Black history month
This Week in History
West Palm Beach
World War II
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)
Tags: buildings, Delray Beach, museums, schools
This week marks the fifth anniversary of the day the courthouse was saved.
In 1916, when Palm Beach County had only 18,000 residents and Military Trail would have been considered “out of town,” it spent $135,000 — some $2.8 million in today’s dollars — to build its first courthouse, a 38,400-square-foot, three-story neoclassical structure that housed both courts and county offices. A 1927 expansion doubled the size of the complex.
By 1967, the post-war boom had expanded the county’s population. A study recommended a new courthouse. Instead, the county opted to expand. It tore down the courthouse’s iconic columns and plastered a “wraparound” that was finished in 1972, which created a 232,150-square-foot box. With more and more growth, the courthouse continued to groan under its added burden. A new complex opened in 1995.
But what to do with the old building?
As is often the case in a community with few roots, many endorsed just tearing down the monstrosity. Others begged to save it. In 2002, the county commission opted for the latter.
Over the next several years, workers painstakingly salvaged limestone, granite, marble wainscot, windows and mosaic floor tiles; even doorknobs. The original columns and capitals from both the 1916 courthouse and 1927 addition — 20 in all — had been moved to nearby Hillcrest Cemetery, in hopes that the courthouse would one day be restored. Stone carvers and masons hoisted the massive — up to 3 tons — columns back into place.
On March 15, 2008, the original courthouse, restored for $18.9 million, opened as the Richard and Pat Johnson Palm Beach County History Museum and home to the Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
In the museum’s first year, it hosted 15,665 visitors. The 3,500-square-foot complex tells the story of Palm Beach County. The museum’s collection includes 3,000-year-old spearheads,fine hotel china, dioramas and a replica of a pioneer house.
The restored, historic 1916 courthouse in downtown West Palm Beach serves as the home for the Richard and Pat Johnson Palm Beach County History Museum and the offices of the Historical Society of Palm Beach County. (C.J. Walker/The Palm Beach Post 2008)
The courthouse in 1916. (Palm Beach Post file photo)
Construction crew at the Palm Beach County courthouse, circa 1917. (Photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Palm Beach County)
The Palm Beach Post published a photo timeline of the courthouse restoration on March 13, 2008. Click on the images below to view larger versions.
Tags: building, museums, West Palm Beach
Almost 10 years ago, on March 8, 2003, the Norton Museum of Art opened its $20-million, three-story, 45,000-square-foot Nessel wing.
That’s enough of an excuse for us to do a two-parter on the historic museum, featuring some mysterious graves and a big heist.
First, the new wing. It went up on the southwest side of the museum and was named for shoe magnates Melvin and Gail Nessel, who donated $6 million.
Its 14 galleries include a 1,600-piece photography collection, the Nor-ton’s Chinese collection — much of it selected by museum founder Ralph Norton — and European art from before 1870.
The expansion, part of an overall $35 million campaign, boosted the complex’s total area to 112,500 square feet. This helped the institution to display more of its 5,200-piece permanent collection. Museum officials also acquired about 150 new works of art.
With more space in the new wing, the original building was reconfigured to include more of the permanent collections and special traveling exhibitions.
The museum has a link to this region’s early settlers.
It was built on land that originally had held the graves of some 200 pioneer settlers.
That cemetery operated from 1895 to 1921, when it could no longer compete with Woodlawn, across the street.
The Lakeside Cemetery Association donated the land to the city, with the provision that it be used as a public park, that its graves remain untouched and that, with the exception of a pavilion, no construction be allowed.
Norton, a Chicago steel magnate, and his wife, Elizabeth, had bought a winter retreat in West Palm Beach in 1934.
When Ralph Norton leased the land from the city in 1940 to build the museum, the cemetery association removed a number of restrictions. But it added others.
In 2001, the Lake Worth Pioneers Association, representing more than 300 families who claim to descend from the region’s early settlers, complained that the museum wasn’t complying.
The dispute was later resolved.
NEXT WEEK: Graves under the stage.
Visitors to the southwest wing at the Norton Museum mingle and descend the staircase after the ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2003. Architect Chad Floyd of Centerbrook Architects, who designed the new wing, said the space was intended to be like an “ice grotto” — providing a “cool” space for visitors seeking relief from the warm South Florida climate. (Palm Beach Post file photo)
Tags: buildings, museums, Norton Museum of Art
We’ve said it before: In South Florida, where some think nothing happened until Henry Flagler showed up, a century is a long, long, time.
The story of the Barefoot Mailman is more than 125 years old!
Specifically, 125 years ago today, on Oct. 11, 1887, came the most dramatic moment in the history of the iconic mail carriers.
That is the day James Edward “Ed” Hamilton reportedly vanished while swimming in the Hillsboro Inlet near Pompano Beach.
With no railroad or regular ship service, a letter from Miami to Jupiter took six to eight weeks via Key West, Havana and New York. Neither the open ocean nor the hostile interior provided a practical route.
So between 1885 and 1893, rugged pioneers traversed the 136 miles between Palm Beach and Key Biscayne.
They traveled 56 miles in small boats and the remaining 80 on foot, walking in the hard sand at the ocean’s edge.
The grueling trip took three days each way. A road to Miami spelled the end of the service. The carriers are memorialized in the town seal of Hypoluxo, a historical marker at Boca Raton’s Spanish River Park, and a statue of Hamilton near the spot where he died.
The most dramatic tribute is a six-panel mural painted by Connecticut artist Steven Dohanos in the late 1930s.
It hangs in the main U.S. Post Office on Summit Boulevard in suburban West Palm Beach.
Theodore Pratt’s 1943 novel The Barefoot Mailman, loosely based on Hamilton, the only mailman to die while on duty, was a best seller.
Historians believe Hamilton, on what would be his last run, arrived at the inlet and found his boat gone, apparently stolen.
The presumption is the determined mailman decided to swim the cove through waves whipped up by a storm.
Some concluded he drowned; others blamed alligators.
Also, for as long as anyone can remember, articles and books have counted only 11 “mailmen.”
Marty Baum of Jensen Beach said in 2008 he’s uncovered documents showing there were at least 20.
And he said documents show mailmen walked from as far north as Daytona Beach and did so as early as 1851.
Baum gives presentations in the character of his great-great-grandfather, Capt. Hannibal D. Pierce, a keeper of Houses of Refuge in Delray Beach and Miami.
A diorama at the Richard and Pat Johnson Palm Beach County History Museum in West Palm Beach displays the ‘Barefoot Mailman’ walking the beach near the end of the 19th century. (Palm Beach Post staff file photo)
Tags: Barefoot Mailman, museums, post offices
On March 7, 1965, astronaut Buzz Aldrin presided over the dedication of the $107,000 planetarium at the South Florida Science Museum. More than 18,000 people turned out to see Adrin and the new planetarium — one of only three in Florida at the time. Four years later, Aldrin became the second man to walk on the moon.
Tags: museums, science museum, This Week in History