in the early 20th Century were, Harvie Heitman, John Morgan Dean, and
Peter Tonnelier. In 1912, Peter Tonnelier, a wealthy developer
and banker from Brenton Harbor, Michigan, bought the 1905 Leon Building also known as
the “Stone Block” on the southwest corner of First and Hendry from Dr. Benjamin P. Matheson. He proceeded to re-build and renovate the
block, expanding and remodeling the Leon Hotel and creating Tonnelier Court between 1913
and 1915. Tonnelier Court, today known as Patio de Leon,
extends from First Street to Main Street and is constructed in the Mediterranean Revival
style. From 1913 to 1923 Tonnelier bought 52 separate
parcels of real estate in Fort Myers and Lee County, becoming the county’s second largest
property owner. Harvie Heitman was first. John Morgan Dean from Rhode Island invested
in land development, construction, and citrus and packing companies that would fuel the
economic and residential expansion of Fort Myers. He created Dean Park, the first subdivision
developed in Fort Myers, and built the Morgan Hotel downtown, laying out the street that
now, with the building, bears his name. The Morgan Hotel was renovated into a mixed-use
building and renamed, “The Dean.” John Dean’s death in 1938 made headlines
in the News-Press, which eulogized him as “a kindly and companionable gentleman who
saw beauty where he looked, enjoyed developing it and had the means and business ability
to make dreams come true.” Harvie Heitman who owned the most property
in Fort Myers built the two story structure known as the Heitman-Evans building on the
northwest corner of First and Hendry. In 1927, Lucius Curtright built the three-story
Kress Building on the southwest corner of First and Broadway. The building was leased to the Kress Company
for fifty years. It’s currently a multi-use building with storefronts
at street level. In 1998, the United States Courthouse was
built on the corner of Monroe and First Street. The General Services Administration in Washington
commissioned photographic artist Barbara Jo Revelle to create a mural on the exterior
of the building. The 20 by 100 foot photo-based, computer-generated,
ceramic tile mural is titled “An Alternative History of Fort Myers.” The mural was installed over a brick paved
courtyard that the federal building shares with the Hotel Indigo and Starbucks. In 2006, the building was awarded the International
Office Building of the Year Award. From left to right, the mural depicts Chief
Billy Bowlegs, a section of stockade of the old fort for which the city is named, a contingent
of the 2nd Regiment of the United States Colored Troops that defended the fort from Confederate
attack in the Civil War, the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad locomotive that brought rail
service to the town in 1904, and a cattle rancher leaning against one of his steers. Barbara Jo Revelle recreates Fort Myers’
early history, a 46-year period filled with conflict, struggle, and shame. Bruce Strayhorn is a sixth-generation Floridian
born in Fort Myers. He practices law with the firm of Strayhorn
& Persons and has served as assistant state attorney, director of the Fort Myers Downtown
Property Owners’ Association, board member of the Lee County Housing Development Corporation,
and a member of the Lee County Affordable Housing Task Force.

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