New River Inn Circa 1977

Old Town, Young City

Fort Lauderdale is a place with a future – but also with a past. As the city grows and redevelops, some grapple how best to preserve its unique history


April Simpson

Published date: 

Oct. 9, 2015

new river inn.jpgFORTY YEARS ago Chuck Willard spent his evenings riding his boat down the north fork of the New River to Sailboat Bend, and watching the sun set over a canal. The area was lush, undeveloped and teeming with wildlife. “I wouldn’t live any place but Sailboat Bend,” he decided. 

So Willard, now 90, and his wife, Hallie, got a big piece of land right on the river. In 1977, they started building their house. They brought wood down from an old Pennsylvania log cabin and schoolhouse for their front door and ceiling beams. Eventually, they built a home full of hardwood floors, several ceiling fans to keep cool and a wraparound porch on an airy second story that feels like you’re high in a tree house. 

“There was nobody else on this whole block from here to almost Broward Boulevard,” Willard recalls.  

Not so now. Across the street, whole blocks are lined with three-story Key West-style townhouses.

“I can’t see the sun rise anymore,” says Hallie, 89. 

Their property continues to draw wildlife from a neighboring preserve. Hallie says she feeds the squirrels every day. The Willards’ daughter, Charmae Barone, says she sees coots, turkey hawks, cardinals, woodpeckers and other birds on the property. 

“They all come here because they have no place to go,” says Barone, 67.

Residents like the Willards aren’t alone in witnessing the city’s rapid growth. With condos racing skyward, some fear that relics of old Fort Lauderdale are falling by the wayside. The city’s character is fast-changing.

“I describe it as Miami moving north,” Willard says.

History versus development?

The Fort Lauderdale City Commission often wrestles with issues that pit historic preservation against new development. But “it doesn’t have to be a clash like this,” says Commissioner Dean Trantalis.

In addition to meeting zoning and building codes, developers can help historic preservation by keeping existing structures and contributing to existing structures that are already identified as historic, Trantalis says. 

Architect Margi Northard, president of Glavovic Studios, says her studio is a big proponent of sustainability, recognizing cultural and historic resources, practicality and considering the way the community engages with the space. Her work includes the award-winning Kennedy Homes public housing development in Sailboat Bend. 

“Always be respectful of the initial intent of that architect and that architecture in the downtown,” Northard says. “In general, our approach to existing buildings is to use the best qualities that they have and remove the worse qualities in a minimal way.”  

The city has a Historic Preservation Board that implements historic preservation regulations and advises on various preservation activities. But it has “no teeth,” Trantalis says. He recommended the city consider hiring a full-time historic preservation officer for in-house expertise.

However in September city commisioners decided not to fund the new position, opting instead to continue paying for consulting work from the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society. Other commisioners said they wanted to maintain the relationship with the historical society and perhaps hire a planning department staffer with historial preservation experience. Only Trantalis favored the new position.

With so many new developments throughout the city, it’s important to ensure there is a physical manifestation of the city’s past, says Steve Glassman, president of the Broward Trust for Historic Preservation. 

“That’s a tough cookie in both Fort Lauderdale and Broward County,” Glassman says. “Many people don’t realize that we have a history because we’re such a new and transient area in comparison with other parts of the country.”

new river then and now.jpgIt all started along the New River

Along New River’s lush path, lovers, young and old, walk hand in hand. Fearless children chase large ducks. Adults walk dogs that provide easy conversation starters for passersby.  On one recent day, a frizzy-haired girl glided on her skateboard past an abandoned old house. “This place is supposed to be haunted,” she said.

In this riverside Himmarshee Historic District, one of three historic districts in Fort Lauderdale along with Sailboat Bend and the Stranahan House and property, many of the city’s oldest structures are within walking distance. They’re also tucked away from the booze and often raucous good times of the Himmarshee entertainment district. 

The city’s oldest commercial district is today a strip of clubs and bars. It’s a block away from the historic district, but the partygoers stumble over.

“We love them,” says Patricia Zeiler, executive director of the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society. “And the Riverwalk. We’re making all kinds of new friends up there. It’s good for us because it’s really busy, and they don’t know we’re here. It’s a neat opportunity to introduce a whole new generation to how Fort Lauderdale got born.”

