Crossing the Edison Bridge into Fort Myers, one glimpses to the left the garden setting of the historic Burroughs Home trembling in fragile suspension between its sedate past and the brutal roar of modern traffic. To the right, one confronts the flat face of a pink, 24-story building now in its 9th year of abandonment and decay. Behind this building squats the intestinal coil of a parking garage in matching Pepto Bismol pink. This property has been recently purchased and is undergoing reconstruction and renovation. It will reopen as rental apartments for 55+ tenants.
Destined today for a geriatric community, the lot on the corner of First Street and Fowler is one of the most significant in the history of Lee County, for here once stood the first tourist attraction in Fort Myers.
One day in 1896, excited voices suddenly rose above the afternoon monotony of clicking billiard balls and quiet conversation in a saloon on First Street in Fort Myers. A copy of the Fort Myers Press was going quickly from hand to hand. Headlining the front page was the astounding news that the Hendry House hotel on the corner of First and Fowler had been sold and that a $70,000 luxury resort hotel was slated for the site. The buyer and developer was none other than their old pal, New York City department store magnate, Hugh O’Neill.
Built in 1887, the Hugh O’Neill department store on 6th Avenue in New York occupied an entire city block. Within the triangular pediment in the center of the cast-iron façade, the building identified itself in massive letters as “HUGH O’NEILL,” as if the building were the man himself, full-chested and beaming, with lapels fisted, the bullied Irish immigrant boy now looming in Jehovian splendor and power 5 stories above Manhattan. O’Neill’s was the largest department store in the world.
FORTUNATELY FOR FORT MYERS
To the great, good fortune of Fort Myers, railway giant, Henry B. Plant, chose to furnish all the posh hotels along his railway line in west Florida out of O’Neill’s store. And didn’t that bring the great O’Neill himself on a whistle-stop excursion all the way down to Plant’s hotel in Punta Gorda where he arrived, amid clouds of hissing steam, one fine day in 1893? And didn’t the hotel proprietor send him tarpon fishing over to Punta Rassa? Sure, and didn’t he have a whale of a time catching the mighty tarpon and come back year after year to fish and enjoy a bit o’ sport upriver with the boys in Fort Myers?
ON A WINK AND A DARE
Hugh O’Neill employed in his store 2500 people, 3 times the number of residents in the whole of Fort Myers, a fact which may have sobered the cattle drovers and townsmen who enjoyed his company every winter. But, though innocent of his financial power, they were sure of his worth. They liked him. And thus, in winter, while the ladies in O’Neill’s store on 6th Avenue murmured over the latest Sicilian silk wrap embroidered with cut jet beads, the emperor of this princely emporium was in a saloon down in Fort Myers dealing Black Jack.
One night, as O’Neill stacked his poker chips, he said, “You know, all this town needs is a first-rate hotel and sure it’d be the number one resort in southwest Florida.” Somebody answered, cocky-like, “Then why don’t you build one?” and O’Neill, with a cigar clenched between his teeth, glanced up at the joker with a grin.
THE ROYAL PALM
The grand opening of Hugh O’Neill’s ultra-modern Fort Myers Hotel on Monday evening, January 17, 1898, was the most glittering social event in the history of Fort Myers. The town’s leading citizens arrived in evening attire, their eyes sparkling with the electric lights that illumined the rooms. Wandering the carpeted corridors with glasses of sparkling champagne, they admired above all the luxurious amenity of toilets and porcelain bathtubs on each floor.
In time, O’Neill landscaped the grounds with exotic tropical plants and trees, including the first Royal Palms ever to grace the young town. Adroitly renaming his creation “The Royal Palm Hotel,” he hired a publicity agent to market the resort in every major newspaper in the Northeast and Midwest. From New York to Boston and Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., diamond-ringed fingers traced steamship routes to a place as exotic and remote to them as Nepal and Tanganyika.
Mr. O’Neill had put Fort Myers on the map as a tourist attraction.
