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Old School Square fueled Delray revival

The end of a Delray Beach era came 25 years ago this week. It led to a downtown cultural jewel.

The 4-acre complex at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Swinton Boulevard now is called the Delray Beach Center for the Arts at Old School Square. It changed its name last fall.

“Old School” isn’t the half of it.

The complex holds not one, but three historic buildings, all of which predate the great 1928 hurricane. The Cornell Museum of Art and American Culture is in the former 1913 Delray Elementary building. The Crest Theatre is in the former 1925 high school building. And the Vintage Gymnasium dates to around 1925.

For nearly 75 years the complex was a center of culture and education, hosting church services, community meetings and band performances. But by the mid-1980s, it had become an eyesore.

The high school closed in 1950. When the elementary school graduated its final class on June 7, 1988, many advised just tearing it down.

The stained and crumbling school was a totem of despair. And the rest of downtown was a dark, depressed place with little business, something hard to imagine now that the avenue is a bustling entertainment mecca.

But starting in 1985, a small group, led by resident Frances Bourque, vice-chair of the city’s historical society, and Mayor Doak Campbell, made things start to happen.

The hard sell was made a bit easier when more than $2 million was included in a $21.5 million bond referendum that promised significant street, sidewalk and drainage improvements throughout the city. The measure passed in 1989. The closest vote, at 52 percent approval, came on the question that included money for Old School Square.

The city bought the property for $392,000 that year. The former elementary school opened in 1990 as the Cornell. The gym reopened in 1991 as a community events room. The former auditorium opened in 1993 as the Crest. The remainder of the $7 million renovation was finished by 1998.

Old School Square hosts 1,500 activities a year. The museum’s budget has grown from $230,000 in 1992 to $2.7 million in 2013.

“This is where the town grew up,” president and CEO Joe Gillie said last month.”We’ve come full circle. (And) not only did we save the old schools. We saved the character of this community.”


Flag raising at the then-new Delray Elementary in 1913. (Photo courtesy of the Delray Beach Center for the Arts at Old School Square)

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Posted in Eliot Kleinberg June 6, 2013 at 9:38 am.

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Delray public library marks its 100th year

The 40 ladies gathered, each with a book under her arm. Henry Flagler had donated $10 to buy more items.

That was the birth of the Delray Beach Library, 100 years ago today on April 11, 1913.

The library association will mark its birthday with a gala money-raising bash and a community day with events that include a dog parade.

The complex will be transformed into a “100-year walk down memory lane” with costumes, period characters, music and entertainment, and food and drink.

The library, a nonprofit corporation, is separate from the city. Though it gets some city money, it raises a lot itself.

It started in 1913 with the “Ladies Improvement Association” meeting. “This is only a beginning and we hope and expect much from it,” the Delray Progress reported.

There were 75 books in the library when it officially opened from 2 to 5 p.m. on Jan. 31, 1914.

In 1938, the non-profit Delray Beach Library Association incorporated to manage library operations and the city council approved its first grant: $500. At the time, the library had 605 items.

After World War II, the library raised $14,000 for its new building on Southeast Fourth Avenue, just south of Atlantic Avenue. It opened in 1950. By then its collection had grown to more than 15,000 items.

A second story was added in 1968, a garden room in 1975, and a 3,100-square-foot auditorium in 1985. By that building’s 50th birthday, in 2000, the library boasted nearly 100,000 items.

But it was just too small for the burgeoning city. So today, a two-story, 48,000-square-foot building stands at 100 W. Atlantic Ave.

Opened in 2006, it cost $7.2 million to build, and $1.2 million to furnish.

It issues some 8,000 new library cards each year and is visited by more than 623,000 people annually.

It holds 184,784 items, and, in this brave new world, only half of them are ink-and-paper books.


The Delray Beach Public Library in 2013 (Photo courtesy of the library)


The old Delray Beach Public Library on Southeast 4th Avenue (Photo courtesy of library)


The young adult department in the new library (Photo courtesy of the Delray Beach Public Library)


Demonstrating the use of the card catalog at the old library (Photo courtesy of the Delray Beach Public Library)

Other photos from the library’s past (provided by the Delray Beach Public Library):

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Posted in Eliot Kleinberg April 11, 2013 at 9:17 am.

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Palm Beach County in the 1940 Census

Hotels and other transient housing

April 9, 1940, was the day designated for counting people in hotels. The official manual instructed enumerators: “You are to complete the enumeration of all tourist or trailer camps, missions, and cheap one-night lodging houses in your district on the evening of April 8th, and of all hotels in your district on April 9th.”

The tourist camp and hotel enumerations in the Census are separate from the street-by-street listings that make up most of the Census images for Palm Beach County (you can find all of the Palm Beach County images online here).