Historians say Fort Lauderdale was born on the New River, the area’s first highway. That’s where the railroad stopped when it came through in 1896. Many found accommodations in the New River Inn, now a museum of history, and the first building in Broward County to be placed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

“So right here was basically where everybody from the North got off and decided whether they were going to get a boat to go to Miami or stay here,” Zeiler says. 

Nearby, the historic Bryan Homes building – that supposedly haunted structure - has been vacant for six years. The building, originally two houses built for brothers Tom and Reed of early Fort Lauderdale family the Bryans, was made into one by a later addition. It most recently housed the former River House restaurant. But local businessman James Campbell has big ideas for the city-owned building. After negotiating a lease with the city, he wants to renovate the space to welcome tourists. 

He expects renovations to develop over three six-month stages. First he’ll open the welcome center, likely early next year; second, an outdoor café offering tea and coffee; third, a full dining and rental space to host weddings and corporate events. 

Campbell, owner of Riverfront Cruises and Anticipation Yacht Charters LLC, doesn’t expect to turn a profit for the first 10 years. He says he’s willing to invest up to $2 million over the lifetime of the lease. 

“We will have to spend whatever needs to be spent in getting the property up to code,” Campbell says. “We don’t anticipate that it’s ever going to be a huge moneymaker, but it fits in with what we’re doing already.”

It was a shame to see the old building sitting vacant, Campbell says.  

“I dined there and it was lovely,” he says. “I was always taken by the ambience and sitting outside on the red brick veranda area. It was probably one of the nicest places in the world to be, sitting watching the yachts to go by.”

Not far from the New River Inn and the Bryan Homes sits the 1913 home of Judge Fred Shippey, Broward County’s second judge. Derelict and closed to the public, the home is awaiting restoration once supporters raise funds. Inside the home, Judge Shippey presided over the weddings of several notable people, including Olympic swimmer and Fort Lauderdale resident Johnny Weissmueller, who played Tarzan in the old 1930s and 40s movies.

Stranahan House by Gordon Ollie Wareham.jpgWhat would the Stranahans say?

Ivy Julia Cromartie Strahanan, who died in 1971, enjoyed sitting on her second-floor porch and looking out across the New River. She lived in what’s now the Historic Stranahan House Museum, a two-story home made of Dade County pine that she inherited from her late husband, Fort Lauderdale pioneer Frank. 

For much of Ivy Stranahan’s life in the home, nothing obscured her view. In the early years, the New River was busy with pioneers and Seminoles. Across the river sat small wooden bungalows. 

But in 1960 came the tunnel – “the only thing that spoiled her paradise,” according to a museum tour guide. 

The U.S. 1 tunnel, named after newspaperman Henry E. Kinney, was built in the Stranahan’s side yard, on the east side of the property. “She said the tunnel made her lose her hearing,” the guide continued. “I think in her 80s, she had probably lost some already.” 

Frank Stranahan settled on the New River in 1893. The couple married in 1901, the same year the house was completed. Frank became an active local businessman and large landowner. Ivy, a teacher, was active in social causes and sat on the city’s planning and zoning committee. 

“They were for progress, but not high-density progress,” the guide said. 

Museum executive director April Kirk says the home’s location, along the New River and south of Las Olas, can be a challenge to tourists wanting to visit. 

“There used to be a road outside our door,” Kirk says. “Now we’re over the tunnel and we’re around the corner from Las Olas.”

Although the Stranahan House is in the shadow of tall office buildings and condominiums, Kirk maintains that it’s an “oasis in the middle of downtown.”

“People can stand on our property and turn around 360 degrees and get a sense for what it was like during pioneer time and what it is like today.” Kirk says. 

old dillard school.jpg“…go to the past to build a better future.”

Not all of early Fort Lauderdale developed around Himmarshee or Las Olas Boulevard. Derek Davis, curator of the Old Dillard Museum, is working to develop historic tours to sites outside of downtown. 

The tours, supported by the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau and Broward County Cultural Division, will underscore the community’s thriving black business district, both pre- and post-World War II.  Fifth Avenue, between second and fourth streets, was once full of theaters, barbers, clinics, doctors, bowling alleys and more. 

“Well now, that whole area, Fifth Avenue, is gone,” Davis says. “If you go there now, you’ll be driving through apartment complexes, but we can still tell the history of that area.” 

