Barbara Hill, Berne Davis, Bernese Barfield, Evalina Gonzales, Florida Arts, Fort Myers, Fort Myers post office, Franklin Arms Hotel, George W. Whitehurst Federal Building and US Courthouse, Heitman estate, Hill Fine Art Consulting, Jim Griffith, Mayor Jim Humphrey, SBDAC, Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center
Barbara Hill, Executive Director of the Edison and Ford Winter Estates Foundation, leaned slightly to Berne Davis, a member of the foundation’s board of directors. Mrs. Davis spoke quietly to her friend for a moment. Barbara nodded and stood and then, heart pounding, she approached Mayor Jim Humphrey. The year was 2006. The occasion was the city’s dedication of its historic federal building to the non-profit organization, Florida Arts, Inc., for restoration and renovation as a public arts facility. The project would require massive funding.
As Barbara approached the mayor, he was in conversation with Congressman Connie Mack. “Excuse me, Mr. Mayor,” Barbara said quietly. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I have a message for you from Ms. Berne Davis.”
Moments later, when the mayor stepped behind the podium, he paused to steady his voice. Then he leaned to the mic and announced that Berne Davis had just pledged one million dollars for the rehabilitation of the old federal building.
Angel of the Arts
For her contribution to the restoration project, the Lee County Alliance of the Arts gave Berne Davis their Angels of the Arts “Benefactor of the Year” award in 2007. A year later, and 7 years ago this month, the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center (SBDAC) held its grand opening.
From the distanced perspective of history, the SBDAC is more than a tribute to Sidney and Berne Davis’s decades of civic leadership and philanthropy. A culture center, rising from the ruins of a government building upon the wings of commerce—for it is largely with generous private and corporate donations that the SBCAC was born and continues to grow—is a monument to the apparently unquenchable aspirations of a city that evolved, through enterprise and industry, from the scraps of a wilderness fort into the commercial and cultural center of Lee County.
A VACANT LOT
A photo taken in 1928 from the rooftop of the Franklin Arms Hotel (today the Roetzel & Andress law association opposite the SBDAC), gives us a lofty perspective of the history of the site upon which the SBDAC now stands.
It shows that, in 1928, the site was a vacant lot. The owners of the property, the Heitman family, had cleared the lot in preparation for building there a $1 million hotel, but the dream had collapsed with the stock market and, eventually, they sold the property to the city for $10,000.
THE POST OFFICE
Meanwhile, in a desperate effort to provide work for the hundreds of unemployed in Lee County, the City of Fort Myers had wrestled a grant of $200,000 from the federal government to build a post office.
It is interesting to speculate whether the astounding 23,000-square-foot dimensions of the building, the sheer indestructability of the Florida keystone with which it was constructed, and the extravagance of its massive ionic columns (rivaling in grandeur those of the Parthenon in ancient Greece) was a testament to the architect’s ego, or a community conspiracy to keep as many men employed as long as possible. In either case, we can be certain that, as this masterpiece of Neoclassic Revival architecture rose slowly behind the scaffolding of construction workers, its progress was occasionally and casually observed by a teenage girl named Bernese Barfield, who, 73 years later, would help prevent its collapse into moldy rubble with the stroke of a pen.
THE FEDERAL BUILDING
In 1965, when a new post office opened on Monroe Street, the 1933 post office building on First Street was abandoned. For 2 years, the stately old building stood empty, its imposing and reproachful presence, like the proverbial elephant in the living room, largely ignored by the citizens of Fort Myers. But in the eyes of federal judge George W. Whitehurst, it had “courthouse” written all over it, and in 1967, largely through his efforts, the former post office was reborn as Fort Myers’ first federal building and courthouse. In 1984, by an act of the US Congress, it was named the George W. Whitehurst Federal Building and United States Courthouse.
In 1998, when the new US Courthouse and Federal Building at 2110 First Street was built, the George W. Whitehurst Federal Building was abandoned. For the next five years, while Fort Myers busied itself with revitalizing its historic river district, the only sound in the gloomy interior of this old building was the trickle of water. Most of the original fixtures of the building had previously been removed or plastered over, and now water infiltration, like the steady drip of a rusty faucet, was adding injury to the insult of decades of public use to ruin the interior of the building. If money were not raised to restore this decaying property, it would most certainly be condemned.
And then along came a Julliard-trained violinist for the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra.
Jim Griffith, founder of the non-profit Florida Arts, was looking for a downtown venue for the visual and performing arts. In his eyes, the abandoned old federal building had “art center” written all over it. Florida Arts obtained a 99-year lease on the building and CEO Jim Griffith shouldered responsibility for the Herculean task of obtaining funding for and directing the restoration work on the building.
Five years later, with a grant from the Florida Division of Historical Resources and matching funds from individual and corporate donors and the City of Fort Myers, Florida Arts had stabilized the building and restored some 10,000 square feet of the badly deteriorated interior, and on September 10, 2008, the Sidney and Berne Davis Art Center opened its doors.In the intervening 7 years, with additional local donations and grants from Florida’s Division of Cultural Affairs, Florida Arts has completed renovation of the second and third floors with more gallery, event, classroom and office space and a green room.
Ultimately, a rooftop sculpture garden will complete the building’s renovation as one of the finest venues for visual and performing arts and education programs in Florida.
Barbara Hill, now founder and CEO of Hill Fine Arts Consulting, says, “I applaud Jim Griffith for his hard work, unwavering energy and vision to see the restoration of this historic building to its successful completion. It was a labor of love for him, with the Fort Myers community as the beneficiary.”
Jim’s hard work included manual labor. In 2005, during Phase I of reconstruction, Jim was alerted that Berne Davis and Barbara Mann were on their way to tour the site. He frantically grabbed a broom and began sweeping up the construction debris littering the concrete floor. When the two grandes dames of Fort Myers society arrived, they encountered a perspiring, albeit grinning Jim Griffith waiting for them in a cloud of dust that was settling, like epaulets of grey ash, upon his shoulders.
ON THE WINGS OF COMMERCE…AND ANGELS
In the historical perspective, the cloud of dust that settled that day upon the broad shoulders of a young violinist was the ash of the past, out of which, like the mythic and golden Phoenix bird rising from its own ashes to new life, Jim Griffith would raise one of the most stunningly beautiful arts facilities in southwest Florida.