Home' The River Weekly News : RWN 020516 Contents Historic Downtown Fort Myers, Then And Now:
Historic Concrete Blocks Add Style
by Gerri Reaves, PhD
In 1928 or 1929, two women posed by the gate of the grand
1898 Royal Palm Hotel on First Street. Evelyn Hillsman (left)
worked as a bookkeeper at the Bank of Fort Myers at First and
Jackson. Anne Harmon was a teacher at Edison Park Elemen-
But it’s not only the women’s stylish clothes and hats and the
grand hotel in the background that deserve attention.
Look at that fence and gate.
Perhaps those sculpted hollow concrete blocks strike you as
atypical for subtropical Fort Myers. But in the early 20th century
– a nd even now – they were not hard to find.
The invention of Portland cement in 1832 made possible the production of a
variety of hollow concrete blocks. For example, in 1889, Harmon S. Palmer of Chat-
tanooga, Tennessee, patented a machine to make them, and by 1907, approximately
100 companies were in competition with him.
It was around that time that the style of sculpted blocks seen in the historic photos
began to be used in Fort Myers – in fact, nationwide – for the construction of both
buildings and fences.
Other names for the unusual blocks include ornamental, rock-faced, mold-formed
and rusticated concrete blocks.
The texture was apparently intended to simulate that of authentic quarried stone,
and the manufacturing process allowed for the creation of various surfaces.
The blocks were useful, versatile, and cost-effective, and they were widely used in
the first quarter of the 20th century. However, their use died out, partly because many
people found the building material aesthetically objectionable, and also because more
desirable materials were invented.
The fact that rusticated-block structures more than a century old exist in downtown
Fort Myers suggests that they were durable too. The fencing pictured in the historic
photo, for instance, appeared in many images of the Royal Palm Hotel taken over
Although the First Street gate and concrete-block fence at the Royal Palm Hotel is
long gone, it’s easy to see examples of these curious blocks just a few streets away on
Second Street, which had more than its share of them.
For example, visit the southwest cor ner at Fowler and you’ll see two of the three
structures that the famous Capt. William H. “Wild Bill” Towles built in the early twen-
tieth century. The corner house he built for his daughter Corrine Towles Summerlin
more than a century ago still stands, looking as sturdy as ever.
One of the two commercial structures he built with the blocks still stands too, facing
Second just west of the house. In the early 20th century, that building was one of Fort
Myers’s first automobile garages and gas stations.
It’s not surprising that the forward-thinking Towles would choose such a building
material, for he believed in doing things well. After all, the lengths to which he went to
continued on page 4
THE RIVER - FEBRUARY 5, 2016
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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
Today, the only fence in sight at the former hotel entrance is a chain-link one. The parking
garage fronting First Street is undergoing renovation as part of a new condo-hotel develop-
photo by Gerri Reaves
Evelyn Hillsman, left, and Anne Harmon stand by the gate to the Royal Palm Hotel on First
Street in 1928 or 1929. Note the fence made of rusticated concrete blocks.
courtesy Southwest Florida Historical Society
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