History With a Future

The riverside Bryan homes are among Fort Lauderdale’s most important historic buildings. And after years of neglect, they’re getting new life.

Published date: 

Jan. 31, 2017


The Bryan brothers, Tom and Reed, built their houses side-by-side along the north bank of the New River. Work began in 1903, just two years after Frank Stranahan opened the trading post and meeting hall that would later become his home.

The brothers had come down from New Smyrna when their father, Philemon Bryan, was hired by Henry Flagler to build part of his rail line. They stayed, married, built businesses and helped create what would become Fort Lauderdale.  Over the years, more than one historian has referred to the Bryans as “Fort Lauderdale’s First Family.”

The brothers’ homes, meanwhile, remained private residences until the mid-1970s, when they became city-owned. And for the better part of the last decade, these pieces of Fort Lauderdale history have been vacant and left to rot.

Now though, a local businessman is doing something about it. James Campbell, owner of Riverfront Cruises and Anticipation Yacht Charters, has been leading a multi-million -dollar restoration of the buildings, which since a 1980s remodel have essentially been one building connected by a modern addition. When renovations are complete, the homes will house a restaurant, café, tourist welcome center and function facility. Campbell hopes to have work completed later in the spring.

“It seemed a shame to let it sit there and rot further and further and further,” Campbell says. “The building’s in good condition. We’re doing it stage by stage. For the most part, we’ve rebuilt, not replaced.”

Since becoming public property four decades ago, the houses have been home to a succession of restaurants. In the years since the last restaurant closed, other proposals have been made – a bed-and-breakfast, another café – but none have progressed until now.

The work comes at an interesting time for the north bank of the New River. Plans have recently been unveiled for a proposed new project at Las Olas Riverfront, the almost completely abandoned outdoor mall east of the Bryan homes along the river. New life in the Bryan homes plus something new on the site of the ghost-town mall – plans call for a mixture of residential space and food-and-beverage-dominated retail space – would mean an exciting change for the section of the Riverwalk that in recent years has been known for its collection of empty buildings.

“It was like the nucleus of [Riverwalk] was a rotting, falling-apart area,” Campbell says. “Now it should link up between the Performing Arts [Center], the Bryan Homes, we’ll call it the new shopping mall right down to where they’re building the new condos by the Stranahan House.”

Campbell’s work is great news for the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society. The society’s multi-building home, including the museum in the historic New River Inn, sits between the Bryan homes and Las Olas Riverfront. Patricia Zeiler, the society’s executive director, says her organization will send people to new establishments that make use of, among other things, the houses’ expansive, brick-paved front yard areas overlooking the river. “We’re so excited about the restaurants coming,” Zeiler says. “It’s the most beautiful site on the New River. He’s going to activate that outdoor space.”

During the project, Campbell has reached out to the historical society, which has offered help on restoring the building in a sympathetic, historically accurate way – right down to the paint colors that would have been used when the houses were first built.

Beyond that, Campbell’s got people working on the project who know about the unique challenges of bringing a property such as this back to former glories. His own history and background also mean that he’s not overly intimidated by a house that’s a little more than a century old.

 “We already have a team of people who are used to high-end maintenance,” he says. “I’m from Ireland where all the houses are 150 years old, so it didn’t phase me too much.”