African American Citizens of Lee County, Anderson Avenue, Andy Kirk, bolita, Buck McCollum, Buckingham Gunnery School, City of Fort Myers Community Redevelopment Agency, Clifford McCollum, Duke Ellington, Dunbar, Florida Division of Historic Preservation, Frank Bail A1A Architect, Jones Walker Hospital, Lee County Black Historical Society, McCollum Hall, McCollum Place, Page Field, Parker Mudgett Smith Architecture, Safety Hill, This Place Matters, Twelve Clouds of Joy, Walter (Rev.) Cannady
It is dusk in Safety Hill, a community just east of the Atlantic Coast Line railroad tracks in Fort Myers. Anderson Avenue, the main road through Safety Hill, is a crumbling blacktop over a base of crushed shell. It is bordered by dirt foot paths and littered weeds. But for the reflections cast by a few street lamps, the windows of the small businesses along either side of the street are dark.
But suddenly, as the last light of day fades, the M-shaped, Art Deco lights on the front of a new, 2-story building on the corner of Anderson and Cranford come to life. The tile façade of the building glows the color of Bit-O-Honey candy, and the people who have been converging on the building give a sharp intake of breath. Excited murmuring and quiet laughter follows and then the front door opens and into the burst of light from the doorway steps Buck McCollum.
Buck wears a finely tailored suit with a silk tie. In his breast pocket, a silk handkerchief is folded into 3 sharp points. From the lapel of his suit jacket blooms a red carnation. Beaming, his face like a full, mahogany moon, Buck shakes hands with the people crowding the door. The grand opening of McCollum Hall has been anticipated for months. Tonight, a hundred or more men and women eagerly pump Buck’s hand as they pass through the front door and ascend the stairs to the upper level dance floor. There they stop and stare, oblivious to the frenzied impatience of the people jamming the stairwell behind them.
The over 2500-square-foot dance hall is softly radiant with light, the polished dance floor glimmering with the candy colors of the lights strung across the ceiling. To the far right of the stairs, on a slightly elevated stage, twelve musicians, in dark suits and white shirts with black silk bow ties, stand with their glittering instruments held loosely at their sides. Almost formally, but with a gentle light of good humor in their eyes, they watch their awestruck audience slowly fill the room. Buck comes up the stairway at last, walks in glittering shoes across the floor to the stage, and turns to his hushed audience. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to McCollum Hall. I’m real glad everybody could come out tonight.” He introduces the band leader, who steps forward and bows to applause, then turns and nods to his band.
The Twelve Clouds of Joy lift their instruments, and Andy Kirk, Kansas City jazz band leader of one of the most popular swing bands in the country, a Decca recording artist of scores of albums, and 12-week top seller on the Billboard charts for his sweet and sexy, “I Won’t Tell a Soul (I Love You),” bends his head to the mouthpiece of his saxophone, swings the flashing instrument swiftly upward, and the screaming first note of the alto sax rips the night.
McCollum Hall is silent now. Seventy seven years after its grand opening, the building at 2717 Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard (formerly Anderson Avenue) stands gutted, a prey to the pitiless cruelty of both time and vandals. Vestiges of its boarding-house phase remain; on the wall back of the former stage area, a metal toilet paper holder hangs crookedly from remnants of bathroom tile on the wall.
Voices from the Past
In 1996-‘97, the Lee County Black Historical Society interviewed people who grew up in Safety Hill, later called Dunbar, and in their “Collection of Transcripts of the Oral History of African American Citizens of Lee County,” we hear the voices of the only people then living who remembered McCollum Hall in the 1930s and ‘40s. They speak of Count Basie, Louie Armstrong, B.B. King, Lionel Hampton, Otis Redding and Lucky Milliner playing there during the swing and bebop eras of the ‘40s. Duke Ellington and his orchestra were here in 1947, only months before Ellington recorded a live album at Carnegie Hall. These big name bands were booked between gigs along the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” a string of performance venues in the Southeast and Mid-West for black entertainers.
The people interviewed for the oral history of Lee County tell us that, during WWII, McCollum Hall was the USO for the black soldiers stationed at Page Field and Buckingham Gunnery School. Although the USO for white soldiers was at the Pleasure Pier in Fort Myers, white soldiers also went to McCollum. A rope across the dance floor divided the room between whites and “coloreds,” but, says one of the interviewees, “when the dancing started, the rope came down.”
