Stranahan House 1902

Let Us Go Then, You and I

Visiting our historic buildings on foot


John Dolen

Published date: 

Jul. 16, 2014   In 1912, our fair city suffered a devastating fire that burned the business district to the ground. Fourteen years later, it was hit by what was called “the most destructive hurricane ever to strike the United States.”
   It’s a small miracle that we have any of the pre-1926 buildings left – but happily we do. Distinctive 1925 gems designed by architect Francis Abreu. Pieces of our earliest business district from 1905. Homes from the ’20s in the city’s first neighborhood.
   All are a block or two from our major bar and restaurant strips, and thus are easily visited on foot.
   You can have breakfast at the Floridian, for example, and then stroll up SE 15th Avenue to SE Second Street. Hang a left and walk down a few blocks where you’ll find two houses from the 1920s – at 1223 and 1225.  You’ll feel as if you’re in old Key West.
   Then turn around and walk back along the street. After crossing 15th you’ll pass under all manner of glorious natural tree cover – including native oak and gumbo limbo – and see bungalows and wonderful examples of Art Deco, midcentury modern and even Plantation style. Every block has a surprise or two.
   Then head over to Himmarshee Village. Along the FEC tracks behind Tarpon Bend stand prime examples of Florida Vernacular style: The Philemon Nathaniel Bryan house, built in 1905, and the King-Cromartie House (Cromartie’s daughter Ivy married a guy named Frank Stranahan). Built in 1905, the house was moved up river by a barge in 1971 from its original location across from the 1901 trading post (now known as the Stranahan House).
   This street, along with a collection of shops on the other side of the tracks, comprised the city’s first business district. Why here? A train station that no longer exists welcomed all manner of merchants, land-seekers and tourists coming for fishing and hunting.
   The design concern of these simple buildings was sturdy shelter against the subtropical elements of oppressive heat and sudden storms. The porches were built out with extended eaves for maximum shade; a number of verandahs stretched around the buildings. Interior spaces allowed air to flow from front door to back. In houses with two stories, the stairways were placed so that the breezes could come through and travel up to ventilate the second floors. Transom windows above upstairs bedroom doors could always stay open, drawing the currents up and out windows or cupolas jutting out from the roof.
   Visit the New River Inn, built in 1905 and now the museum of history, and then head for a drink at the Riverside Hotel. Our most impressive Florida Vernacular house, the Stranahan House, stands just out the back, along the river, with all of the architectural and style elements mentioned above (and more).
new river inn c. 1917  State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.jpg   Been there, done that, you say? Well, did you know that as you sip your drink at the Riverside, you’re in an establishment that was originally designed by Fort Lauderdale’s most famed architect, Francis Abreu?
   Fresh from Cornell’s architectural school, Abreu joined his parents here in 1923 and got right to work designing a beach house for his grandfather. (It’s now Casablanca Café.) Abreu came up with his own variation on the Mediterranean Revival style, bringing in Moorish influences and flirting with Art Moderne. Until he left for Atlanta in 1928, he was the city’s most sought-after architect, designing homes in Rio Vista and Idlewyld as well as St. Anthony School (though not the church) and the Westside Firehouse in Sailboat Bend.
   Ready to get up from your seat at the Riverside? A short walk will take you to two of Abreu’s 1925 works.
   Head up SE Eighth Avenue and, just before you cross the bridge, take a right on SE Second (a notable street). A short ways down stand The Towers, once-elegant apartments that today serve as a special care facility. Moorish turrets pierce the sky, while the building’s inviting U-shape envelopes a courtyard and gives onto the canal.  
   As you retrace your steps, look at the building on the other side of Eighth Avenue. Then walk from side to side of it. Notice the rough stucco, the muted colors, all the design flourishes restored to their old glory in a not-too-long-ago renovation. Consider that the building was designed the same year that Mussolini seized power in Italy and F. Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby.
   You’re less than a block south of Rumi Lounge. I don’t know about you but, after all these exotic touches, I could go for some Middle Eastern appetizers. And a glass of wine.