Islamorada takes stock of historic sites

In the early 1900s, agriculture — not tourism — dominated the economy of Islamorada.

What are now developed neighborhoods of oceanside homes and resorts were once large tracts of pineapple farms and canneries.

One such remnant of Islamorada’s history is a pair of cisterns located on Carroll Street near the Islander Resort. The rock bunkers date back to 1917 and were part of a cannery run by the Pinder family, one of Islamorada’s earliest settlers.

Although some locals knew of the site, it was never known to the Florida Department of State’s Division of Historical Resources, which catalogs Florida’s landmarks, until now.

It was one of 390 architectural sites and 29 more archeological sites documented in a comprehensive, 10-month survey of Islamorada completed in mid-June and adopted by the village council last week.

The survey, performed by GAI Consultants for $35,000, is a requirement of Islamorada’s comprehensive plan and provides a historic overview of Islamorada, identifies historical sits and make recommendations for future historic preservation.

Click here to see DocumentClick here to view the Islamorada historical and archeological survey

Jim Clupper, local historian and former librarian at the Helen Wadley Branch Library in Islamorada, said the survey could be a large step to sites like the pineapple farm cisterns and many historic homes in Islamorada being preserved for future generations.

“A lot of the homes and buildings have been renovated or changed, and certainly there’s going to be many, many of them that are not worthy of preservation. But there are a lot that are,” said Clupper, who is also chair of the Islamorada Historic Preservation Commission.

“My hope is that we can get the village government to adopt a lot of the recommendations in the report,” he added. “There is still a good bit of historical buildings here, but they’re disappearing.”

The survey identified so many sites because it included every building, house and road that was at least 50 years old, including prehistoric mounds, cemeteries and archaeological sites much older.

However, more than 30 of those “historical resources” could be eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places and as local landmarks under village code, according GAI.

Islamorada currently has a handful sites listed in the National Register of Historic Places, including the 1935 Hurricane Monument, Lignumvitae Key archaeological site and a few shipwrecks.

The survey also identifies 32 homes and streets within the Bay Ridge neighborhood on Plantation Key and Pen Key Club subdivision on Upper Matecumbe Key that GAI recommends be designated as historic districts and local landmarks, which could bring restrictions on what homeowners can do with their homes.

GAI identified 24 other sites, including Red Cross hurricane houses, the 1935 Hurricane Monument and the Old Highway, that could be added to an existing historic designation of structures relating to President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal work projects in Florida.

The study further recommends that the village consider allowing historic designation of a building without the owner’s consent and making the village’s Historic Preservation Committee the deciding body on certain development reviews of those structures instead of the village council.

“I think that’s needed,” Clupper said. “Basically, the planning department could issue demolition permits for every one of [these historic sites], and the historic preservation commission wouldn’t know.”

Although the village council adopted the survey by resolution, the accompanying staff report stated several times that adoption would not include any of the recommendations, including historic designations.

But Clupper and another one of Islamorada’s leading historians, Irving Eyster, say the village should eventually adopt the study’s recommendations or see more of Islamorada’s history quickly fade away.

“It’s getting harder to keep the significant ones intact, like the Green Turtle [restaurant], and that [redevelopment] was excused because the building was in such bad shape,” Eyster said. “Papa Joe’s [restaurant] is another one, but it is almost impossible to rebuild or restore it to the way it was.”

Eyster, a former archaeologist and former historic preservation commission chair, said many of the sites in the survey have little historic significance other than being 50 years old, but ones that do should be preserved.

Both said the survey itself didn’t uncover many new historical or archaeological sites, but some will now be formally listed with the Florida Department of State.

The two neighborhoods recommended for local landmark designations include many 1950’s-era concrete-block homes that are “well-maintained examples of masonry vernacular style domestic architecture constructed between 1951 and 1958,” the survey states.

Clupper said although some homeowners might not want to add restrictions, historic designation would just add one more layer to already restrictive land use codes, and preserve community character.

Designation also has some benefits, he said, including exemption from the law that requires a home destroyed or severely damaged in a storm to be rebuilt up to current code.

“You can build it back exactly as it was, and that could save somebody a lot of money and preserve something historical,” Clupper said.