Burroughs Home, Caloosahatchee River, Cora Cobb, Fort Myers, Gayle McBride Pavilion, George F. Barber, Heitman, Howard Cole, John T. Murphy, Millionaires' Row, Nelson Burroughs, Punta Rassa, Royal Palm Hotel, Uncommon Friends, Walter G. Langford
Sometime in the 1920s, the Fort Myers Press ran this story:
“The beautiful Burroughs home on First Street was the scene of one of the most brilliant and charming entertainments of the winter season. Following a reception in the spacious front rooms, the 150 guests…then went to the moonlit tropical gardens. A grand march, a Virginia Reel and dancing were enjoyed upon the concrete tennis court. Peter van Deuyl’s orchestra furnished the music for the dancing.”
In the winter of 2015, the tennis court on the riverside lawn of the Burroughs home, where high society once danced in moonlight, was bulldozed in order to lay the foundation for the Gayle McBride Pavilion, which opened September 10 at the Burroughs Home and Gardens on First Street in Fort Myers. The Uncommon Friends Foundation, which manages this historic property, hopes that leasing the pavilion for public and private events will help fund their mission “to promote character education in schools, business ethics in the workplace and historic preservation of the Burroughs House and James Newton Archives.”
It is also expected that this new venue on the river will attract investment in other riverfront properties, in much the same way that the construction of the Burroughs house inspired, at the turn of the 20th century, the birth of “Millionaires’ Row” on east First Street.
A DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH
In 1898, about a year before construction began on the Burroughs house, Fort Myers had no hard-surfaced streets and certainly no sidewalks. It was on the wrong (south) side of a really big river with no bridge. The town had no municipal water system, no fire department, and no bank. Left to its own devices for entertainment, however, it had a brass band and a baseball club. And a dramatic society. The population, not counting the Seminoles wandering in with alligator hides for trade at Henderson’s general store, was 943. Cows and pigs foraged in the streets. The river front (no seawall) was a garbage and sewage dump.
The first tourists to venture into Fort Myers in the late 19th century, including Thomas Edison, came down to fish for tarpon and stayed out at the Tarpon House at Punta Rassa. They sailed upriver to Fort Myers only out of a leisurely curiosity, and perhaps to do a little shopping in Heitman’s general mercantile.
Let us suppose that in December of 1898, Mr. John Murphy, Montana cattle king and president of the Montana National Bank, stood at the window of his home in Helena, gazing out at clumps of snow the size of cow pies sliding off the branches of his trees. And that sipping brandy, he took a notion to go to Florida. At the moment, he had nothing better to do. He was a widower, his kids were grown and he was bored. Besides, since the war in Cuba, cattle in Florida were fetching $15 a head; cattlemen down there were making a killing. Mr. Murphy smelled opportunity.
And so Mr. Murphy went to Florida, beginning the journey on a train whistle-screaming through snow drifts across Montana, and ending on a steamboat lazily paddle-wheeling up the Caloosahatchee River to Fort Myers, Florida.
The Montana cattleman had come away from the stopover in Punta Rassa under-impressed with the scrawny Florida cattle. Now, as he stood on the deck of the steamboat watching the little town of Fort Myers glide by, he made no comment. Fort Myers was not unlike any cow town out West. But then he began to catch glimpses of his hotel through the foliage of…what are those things? Palm trees?
Mr. Murphy had booked rooms at the Royal Palm Hotel, reputedly the finest resort hotel in Florida. At night, the resort sparkled with electric lights, and the hotel’s privileged guests enjoyed the luxury of toilets and porcelain bathtubs. Advertisements exclaimed over the imported tropical flora, especially the magnificent royal palms with which the hotel grounds were landscaped.
Now, as the hotel gradually emerged from palms and exotic flowers, Mr. Murphy whistled softly between his teeth. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he said.
He stayed all winter. There was the fishing, the balmy river breezes, the seductive rustling of palms, and Cora. Mr. Murphy met Ms. Cora Cobb of Providence, Rhode Island, in the hotel. When he confided to her his interest in building a winter home in Florida, she said that she knew Mr. Andrews, also of Providence, who owned the lots across the street. Actually, it was he who had recommended the Royal Palm Hotel to her.
Mr. Murphy bought the lots, drew up the plans for his house with Tennessee architect George F. Barber, and threw open the construction project to bids. A few months later, the complete house-building kit, in 137 crates, arrived by steamship from Tampa.
“A PALATIAL RESIDENCE” swooned the Press in October, 1899, publishing a full 2-page description of the house to be built on the corner of First and Fowler. When completed in 1901, Mr. Murphy’s Georgian Revival masterpiece rocked Fort Myers on its heels.
As if it were an expression of his love for his bride-to-be, Cora Cobb, Murphy’s new home was a baker’s dream of a 7000-square-foot, 3-layer wedding cake.
Perfectly symmetrical, the house was embellished with icings of glass—large glass windows crowned with glass sunbursts and double glass doors with beveled glass sidelights. Its sweeping, wraparound veranda adorned the façade like bridal lace and the widow’s walk crowned the whole like a tiara. At sunset, the cypress roof shingles glowed as if lit with candles, and through windows shimmering with electric lights, one glimpsed at the center of this confection, the chocolaty richness of mahogany, heart maple, and oak.
Mr. Murphy’s house was the first showplace home in Fort Myers. It modeled what Fort Myers could be, and with the arrival of the railroad 3 years later, would become.
The man credited with bringing the Atlantic Coast Line railroad into Fort Myers was Walter G. Langford. With the railroad came new industry, civic improvements, more investment and, ultimately, the homes which, in the splendid example of Mr. Murphy, began to blossom along both sides of east First Street, proudly referred to now as “Millionaires’ Row.”
In 1914, Mr. Murphy died in Helena of typhoid pneumonia and Cora, who never returned to Fort Myers, sold their Fort Myers home for $1 to her banker, Mr. Walter Langford. Nine months later, after making improvements to the property, which included a tennis court (the first in Fort Myers), Mr. Langford sold the house to Mr. Howard Cole of New York for $1000.
Mr. Cole had thought the house would make a nice wedding present for his fiancé, but his fiancé thought otherwise, and with the help of Walter Langford, Mr. Cole quickly found another buyer for the property—Nelson T. Burroughs out of Chicago, an associate in the banking and cattle business. Nelson and Addie Burroughs, with their unmarried daughters, Jettie and Mona, 39 and 27 years old respectively, moved in to the house in 1919.
The Burroughs family entertained regally. For a decade, their winter home was the scene of the most remarkable social events in town, attended by many of the who’s who of America, including “uncommon friends,” Edison, Ford and Firestone.
Mr. and Mrs. Burroughs died within months of each other in 1932, and their daughters made the house in Fort Myers more or less their permanent home. Jettie lived until 1971 and Mona until 1978. As her sister Jettie had wished, Mona bequeathed the house to the city of Fort Myers, to be preserved in perpetuity as a public garden or museum.
Listed today on the National Register of Historic Places, the Murphy-Burroughs Home is much more than a museum. As a venue for public and private events, the house and gardens continue to be the setting for some of the “most brilliant and charming entertainments of the winter season.” And in the new Gayle McBride Pavilion, where party guests once waltzed upon a moonlit tennis court, brides will swirl their gowns, violins will sing, and the river will carry with it yet again, in scallops of moonlight, the sound of happy voices and laughter.