Efforts preserving a valuable part of Old Florida history

sunset on the indian river

Florida is a state of newcomers and many of our recent arrivals don’t realize how historical the state is, probably through no fault of their own. That’s because most school children are taught about the establishment of Jamestown in 1607 or the arrival of the pilgrims in Plymouth in 1620. But little time is spent — if any at all — on the founding and settlement, much earlier, of St. Augustine in 1565.

This lack of information leads to assumptions that Florida is a relatively new state, devoid of any real history. In this view, many newcomers see old wooden houses on the Indian River as being ripe for tearing down and rebuilding with a modern sleek structure in the same spot. In the fury of the Space Coast’s multiple building booms over the last century, these sentinels of the region’s past become lost to history. Too much of Florida’s past has been bulldozed into oblivion.

Now I’m not advocating that all houses of any certain age should be preserved. Property rights should be respected and landowners should be able to do with their own properties what they will, as long as local codes and ordinances are being followed. I just think the challenging and important work of preservationists should be applauded whenever possible.

In this issue, we feature two projects countering the trend of tearing down historical houses to replace with new. Both are houses on the Indian River, one in Melbourne and another in Titusville, and both are being saved by historical-minded preservationists.

In the case of Green Gables in Melbourne, a group of volunteers has banded together to form Green Gables Historic Riverview Village to restore the 2,000-square-foot vacation home William and Nora Wells built in 1896 on a 150-acre estate. A metallurgical engineer, Wells had struck it rich by coming up with a patent for rustless iron. The couple, who started out as snowbirds and later became full-time residents, were important contributors to Melbourne’s early history. After building Green Gables, the couple gave the city of Melbourne its first school, auditorium and library, along with land for roadways and Wells Park.

After their deaths, the house had been owned by the Wellses’ heirs but was severely damaged during 2004 back-to-back hurricanes Frances and Jeanne. The house was close to being demolished, when developer Coy Clark advocated saving it. The nonprofit Green Gables at Historic Riverview Village was formed and raised $965,000 to make the purchase, which was helped by a $260,725 in-kind donation from the Wellses’ heirs.

Green Gables is a great example of how various groups — such as historic preservations, the state and landowners themselves — can come together to help preserve a part of Florida’s history. Tours of the house will enable visitors to visualize how early Florida settlers lived and to learn about William and Nora Wells and their contributions to Melbourne.

In this issue, we also present an example of a homeowner preserving historical aspects of a home while adapting it for modern uses and the need to hurricane-proof it.

Christopher Brooks and Connie Maggi are doing just that with the 1904 riverfront home they are restoring — and expanding — in Titusville. When finished, the home will even feature a large floor for ballroom dancing, a favorite pastime of the couple.

This restoration hits home. My great-great-grandparents, Stephen and Maria Gladwin, settled in Titusville in 1891. Sadly, their house on Julia Street is no longer standing. But through the efforts of the Green Gables nonprofit and Brooks and Maggi, I can visualize what life was like in their early years in Brevard County.

See the original article in print publication

Gregory Enns
Gregory Enns
Publisher at Space Coast Living Magazine

Publisher Gregory Enns is a fifth-generation Floridian whose family arrived in Titusville in 1891. A former newspaper reporter and editor, he started Indian River Magazine on the Treasure Coast in 2006. Indian River Media Group, the company he heads, now publishes seven magazines, including Space Coast Living, which was purchased in March. He is vice president of the Florida Magazine Association.