CEILING FANS AND INK PENS
The power brokers came to Fort Myers to fish, and got hooked. While their wives idled away their days clicking croquet balls about the lawn of the Royal Palm, napping before dinner on lace-edged pillows, the curls on their foreheads flirting with the breezes from ceiling fans, their husbands bent over desks in attorneys’ offices to sign purchase papers for town lots and citrus groves and contracts with construction companies, architects and plantation overseers.
O’Neill had lit the fuse that ignited the first building boom in the history of Fort Myers.
SOFTLY, THE WIND IN THE PALMS
Hugh O’Neill died in 1902. His passing, like a gentle wind in the palms, affected an atmosphere of loss in the great hotel on the river. The resort changed hands a couple of times and in the panic of 1907, closed.
And then along came Tootie. One of the wealthiest independent women in the world, Tootie McGregor had invested a considerable amount of money in Fort Myers. To save the Royal Palm, she and her second husband, Dr. Marshall Terry, bought it and dumped a small fortune into renovating and expanding the hotel with 50 more rooms. In the ensuing pre-WWI building boom, the Royal Palm illumined the town again with elegant balls and dainty, white-gloved teas, the murmur of voices in the dining room and the light laughter on the lawns never ceasing.
HAPPY DAYS ARE HERE AGAIN
In the shimmering, shimmying 1920s, while screaming hotel guests did cannon balls in the swimming pool by day, and gambled in the river casino by night, the population of Fort Myers burst the seams of the city limits 8 times over. In 1925 alone, nearly 3 million building permits were issued for everything from subdivisions and tourist courts to hot dog stands. The railroad was forced to embargo freight shipments to Fort Myers to clear the bottlenecks at railway junctions. No problem. The builders brought in their materials by river barge and the good times rolled on. In the Royal Palm, kids slammed the floors with the Charleston and the Black Bottom, the Camel Walk and the Chicken Scratch, and the walls reverberated with the tumbling rhythm of the drums.
But then, just as bubblegum POPS with a flat smack over your nose and mouth, the party ended. The tenor pitch of the slide trombone faded into the slow-moaning hangover of the Great Depression, and the Royal Palm began its inevitable decline into obsolescence. The casino closed; the water in the swimming pool turned green. A whole section of the old hotel was condemned and demolished.
COMIN’ IN ON A WING AND A PRAYER
Briefly, during WWII, the lights snapped back on. The old hotel reopened to help house the tens of thousands of soldiers arriving to train at Page and Buckingham air fields. The ballroom filled with the music of Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, with the happy sound of ice cubes tumbling into high ball glasses, with slow curling cigarette smoke. The saxophone squealed and the walls shook with the Lindy, the jitterbug sling and the stomping, boogie woogie shag. A gunnery sergeant leapt to his feet and blistered the night with lips tight to the mouth of his trumpet. The shriek gave a start even to Miss Jettie Burroughs, who lay quietly turning the pages of her book in her stately old home across the street.
And then one night the last musician snapped his instrument case shut and the lights went out. The war was over.
CLEARED FOR DEVELOPMENT
In 1947, a developer purchased the hotel property from the Dr. M. O. Terry estate. The land was to be cleared for development. Wheeling and backing, lurching and slamming, the wreckers maneuvered for days in a killing frenzy until, in November, 1948, the last wall collapsed. Then the engine of a bulldozer started up. Like a woman sweeping, the dozer went round and round the wreckage, scraping it into a tidy pile. A demolition supervisor sprinkled gasoline over the rubble and struck a match. With a WHOOM, the remains of the Royal Palm Hotel shot up in flames.
But the Royal Palm had accomplished its builder’s purpose. It had spurred the development that would turn Fort Myers into, arguably, the number one winter resort in southwest Florida.
And sure, shouldn’t we all rise in a standing ovation for the man himself, then—to our old pal, Mr. Hugh O’Neill!