Here’s an example of one of the enumeration pages for Palm Beach hotels, listing the Surfside Hotel, Balmoral Hotel, Southland Inn, Ocean Hotel, and the Brazilian Court:


Click on the image to see a larger version.

Guests at the Ocean Hotel included a singer, a petroleum products salesman, a newspaper correspondent, a broker of hides, and a rubber goods exporter.

Only one guest was counted in the hotels in Delray Beach, a building management executive staying at the Colony Hotel. Others listed on the hotel page include hotel owners, staff and their families.

Two tourist camps were listed in Lantana, Young’s Tourist Camp and Jitterbug Jungle Camp:

Prominent locals

In April 1940 George Morikami lived on Federal Highway near the end of Old Dixie Highway in what is now northern Boca Raton. He was 53 years old and listed his occupation as farm operator.


Click on the image to see the whole page from the 1940 Census at 1940census.archives.gov.

Morikami had come from Japan with a group of farmers who planted acres of pineapples, peppers and tomatoes. Ultimately the Yamato Colony failed, and most of the farmers moved to other parts of the United States or returned to Japan.

George Morikami remained after the colony disbanded, and continued cultivating fruits and vegetables and buying land. He lost much of his land during the Depression, and later the federal government confiscated more of it for the Boca Raton Army Air Field, but Morikami eventually donated 200 acres to Palm Beach County, which opened the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens on that land in 1977, one year after Morikami’s death.

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Posted in Flashback blog April 4, 2012 at 4:15 pm.

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This week in history: Delray Beach gets a St. Patrick’s Day parade

On March 17, 1968, Maury Power began a tradition with a solitary stroll down Atlantic Avenue in midday traffic. Legend has it that Power — a Chicagoan who moved to Delray Beach in 1968 and soon after opened Power’s Lounge on Atlantic Avenue just west of the FEC railroad tracks — was at the Patio Delray restaurant that St. Patrick’s Day in 1968 when he decided Delray Beach needed a parade. Power died in 1996, and Power’s Lounge closed four years later, but the parade still goes on.


Parade founder Maury Power and Dennis Gallagher, carrying the legendary green pig Porkchop, greet spectators at Delray Beach’s 20th Annual St. Patrick’s Day Charity Parade on March 12, 1988. (Palm Beach Post staff file photo)


Revelers celebrate the 1981 St. Patrick’s Day Parade at Power’s Lounge. (Palm Beach Post staff file photo)


Before it was Power’s Lounge, it was Bob’s Famous Bar. (Photo courtesy of Delray Beach Historical Society)

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Posted in Flashback blog and Our history in photos March 12, 2012 at 6:00 am.

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Memoir recalls pioneer’s faith in Florida

Last week we told you about early settler Joseph Lark Priest and the memoir his family has self-published. Here’s the rest:

By 1908, Priest, who’d lived at times in the Treasure and Space coasts and the Daytona Beach and St. Augustine areas, had moved from Fort Lauderdale to what’s now Delray Beach. The settlement, then just “Delray,” would not incorporate until 1912. (It’s marking its centennial this year.)

“Delray at the time had just a school, two churches, three grocery stores, one lumber yard, one large canning factory, a post office, a Masonic Lodge and Odd Fellow’s Lodge. Here we found the best people on earth,” Priest wrote in A Florida Pioneer, the Autobiography of Joseph Lark Priest.

Priest wrote that “the train ran regular,” but there was just one sand road, leading north and south, and traveling options were by foot or mule team.

He said mules then cost from $250 to $300 each, at a time when “money was very scarce, common labor one dollar and a quarter per day, carpenters two dollars and a half per day and not many jobs.”

But, he wrote, “It would be impossible for a man to be so lazy that he would starve in Florida. If he will work he can raise anything he wants to eat. If he won’t work he can catch fish, he can get oysters and clams, he can kill rabbits, he can catch coons and opossums, he can cut palmetto cabbage.”

The nearest source of “fire water” was West Palm Beach, an 18-mile trip costing 60 cents on the train. Once, Priest said, he and pioneer John Shaw Sundy went to West Palm Beach by mule; the trip took five hours each way.

Writing his memoir late in life, and with the Depression settled in, Lark said, “Florida has many knockers, mostly by northern papers, but Florida will come. It will take a little time but it is coming. The boom come and went but Florida is coming to stay.”

Priest worked a while as tender of the Atlantic Avenue bridge. He and his wife are buried at the old section of the Delray Beach cemetery. Florida, of course, did come to stay, and it now sports more than 18 million people. “Delray,” now 100, holds about 64,000. Joseph wouldn’t recognize the place.

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Posted in Eliot Kleinberg December 22, 2011 at 10:06 am.

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