The Historical Walking Tour of downtown Fort Myers River District begins right outside the Franklin Shops, built in 1937 as a hardware store and still retaining the original name in the entrance. Our guide, Gina Taylor, has a long and interesting association with Fort Myers’ history as a founding member of the Lee Trust for Historic Preservation and former director of both the Historical Museum and the historic Burroughs Home. Who better to take us on a true fact-based tour of the historical landmarks of downtown Fort Myers?
After a brief introduction to the location, which has the largest concentration of original buildings in South West Florida, Gina began to tell the fascinating history of Fort Myers, describing its early days as a pioneering cattle town accessible only by boat.
The transformation of Fort Myers from its decline in the 1960s to the present day success began with the pavement in First Street. When the city undertook a $50 million project to bury the utilities underground, they found beneath the paved streets the original red brick paving which they decided to have cleaned and re-laid. This was the catalyst the city needed to begin a restoration project of its historic buildings which line First Street, parts of Main Street, Bay Street and the Theatre Arcade.
The tour moved slowly along the street from one set of benches to the next as we admired the Art Deco Dean building, now housing Ford’s Garage Café. The building began life as a small hotel in the 1920s but quickly expanded a whole block to accommodate the Philadelphia A’s Baseball Team who were invited to train in Fort Myers.
We strolled down the narrow Bay View Court to reach Bay Street, alas no longer on the waterfront, and learnt about the city’s four piers which were once a hive of activity. Our tour continued through the Theater Arcade, probably the city’s first shopping mall with its small shops and boutiques opening onto the central covered walkway. One building after another was highlighted and its history retold as we explored the busy streets.
What became very apparent during the tour was that we can thank two local businessmen for the exceptional quality and proliferation of local buildings along First Street. After a falling out between bank owner Harvie E. Heitman and board member Mr Langford, the rivalry between these two wealthy and successful entrepreneurs exploded into a fierce competition. They both began buying up land along First Street and developing it at a furious rate.
When Mr Heitman built his Bank of Fort Myers, now housing the French Connection Café, he installed a fireplace and rocking chairs to create a user-friendly ambience. Mr Langford went one better one, creating the lovely granite building in Beaux-Arts style on the corner of First and Hendry Streets. They both built theatres and fought over the patronage of the Edisons and the Fords.
The tour continued around to Morgan House, and we heard how a pen of baby alligators became an enterprising sightseeing attraction to draw shoppers into the area which lacked the foot traffic of First Street.
The tour stopped near the stunning turquoise and pink Art Deco Edison Theater, now used as offices. Here we heard how Lee County came into being, although the building of a suitable Court House took a little longer than anticipated.
We ambled through the arcade of the Indigo Hotel and paused to hear the story behind the amazing 100 foot long tile mosaic in the courtyard depicting the history of Fort Myers. Finally, the amazing story of Fort Myers came to an end back on First Street. It was a most entertaining 90 minute tour which left me feeling I should move to Fort Myers immediately and be part of this thriving Arts City!
Here’s a great book for those visiting Fort Myers, Sanibel or Naples in southwest Florida
It’s also available as a downloadable ebook from Amazon:
Days Out Around Fort Myers (Days Out in Florida)