Home' The River Weekly News : RWN 071219 Contents THE RIVER - JULY 12, 2019
Historic Downtown Fort Myers, Then And Now:
Save The Exhibition Hall!
by Gerri Reaves, PhD
Thirteen years ago
on a Saturday
50 people gathered
on the downtown
riverfront to speak
up for two precious
downtown assets: the
Exhibition Hall and
access to public land
and the river.
The rally, organized by the Lee Trust for
Historic Preservation, voiced opposition to a
plan that the City of Fort Myers would soon
vote on – whether to allow WCI’s downtown
riverfront redevelopment plan for more than
five acres proceed. The project included the
demolition of the Exhibition Hall.
The Fort Myers City Council had chosen
the WCI plan from three it had considered.
It was the only one that recommended
demolishing the hall rather than repurposing
When interviewed, Bill Grace, then
president of the Lee Trust, noted the
hall’s “association with people of local and
national importance.” Indeed, over its half-century history, the hall had been a major
venue for celebrities and community events.
People who had grown up in mid-20th century Fort Myers couldn’t imagine the
riverfront without it.
Grace also worried about the city giving public land to a private developer.
Elvis, Gerald Ford, Danny Thomas, Red Skelton, Milton Berle, the Four Seasons and
even the controversial segregationist George Wallace were among the many who had
It had been the scene of Edison Pageant of Light events, touring Broadway shows
such as Shenandoah, as well as countless flower shows, celebrations, family reunions and
When it had been constructed in 1954 in a wave of post-World War II city
improvements, it was touted as not only a place for local events but as an enticement for
The 186- by 90-foot structure was located between the band shell and the seawall
at the foot of Hendry Street. It featured a wooden bent-frame structural system and a
vertical-grooved rectangular tower.
It had immense main floor space, in addition to a large stage, a covered terrace and
plenty of miscellaneous-facility space. Windows on the river side allowed river breezes to
However, the hall had been closed in 2001 because of its run-down condition.
Hurricane Charley in 2004 only exacerbated the deterioration.
As the rally to save the hall took place on May 6, the once beautiful structure nearby
was showing substantial wear. Blue tarpaulins on the roof indicated serious leaks, and
some of the windows and letters in the building’s name were missing.
The important public building had sunk from proud to pathetic. Its condition prompted
more than one utterance of the damning phrase, “the city’s demolition by neglect.”
But it wasn’t just sentiment that drove the activists to the riverfront. They were also
historic preservationists and had done their homework.
The previous year, Lee Trust had commissioned a professional engineering assessment
in 2005, which deemed the hall physically sound and several times cited “deferred
maintenance” as a factor in its deterioration.
Even the city’s own 2003 assessment by a commissioned historic preservation
architect concluded that the Exhibition Hall was historically and architecturally significant
continued on page 8
Today the site is part of the Riverfront Basin Project. In the distance are the Luminary Hotel
under construction (left), Harborside Convention Center (center), and High Point Place
condominium towers (right).
In 2004, the hall had deteriorated and been closed for three years
photos by Gerri Reaves
The Exhibition Hall, shown here in 1954, was
designed by architect D. Bradford Scoville.
For nearly five decades, it was synonymous
with community life and entertainment.
photo courtesy Florida State Archives
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Marion Hauser, MS, RD
Ross Hauser, MD
Craig R. Hersch
Capt. Matt Mitchell
J. Brendan Ryan, CLU,
Ann Ziehl, Manager
Gerri Reaves, PhD
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