Home' The River Weekly News : RWN 111315 Contents Historic Downtown Fort Myers, Then And Now:
by Gerri Reaves, PhD
At first glance, this
seems to be simply
a very nice photo of the
Franklin Arms. But look
again and you’ll discover
that the most intriguing
thing isn’t the hotel but
the bedraggled foreground
and even the spot where
the photographer stood.
The photo captures a
significant “in-between” moment for what is
arguably downtown’s most historic location, the
northeast corner at First and Jackson, with his-
tory tracing back to the mid-19th century.
The photo’s perspective is from what had
been, only several years before, roughly the
location of Harvie E. and Florida Heitman’s
Their house had been originally built as staff
headquarters for the U.S. Army fort from which
Fort Myers evolved.
For years, the Heitman property had been
known for its lush tropical foliage, including a
famous date palm planted by Capt. Winfield
Scott Hancock to commemorate his newborn
daughter, Ada Elizabeth, in 1857.
Many historic photos show the well-kept
property with an attractive low white fence sur-
rounding that pretty garden.
But then, in 1922, Harvie Heitman, one of
the town’s most influential and successful busi-
nessmen and developers, died at the age of 49.
The tramped-down yard pictured here is a stark contrast to what the property was
before his death. Heavy automobile or truck traffic has worn a driveway to what was
once the front door.
After his death, the historic home and former officers quarters was vacant for a
time. In 1926, it was moved north across Bay Street to become the Fort Myers Public
Library’s first permanent home. The building was then the oldest structure in town.
There were plans to build a 10-story, 250-room luxury hotel on the Heitman site.
However, the plans were dashed by the 1926 hurricane, followed by another one in
1928, topped off by the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929.
Eventually, the Heitman family sold the property for $10,000 and a grand U.S.
post office was built, completed in 1933. That architectural treasure is still there today
and is now the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center.
The historic photo was snapped sometime between the relocation of the house and
the clearing of the site for the construction of the post office.
But what about that property’s early history? Long before the Heitmans made the
property their family home, it played a major role in the settlement of Fort Myers.
It was the site of U.S. Army Fort Harvie, built in 1841 during the Second Seminole
War. The fort was abandoned but later reestablished in the Third Seminole War, even-
tually rechristened Fort Myers, and was active in the Civil War.
After the Civil War, the fort was ransacked for building supplies, but enough
remained to help the first settlers begin a settlement. Starting in 1866, the former offi-
cers quarters served as a temporary home for many notable early pioneers before
becoming the Harvie Heitman home.
Walk down First Street to the block between Jackson and Lee and contemplate the
land’s transformation from an 1841 fort to a contemporary art center.
Then walk a few blocks to the Southwest Florida Museum of History at 2031 Jack-
son Street, where you can learn more about what is arguably downtown’s most histori-
cally significant corner.
Call 321-7430 for information, or go to museumofhistory.org. Hours are 10 a.m .
to 5 p.m ., Tuesday through Saturday.
If you love local history, be sure to visit the Southwest Florida Historical Society’s
research center at 10091 McGregor Boulevard on the campus of the Lee County Alli-
ance for the Arts.
The all-volunteer non-profit organization is open Wednesday and Saturday between
9 a.m . and noon and Wednesday 4 to 7 p.m . Call 939-4044 or visit swflhistoricalsoci-
ety.org for more information.
Sources: Archives of the Southwest Florida Historical Society, The Fort Myers
Press, and The Story of Fort Myers by Karl S. Grismer.
THE RIVER - NOVEMBER 13, 2015
The River Weekly News will correct factual errors or matters of emphasis and interpretation that appear in news stories.
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and Ken Rasi
Gerri Reaves, Ph D
Read Us Online:
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Marion Hauser, MS, RD
Ross Hauser, MD
Capt. Matt Mitchell
Cynthia A. Williams
The Franklin Arms hasn’t changed much, but the foreground in
the historic photo is now the front of the Sidney & Berne Davis
photo by Gerri Reaves
This view of the Franklin Arms Hotel was probably snapped in the
late 1920s. The photographer stood near what would have recently
been the front of Harvie E. Heitman’s house, originally officers quar-
ters during the Seminole War era.
courtesy Southwest Florida Museum of History
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