The 23,000 square feet Federal building opened in 1933 as a United States Post Office and attracted visitors from near and far to marvel at its unique architecture and ornate decorative details. One of only a few masterpieces of Neoclassic Revival architecture in Florida, the building’s massive columns are made of Florida Key limestone. Its walls are embedded with coral formations and sea shells.
The building and its surrounding site has a long history and, thus, has become part of the local heritage. The site on which the building now stands was a Native American Calusa Indian settlement hundreds of years ago. In the mid-1800s, the site became home to the original fort of Fort Myers and site of the officer’s quarters.
In 1933, a Post Office, designed by prominent Florida architect Nat Gaillard Walker, opened on the site. The winter homes of leading figures like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were mere minutes away from the post office. The open-air loggia with its massive ionic columns allowed local visitors and residents such as Mina Edison, Charles Edison, and Henry Ford to retrieve and send their mail any time of night or day.
The building was converted into a federal building and courthouse in the 1960s. It housed government offices that serviced Southwest Florida for over 30 years.
Eventually, it was vacated in 1998 after a new courthouse was built nearby. The vacant building suffered deterioration from water infiltration adding to great wear from public use and deferred maintenance while it was serving the community. The building fell into disrepair and much of the original fixtures were removed or destroyed.
In 2003, Jim Griffith and Florida Arts, Inc. (a 501c3 not-for-profit organization), the operator of the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center, acquired a 99-year lease from the City of Fort Myers on the building. Florida Arts, Inc. agreed to meld the past with the future by restoring the building to its original magnificence, while creating a modern arts facility. A Division of Historical Resources grant in the amount of $350,000 was awarded in 2004 to stabilize the building and stop water infiltration. This grant provided a new roof and complete restoration of the decorative steel cased windows throughout the building. Matching funds came from individual and corporate donors and the City of Fort Myers.
In 2007 construction began for Phase 1 which included completion of all life safety for the entire building. Work was completed June 2008, with the exception of installation of the original door openings in the front loggia area, completion of the first floor air conditioning, and installation of the granite flooring. Completion of these three remaining items was at budget and ahead of schedule and opened to the public September 10, 2008. There were no grants used for phase 1 as funds were raised entirely from the community. Some work on the mezzanine level was completed in Phase 1 as necessary to provide for the mechanics and structural support for phase 1. All chiller, plumbing, electric, and hvac lines were installed or plumbed out on the mezzanine level, and a new concrete mezzanine floor was poured providing for ADA compliance. To date 10,000 square feet of the building have been restored and continuously provide world-class arts programing to the community.
The next phase for the restoration includes completion of the second floor to serve as additional gallery, green room, meeting, and office space, while Phase 4 will restore the rooftop as a sculpture garden and reception area.