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Davis Art Center building celebrates 80th anniversary today

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The stately neoclassic revival building that serves as home today to the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center celebrates its 80th anniversary today. The former Whitehurst Federal Building was dedicated on December 9, 1933.

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The building stands on the most historic site in town. The historical marker on the northeast corner of Jackson and First says that before Ponce de Leon ever landed in Florida, the site served as a Calusa Indian settlement. In 1841, the spot was chosen by Captain H. McKavitt for the location of Fort Harvie, an outpost built in Indian territory during the Second Seminole War. When Fort Harvie was replaced in 1850 by Fort Myers, it became the site of the commanding officer’s quarters.

If legend is correct, that's where Fort Myers’ first daughter was born - to Captain and Mrs. Winfield Scott Hancock. After the fort was abandoned in June of 1965, Manuel A. Gonzalez made the commanding officer’s quarters home for he, his wife Evalina, and their eight children. The home was subsequently remodeled and occupied by the families of Louis Lanier, James E. Hendry, Sr. and R.I.O Travers before being purchased by Harvie Heitman.

The Gonzalez-Lanier-Hendry-Travers-Heitman home was moved to the back of the lot around 1926 to make room for a 10-story, 250-room hotel. But the Estate of Harvie Heitman abandoned plans to build the mammoth hotel when the Big Boom abruptly ended that fall, and the site was subsequently purchased by the federal government as the location for its new post office.

Although some sources state that the post office was a WPA project, the building’s design and erection actually pre-date the WPA. There are conflicting reports about how Fort Myers got such an incredibly beautiful post office.

Historian Karl H. Grismer wrote in 1948 that the project was secured largely through the efforts of B.C. Foxworthy, who had been active for years in Republican politics. During the Hoover administration, he bombarded Washington with requests for a post office in Fort Myers until Congress finally gave in and approved the necessary appropriation. But Berne Davis, among others, believes that Thomas Edison played a role. He invited President Hoover to Fort Myers in 1929 to help him celebrate his 82nd birthday, and after Hoover returned from Edison’s party at the Pleasure Palace, Congress suddenly found the money needed to build the new post office.

In any case, the federal government commissioned prominent Florida architect Nat Gaillard Walker to design the facility. Walker was a fan of neoclassical architecture. He especially admired 19th Century British architect Sir John Sloan and Thomas Jefferson, who took time away from his duties as our third president to design not only his neoclassical residence at Monticello, but the trademark columns and south portico of the White House.

By the 1920s, the elegant, if not flamboyant, architecture of Sloan and Jefferson had been replaced by the spare, functional style of Frank Lloyd Wright and the German Bauhaus. Both roundly rejected the use of embellishments like columns, false mouldings, scrolls and pilasters. But when their new post office was completed in 1933, Fort Myers residents were delighted to find that were recipients of the first neoclassical revival structure in the country.

Civic pride was buoyed four years later when Walker’s design was borrowed by John Russell Pope for the most famous example of neoclassic revival architecture in the world, the Jefferson Memorial.

The building is unique for its use of Florida Key Limestone (also known as Key West coquina rock), which is now protected. Coral formations and a variety of seashells can still be seen embedded in the building’s walls and Ionic columns. It was constructed as an outdoor post office with 24-hour access and completed at a cost of $200,000 (or $3.5 million in today’s money). It was said at the time to be “the most attractive post office in a city of this size in America."

The post office actually opened on October 30, 1933. Sidney Ellison purchased the first stamp. Ella Biglow mailed the first letter. Interestingly, the architect who designed the neoclassic revival edifice became the building’s postmaster ten days later.

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