RIVER CITYBY SANDRA THURLOW
Why does downtown Stuart look the way it does? The short answer: so a railroad could save money.
Of course there’s a long answer as well. To explain that one, let’s go back to 1894 and take a look at Stuart’s formative days, when the city, like a newborn baby, was beginning to develop its character.
Stuart grew up alongside waterfront docks and Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway. When the railroad built a bridge across the St. Lucie River, it picked a spot where two peninsulas made the job easier. Easier, naturally, was also cheaper.
If the peninsulas had run due north and south, the bridge would have aligned with the neat east-west, north-south grid laid down by federal government surveyors, but money, not neatness, drives railroads. And this one continued at the angle it crossed the river, ignoring the government lines.
With the advent of automobile travel, the Dixie Highway was constructed. It could have been built due north and south, but a precedent had been set, so the highway was laid down beside the railroad tracks. For five years it stopped at the water’s edge, where the cars mounted a ferry for the river crossing. But in 1918, the highway got a bridge right beside its railroad counterpart.
Other roads evolved from trails that ran along property lines determined by the north, south, east and west government grid. When one of those roads — today’s Colorado Avenue originally called Belle Flora after a homesteader’s daughters — crossed the railroad tracks, it created an intersection later dubbed Confusion Corner.
Stuart was first called Potsdam, a name chosen by the Germans who originally outnumbered settlers from other countries. The name was submitted by Otto Stypmann, who became postmaster of the settlement in 1892. Soon after the railway arrived, however, the postal duties were transferred to an Englishman, Broster Kitching, whose brother, Walter, owned 15 acres on the south side of the St. Lucie River where the railway bridge met the shore. Walter Kitching, anticipating the opening of the region with the coming of the railroad, turned his trade boat over to his nephew and built a general store beside the railway bridge.
The Englishmen now had control of the city, and they didn’t want it to be called Potsdam, and they weren’t keen on having the railroad depot on the north side of the St. Lucie River.
The Stuart family had donated the land for the northside depot, and Flagler officials had promised the Stuarts it would bear their name. The promise was kept when the depot, with the Stuart name still affixed, was loaded onto a flatcar and transported to the south side of the river.
The newly southern depot was advantageously placed in front of Walter Kitching’s store and soon was the center of commercial activity. Postal authorities changed the name of Potsdam to Stuart on June 15, 1895.
The era was the heyday of commercial fishing and pineapple culture. Soon additional freight warehouses and docks were constructed near the depot, and a rail spur connected the area to the river beside the bridge. Other stores sprang up to meet the needs of the growing community.
The Stypmanns, you might have expected, were not pleased with these changes. Ernest Stypmann, who owned 54 acres in what is now Historic Downtown Stuart, moved to preserve Potsdam. In 1897 he platted the Potsdam subdivision on the southwest side of the railroad tracks, laying it out with lettered and numbered streets. Some of his numbered streets survive today. But Fourth Street, a main thoroughfare that contributed to Confusion Corner, became Ocean Boulevard in 1959, after construction of the “Bridges to the Sea,” now known as the Evans Crary Sr. and Ernest F. Lyons bridges.
Commercial buildings were constructed in line with Walter Kitching’s original store, following the angle of the railroad tracks. Kitching’s nephew, Stanley, and his brother, Broster, had stores of their own, and George W. Parks erected a general merchandise store in 1901. It still stands as the Stuart Heritage Museum. These buildings, as well as several homes and a hotel, were built before the land was platted as the Danforth’s Addition to the Town of Stuart.
One of the people who purchased land that was platted as Danforth’s Addition was former President Grover Cleveland, who enjoyed fishing vacations in Stuart in the early 1900s. The land where the Stuart City Commission Chambers is today was purchased by Cleveland in 1905. Cleveland never built in Stuart, but because he owned the land at the time of his death, his will is on file in courthouse records.
Stuart didn’t take off until 1912, when Harry C. Feroe came to town with C.C. Chillingworth, who developed Palm City. Feroe built the St. Lucie Hotel, then purchased land and platted the Feroe Subdivision between Flagler and Osceola avenues. This is the center of Historic Downtown Stuart. Feroe donated a building lot for the community’s first bank, and he built the Feroe Building. Housing the Stuart Drug Store and the Stuart post office, it became the hub of activity.
A new FEC passenger depot was constructed just outside the post office door, and going for mail soon after it arrived by train became a daily social event. The railway depot was demolished after the FEC discontinued passenger service in the 1960s, but the Feroe Building stands today as law offices.
In the early 1920s, Stuart was possessed, like the rest of Florida, with boom-time frenzy. The town did not want to be left behind, so it hired George W. Maher, a renowned city planner from Chicago, to draw up a city plan. Ironically, it shows a fountain very near where Geoffrey Smith’s sailfish fountain stands today.