McCollum Hall was more than a dance hall. Designed by Frank Bail, A1A Architect, who drew up the 1947 master plan for Florida State University, McCollum Hall is actually two buildings of nearly 10,000 square feet combined, consisting, on three sides, of masonry walls surfaced with stucco. The fronts of the buildings are structural tile. The ground floor of the 2-story building was sectioned off into 3 rental spaces for businesses. The single-story building next to it was also divided into spaces for lease. Some of the businesses that operated there were a liquor store, a barber shop, a grocery, a men’s clothing store, and a coffee shop. Upscale McCollum Hall was the social and commercial heart of the Dunbar community.
Who Was Buck McCollum?
The man who built McCollum Hall is a bit of a mystery. His given name was Frank Clifford McCollum, Sr. and, according to census records, he was born in the rural community of Pascola, Missouri, on September 1, 1903. He seems to have been in Fort Myers at least by 1934, engaged in bolita gambling, a popular game of chance not unlike the lottery, in which 100 numbered balls are placed in a bag and then bets taken on which number will be drawn. It is generally assumed that Mr. McCollum got his start by running bolita games, which enabled him to invest in land, commercial buildings and rental housing in Safety Hill and (according to one family source) on Florida’s east coast, as well.
Buck McCollum is remembered in the oral histories as having been “the financing guy” in the community. For instance, he financed both a men’s and a women’s baseball team, recruiting Cuban players from Tampa for the men’s team. His semi-pro teams played in their own ball park in Dunbar, hosting and visiting teams all over the state. A couple of the players, like Walter (Rev.) Cannady, went professional with the Negro Baseball League.
Buck McCollum was only fifty when he died in 1953 at Jones-Walker Hospital in Dunbar, possibly of thyroid cancer. He was survived by his wife, Gertrude, who lived until 1998, and his son, Frank Clifford, Jr., who died in 2009 at the age of 67.
Over the decades since Buck McCollum’s death, McCollum Hall has been used variously as a pick-up site for day laborers, as a venue for Dunbar High School proms, and as a rehearsal hall for Dunbar High School bands. In the mid-80s, the second floor dance hall was subdivided into rooms for boarders.
But in 1998, the City of Fort Myers designated McCollum Hall a local historic landmark, and in 2007, the City of Fort Myers Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) purchased the property from the McCollum family for restoration and redevelopment. By this time, the roofs of both buildings, as well as the second level flooring were near collapse.
In 2014, the Florida Division of Historic Preservation awarded the McCollum Hall project a Special Category grant of $500,000 and in January, 2015, the CRA hired the architectural firm of Parker Mudgett Smith to prepare façade restoration plans. (Parker Mudgett restoration projects include, among others, the historic Edison-Ford Estates, the Bradford building, the Langford-Kingston home, and the Lee County Court House in the historic district of Fort Myers.)
In the meantime, efforts to persuade the state of Florida to nominate McCollum Hall for a place on the National Registry of Historic Places have failed and more funds are desperately needed to continue the work in progress.
A fair question is, “Why?” After all, restoration cannot bring back the spring night in 1938 when the people of Safety Hill swayed, smiling, to the fluid and mellow jazz of Andy Kirk. All the money in the world cannot bring back the WWII soldiers jogging up the stairs to sling the girls in the “Hellzapoppin” Lindy Hop, and the piano notes of the “C Jam Blues” that once tip-toed from Duke Ellington’s fingertips down a starlit Anderson Avenue cannot be recalled.
The CRA says restoration matters because: resurrecting McCollum Hall as a retail, restaurant and event/conference venue will provide much needed retail businesses, services and employment opportunities in the area; a new McCollum Place could be a catalyst to the redevelopment of the MLK corridor; and “A restored McCollum Hall will enrich the cultural fabric of our community and our city.”
McCollum Hall is the only place in Fort Myers that was once a pulse beat for Kansas City and New Orleans jazz, for Beale Street Blues. This fact alone gives it incalculable potential as a new historic, urban-ethnic market area. In the cultural fabric of our community, McCollum Hall history adds a unique and richly textured weave.
Perhaps, most importantly of all, McCollum Hall is a source of pride to the community it once served and as such, it is a haunting presence. Like a specter, it points to the past, reminding us that exclusion is a self-inflicted wound called loss; the people of Safety Hill were not allowed to cross the railroad tracks after dark, and thus the private tour buses of some of the greatest composers, musicians and vocalists in the history of jazz did not cross them, either.
Mute and empty as McCollum Hall stands, however, the green life sprouting from the tiled facade suggests a heartbeat. Like the man with the face of a mahogany moon who pinned a red carnation to the lapel of his jacket, McCollum Hall is a silent reminder of the indomitable spirit of a people who, out of the terrors of the night, reached for the stars.