Strolling through time in downtown FWB


TONY JUDNICH @Tonyjnwfdn

FORT WALTON BEACH — Unlike those who live in and cherish old and well-known American cities such as Savannah and Charleston, not many local residents seem to be aware of or appreciate Fort Walton Beach’s historical gems, Ted Corcoran says.

But the planned relocation of the historic Gulfview Hotel building in downtown hopefully will generate more interest in the city’s landmarks, said Corcoran, president and CEO of the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce. The relocation also could spur efforts to help preserve some of the city’s other remaining historic properties, said Gail Lynn Meyer, museum manager at the city’s Heritage Park and Cultural Center.

Corcoran and Meyer note that 15 to 20 years ago, the city’s now-defunct Historic Sites and Structures Board listed more than 20 local historic sites in a brochure titled “A Historical Walk in Fort Walton Beach.”

Today, a dozen of the sites, including the first City Hall, the Old St. Mary’s Rectory and the Little Chapel in Vandegriff Park, still have identification signs that feature the city’s logo, the name of the site and the words, “Historic Walking Tour.”

While the Historic Sites and Structures Board was disbanded about four years ago and at least two of its members have died, history buffs still have access to a perhaps little-known, yet comprehensive guide that highlights historic properties.

In 2008, the staff of the Heritage Park and Cultural Center produced a glossy, picture-filled pamphlet that lists 28 historic sites along with a description of each property. Titled “A Heritage Walk of Historic Downtown Fort Walton Beach,” the pamphlet received financial assistance from the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency and contains most of the sites listed in the old brochure.

A copy of the pamphlet can be purchased for $5 at the Heritage Park and Cultural Center at 139 Miracle Strip Parkway S.E.

“A lot of our visitors who are not from here are interested in the history of the downtown area,” Meyer said.

The “Heritage Walk” pamphlet includes parking information and lists downtown Fort Walton Beach’s remaining historic sites in three sections:

• Nine of the sites, including Brooks Memorial Cemetery, the Docie Bass House and the Old St. Mary’s Rectory, are in the “North Walk” area north of Miracle Strip Parkway and between Beal and Eglin parkways

• Six sites, including the Fort Walton Temple Mound and Camp Walton Schoolhouse Museum, are part of the “Triangle Walk” area, bordered by Miracle Strip Parkway, Perry Avenue, Eglin Parkway and First Street

• Thirteen sites, including the Gulfview Hotel, the Indianola Mound and the French/Wade House (now the Magnolia Grill) are in the “South Walk” area between Miracle Strip Parkway and Santa Rosa Sound.

The Gulfview Hotel at 12 Miracle Strip Parkway S.E. was built in 1906 and was one of the first hotels in the area then known as Camp Walton. Later this year, city officials plan to move the old building from its existing spot a half mile east to a vacant, city-owned parcel at the northwest corner of Miracle Strip and Florida Place.

At its new location, officials envision using the building as the first-ever Fort Walton Beach Welcome Center. The Chamber of Commerce would operate the center, and the building also would house a local history museum and leased office space.

In addition to providing historic site listings and details, photos and parking information, the “Heritage Walk” pamphlet contains a handful of “FYI/Did You Know?” segments. Among the tidbits, it notes that the city’s founder, John Thomas Brooks, killed 52 bears in the area in 1868, and that gambling was one of the main local attractions in the 1940s, when Fort Walton was described as “A little Las Vegas of Florida.”

One of the properties listed in the old brochure but not included in the 2008 pamphlet is the Beal House, which used to stand on the south end of Beal Parkway at Miracle Strip Parkway. The house was remodeled as the Summerhouse Restaurant in the 1980s and was moved in 2005 down Santa Rosa Sound to Wynnehaven Beach, but the building has never been revived.