Friday, January 16, 2015

My 'Cottages of Lake Worth' presentation last night...

There was a meeting of people interested in the Cottages of Lake Worth that met in the wonderful space on the second floor of Suri Tapas Bar. I was asked to give a short talk on the history of Lake Worth and the how/why of importance of our historic cottages. This is the transcript of what I said:

We are here to celebrate the collection of Cottages of Lake Worth that make the city unique.
  • What conditions were in place that brought them to exist?
  • Why does Lake Worth have this collection that adds to its sense of place that other communities do not?
  • What threats have these cottages faced over time that make them all that more remarkable?
  • How can we use these cottages, along with other efforts by the City of Lake Worth, the Community Redevelopment Agency and the Historic Resource Preservation Board, to create more of a “known destination” and contribute to the community’s economic vitality?
The origins of Lake Worth, from the Historical Society of Palm Beach County:
From 1889 to 1903, Fannie A. James maintained the Jewell Post Office at the Florida East Coast Railway for the few households between West Palm Beach and Lantana. James and her husband, former slave Samuel James, homesteaded 186 acres from present Dixie Highway to Lake Worth, and from Lake Avenue to 12th Avenue South. In 1911, a year after Samuel James died, Fannie sold most of her land to Palm Beach Farms Company, who had purchased several hundred more acres nearby and thousands more in the Everglades.

The owners of Palm Beach Farms Company—Frederick Edward Bryant, his brother Harold J. Bryant, and William Greenwood—formed Bryant and Greenwood, which marketed the land throughout the U.S. and Canada. They offered five-acre farm tracts in the Everglades for $250 each, $10 down and $10 per month; a 25 foot wide lot was thrown in free at the Townsite of Lucerne on the shores of Lake Worth. A drawing was held by the lake in April 1912. When many purchasers found their farmland under water, they chose to live on their free property by the lake, where surveyors laid out 55 miles of streets and 7,000 lots. A school was ready in the fall on M Street between Lake and Lucerne Avenues.
This is the “field” from which our cottages grew, near the downtown commercial streets of Lake and Lucerne Avenues, north and south, about ten or so blocks in each direction. Most of these cottage homes were of simple construction and made with indigenous materials, such as Dade County pine, known for its durability as a south Florida building material. Some were built from masonry materials, but that generally came later during the boom of the 1920s. This is when Addison Mizner popularized the Mediterranean Revival style in ritzy Palm Beach.

Lake Worth’s development was very middle class, with some of the cottages serving as Winter getaways from the cold north, others were homes for local merchants, trades people and some professionals.  More from the Historical Society of Palm Beach County:

A year before the city was created in 1913, news arrived in October that another post office had claimed the name of Lucerne just a month sooner, and the townsite became the City of Lake Worth, named for Colonel William Jenkins Worth, who had ended the Second Seminole War. In December a census recorded that Lake Worth had accumulated 308 residents, 125 houses, ten wagons, seven automobiles, 36 bicycles, and 876 fowl.

Max and Rose Kalb Greenberg were among the first residents of Lake Worth in 1912. (The city incorporated in 1913 and we celebrated its Centennial now two years ago, which partly led to the formation of this group, the Cottages of Lake Worth).

The Greenberg family sold lumber, hardware, and furniture in Lake Worth; The Greenbergs’ son, George (1915-2007), was born at home on North M Street, currently the site of Lake Worth Public Library. In 2006 George described his childhood in Lake Worth, where “it just seemed like we knew everybody.” Although his family shopped at Mrs. Schmidt’s Illinois Grocery, a butcher shop, and Wonder City Bakery, George recalled vendors in wagons with vegetables, chickens, hot bread, or ice. “There was a big card we used to put out [every day] and it had how many pounds of ice you wanted: 25, 50, or 10 or 15…. It depended on how your ice had melted during the night. My job every morning was to take the drip pan under the icebox and empty it.”

Laundry was done in the backyard, where a washtub sat on three large rocks. “You built a fire underneath the washtub and boiled the clothes …. You had a washboard to rub the dirt out [and] a clothesline to hang the clothes. That was a weekly ritual.”
On a wall in City Hall is a list of all the names of the people that we in Lake Worth call the “Day the Lights Came On” in 1914. You should check that out if you have a chance.

Here is where we leave the pioneer era and cross over to the period known as the “Florida Boom.” Still though, through much of the early part of the 20th century, south Florida retained an atmosphere of being on the frontier of civilization. Some would argue that we still are.

Let’s do a little time travel and let’s jump ahead 12 years from the city’s birth, or ninety years ago. Close your eyes and imagine the following.