Other sites will include the Sailboat Bend Artists Lofts, the Urban League of Broward County, the African-American Resource Library and Cultural Center, Old Dillard Museum and the new home of Dillard High School. The museum is on the site of Broward’s first school for African-Americans, which opened in 1907. (The building that stands today dates to the 1920s.) For a time, Davis says, it was the only school with a 12th grade that blacks could attend. In 1950, due to overcrowding, the high school moved to its current location just north of Sunrise Boulevard. 

“While (the tour is) going up to Dillard from the African-American Research Library, we’ll have a chance to talk about the Caribbean, Haitian and other cultures that have developed in the Fort Lauderdale area,” Davis says. 

Davis expects to kick off community tours around February 2016, but plans to test-run tours with school groups until the end of the year. 

“Sometimes, people don’t want to look at that past because they think it’s going to cause more problems,” Davis says. “But we believe that you don’t look at the past to try to go to the problems again, but you go to the past to try to build a better future.” 

credit David Warren_Bonnet House high res.jpgHistoric home seeks funding

The Bonnet House Museum and Gardens is another historic property looking for novel ways to attract visitors. 

In March, Bonnet House, Inc. filed a permit application with the Army Corps of Engineers to pave way for a restaurant, driveway, four-slip floating dock and other elements on the property. The restaurant concession is in its “exploratory stages,” CEO Karen Beard said in an email. 

According to the permit application, “The operator and style of the proposed restaurant concession were chosen to provide on-site dining in an atmosphere which is consistent with the character of the historic museum property, while not adversely impacting adjacent resident neighbors.”

“I’ve heard a lot of feedback, none of it positive,” says Commissioner Trantalis, citing constituent concerns about noise, traffic and environmental impact. “Everybody is against it.”

A Sun-Sentinel editorial supported the proposal as an opportunity to cover the park’s operating expenses and million-dollar capital projects. Beard told the newspaper that maintaining the property is “hugely expensive” and they were years away from a decision on the concession.

John Weaver, president of the Central Beach Alliance, says his members have not yet spoken up on it. 

“People aren’t aware until Central Beach Alliance tells them about it,” he says. Once it’s more widely known, “my guess is that there will be a little bit of an uproar.” 

The Bonnet House declined several requests for an interview. 

Sailboat_Bend_1.jpg“People were literally getting shot in the streets.”

In the 1980s, Sailboat Bend was plagued by violence, prostitution and drug activity. Chuck Willard and others fought back by starting the Sailboat Bend Civic Association. 

“People were literally getting shot in the streets,” says Lage Carlson, the association’s current president. 

Willard’s son was murdered by a drug dealer. “I had been confronted by the individual who done that, and that got me excited,” Willard says. “We had to do something to turn the neighborhood around.”

In the mid-1990s, Willard and others lobbied for Sailboat Bend, the oldest neighborhood in Fort Lauderdale, to become a historic district and receive additional support from the city. “The whole neighborhood was the bastard child of Fort Lauderdale,” Willard says. 

But last year, the association wrestled with whether the designation was still appropriate. Some felt it was too restrictive, time consuming and expensive. It was never meant for the whole neighborhood, but only certain areas, they argued. However, others say it’s increased the neighborhood’s character. 

Although the association voted to remove the designation, the issue is tabled for now. It’s divisive, and there is no consensus, Carlson says. 

Since taking office in January, he’s focused on mending relationships. “I think it’s time to step back and look at what we have here and the value of community,” he says. 

Last call 

On Thursdays, the Willard family hosts a happy hour at their home. Sitting upstairs on a recent evening with the screen doors open and several fans going, they shared rum and cokes with longtime neighbors Cav and Debbie Cavanaugh. The group lamented the loss of old Fort Lauderdale. 

“We like it the way it was: quiet,” Chuck Willard said. 

When Debbie Cavanaugh moved to the area 29 years ago, it was a “quiet little town.”

“Now, when you go into town, it’s a canyon of high rises,” Cavanaugh said. 

“Why is it that every square inch of Broward County has to be high rises?” Willard asked. “Because that’s where the tax money is, that’s why.

“How about a peace and quiet little area that’s only a mile from downtown?” he continued. “We got a perfect little spot here,” Hallie replied.