In 1925, Flagler Avenue was widened and the buildings that were in line with Walter Kitching’s store were moved back 40 feet or razed. The Peacock Arcade was constructed where Stuart City Hall stands today and was aligned with the Feroe Building and the New Lyric Theatre, which was built in 1926. The post office was moved to a new building, the post office Arcade, which stands between Osceola and Seminole streets.
After he was hired in 1926, Stuart’s first city manager, Ralph E. Mahr, decided that the town should have a systematic way of naming streets. East-west streets were named with numbers — except for Osceola. Avenues were to run north and south with alphabetical state names assigned to main arteries and city names appended to less important avenues.
In 1959, thepost office moved from the Post Office Arcade to Seventh Street, now Martin L. King Jr. Boulevard. Beginning in the 1960s, shopping centers were built in outlying areas and downtown Stuart became a ghost town. In 1985,the City Commission declared it a blighted area and created the Community Redevelopment Agency to spearhead its revitalization. Community leaders were determined to reverse the exodus from downtown by building the new courthouse in the same place as the old one and establishing Stuart Main Street in 1987.
With the sponsorship of the Economic Council, renowned Miami architects Andres Duany and his wife, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, were persuaded to tackle the project. They prepared an ambitious blueprint for redevelopment that incorporated many of the things community leaders were already envisioning. The new courthouse opened in early 1989, but with Duany’s encouragement, local architects saved the Art Deco section of the old courthouse. It became the Court House Cultural Center.
Duany proclaimed what locals knew: That the restoration and use of the Lyric Theatre was crucial to the creation of a vibrant downtown. Joan Jefferson, a city commissioner, with her architect husband Peter Jefferson and good friends Dr. David and Ann MacMillan, led the effort to restore vitality to downtown Stuart. They purchased the rundown Post Office Arcade and established Peter’s architectural office in one of the Osceola Street storefronts. The Jeffersons transformed the space behind the office into a residence where they frequently entertained. A cafe opened at the arcade entrance and trendy shops soon lined the hallway leading to Ann MacMillan’s newly opened bookstore. Stuart’s revitalization had been launched.
Concerned citizens founded The Friends of the Lyric Inc. in 1987 and purchased the theater from a church the following year. The theater’s eventual success, just as Duany had predicted, has been instrumental in creating a vibrant historical downtown.
The rounded female form of Abundance, the centerpiece of a fountain in Haney Circle at the intersection of Colorado Avenue and Osceola Street, was purchased by the community for the community under the leadership of the Stuart Woman’s Club in 1949. The statue by Manya Kanolei was selected by French officials for exhibition at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, but the possibility of World War II made it impossible for the French to participate. Aura Fike Jones, president of the Woman’s Club, learned through her son, who lived in New York City, that the statue could be acquired by paying its storage bill. The original plan was for it to be placed in Haney Circle, but the statue was instead installed beside the Martin County Courthouse until courthouse expansion led to its being moved to Memorial Park. Finally, in 1991, Abundance was placed in a newly constructed fountain in Haney Circle as part of the revitalization of Historic Downtown Stuart.
The New Roosevelt Bridge, completed in 1997, required the demolition of a number of historic buildings on the Potsdam side of the Florida East Coast Railway tracks. However, something happened in 2003 to make up for the loss. Geoffrey Smith’s magnificent sailfish sculpture given to the city of Stuart by the Sellian family to honor Ed Sellian Sr. was installed in a fountain at the entrance to the Historic Downtown.
On Feb. 8, 2003, Second Street became “Joan Jefferson Way” when the fountain was dedicated during a ceremony that marked the 15th anniversary of the creation of Stuart Main Street, which was credited with the city’s rebirth.
Although Historic Downtown Stuart is bustling, compared with its condition in the 1980s, it is in need of another rebirth. With the economic downturn, a number of businesses have closed and once again there are empty storefronts. Local leaders have already taken action. The City Commission, working with the Martin County Commission, is developing plans for an Amtrak station and transportation center near the Martin County Courthouse. Also, the City Commission has offered to donate Sailfish Park, the eight-acre ball field near the courthouse, to the county if it constructs offices for its constitutional officers on the property. Locating county offices downtown will generate about $1 million per year in new business for merchants.
Today, with more the 100 retail shops, 23 restaurants and 70 other businesses, downtown Stuart is starting a new chapter. In January, the city released details of a plan to bring Martin County’s constitutional offices back to downtown and to build a comprehensive downtown government center that would be located on the eight-acre Sailfish Park. The plan would generate an estimated $1 million annually for the downtown economy.
It has received initial support from the Stuart City Commission, Stuart Downtown Business Association, Stuart Main Street and the East Stuart Main Street program.
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