  • The date is January 15, 1925.
  • The colors of a beautiful south Florida twilight sunset are in the sky.
  • There is a sliver of land along the east side of Lake Worth (barrier island) that contains a new concrete bathing “casino”, reached by a low bridge across the water. There are are no other buildings north or south of that landmark.
  • Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States is in the White House.
  • Prohibition is in effect.
  • Radio is a new invention. Telephones are less of a novelty and some now have dials.
  • There are street lights lit by the city of Lake Worth’s own electric company and city water is running through pipes in the ground.
  • Dixie Hwy or U.S. 1 was two lanes and was the main motor vehicle route north and south along the east coast of Florida.
  • The population of the state of Florida is 1,264,000 (Today it is the 3rd largest state, recently surpassing New York, at 19.9 million; Palm Beach County is now at 1.4 million people and part of the metropolitan area that includes Miami and Ft. Lauderdale. That area totals over 5 million people.)
Back to 1925. There is no Palm Beach International airport, there is no Florida Turnpike, there is no I-95. You most likely arrived in Lake Worth the first time by train on the Florida East Coast tracks: Flagler’s Railway.

The “new” Gulfstream Hotel - first called “El Nuevo” was under construction and will open in the fall of 1925.

Population of the state has increased 30% since 1920 due to the economic boom after the end of World War I, expansion and growth of the middle class, more reliable train transportation, mass production, affordability of the automobile, and additional leisure time.

This is the period when many of our cottages were built and more of these were of masonry construction: most roads were not paved, some might say that isn’t so different from today, but the Florida Land Boom was on, much speculation abounds in real estate. Cars were still not owned by everyone and access to garages, when they were built was from the alley. Most goods could be accessed by walking or biking to the corner store. In many pictures from this era, you see bikes leaning against the cottage at the front door.

An unusually cold winter in 1925, an unusually hot summer in the same year, then a major hurricane in Miami in 1926 which caused a ship to sink blocking the port, preventing building supplies from entering the “boom city”, soon after there was an embargo of building supplies entering south Florida as little freight was going back in return to the north, then the disastrous Hurricane of 1928 hit. This hurricane is referred to as the Okeechobee Hurricane due to the thousands of deaths that happened when Lake Okeechobee overflowed its banks.

The boom was then over and development in Lake Worth leveled off in the 1930s and 1940s, with the addition of more cottages during this period, however, not at the breakneck pace of what had occurred in the 1920s.

The Dawn of the Modern Age

World War II saw many located here for the war effort. Morrison Field, eventually to become Palm Beach International, was a military field and much of the United States operations in Africa originated from there. Population grew.

Areas north and south of the developed area of Lake Worth built up during this period. People who worked in the war effort liked it here and settled permanently.

The era of post World War II prosperity began. More house were built, houses got bigger and always had a one car garage, eventually a two car garage would become a standard feature.

People yearned for space for children to play. Areas with small lots like the Lake Worth’s cottages were thought of as congested. Zoning classifications were changed to make the area suitable for denser, multifamily development. These drained those with money and children toward newly developed areas with bigger lots north, south, but mostly west to land that had been considered swampland at one time but was now open to development due to extensive drainage projects.

In the 50s through the 1980s, many cottages were torn down to make way for condominiums. They dot the area where many cottages still survive today and are referred to as “cat walk” apartments, known for their long walkways along the front of the building, usually overlooking a parking lot for cars.

This was a tough era for many of our cottage buildings. Those that did not survive the redevelopment threat, went through changes which made them multiple living units, sometimes with inappropriate additions. Others succumbed to fire.

What protected the area from total urban renewal?

Likely the placement of the exits off of I-95 to the north and south of our downtown area, unlike most south Florida communities along the east coast. Our main roads through the downtown did not have a direct exit from the Interstate system due to the location of the Lake Worth High School and the city’s electric and water plant.

In fact, up until the last revision of our Comprehensive Plan, the area immediately south of the downtown could be redeveloped into projects that could have 30 units to an acre. Now the area is zoned as single family. The economic incentive present in the zoning has been removed, allowing for the enjoyment and preservation of many of the city’s historic structures, in particular the cottages.

Today, we have come full circle.

The Millennial Generation is ditching the car and turning to transit alternatives. A “bikeable” and “walkable” community is seen as an asset, with the car taking a "back seat".

The large “baby boomer” population is not only an “empty nester” family, but now retired, many looking to simplify and settle in a community that has a strong quality of life and a “uniqueness” component.

South Florida stands on the threshold for new rail service. Beyond Tri-Rail and Amtrak, we will soon have All Aboard Florida that will be a fast train with stops in Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Orlando.

There will eventually be local train service established linking the eastern downtown areas along the Florida East Coast railroad. So we have demographic changes and technological advancements that allow for more flexibility in where and how we work and live.

These Lake Worth cottages are survivors, perhaps survivors of the fittest that are again finding their day in the sun. That’s why we are here today to celebrate them and that is what gave birth to our special organization: the Cottages of Lake Worth.