The History of SBDAC
The land where the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center is built has a long history and, therefore, has become part of the local heritage. The site was originally a Native American Calusa settlement hundreds of years ago. In the mid-1800s, it became home to the original fort of Fort Myers, which also housed soldiers.
1880 – 1930
Then, in 1933 a 23,000 square foot United States Post Office was built to replace the fort.The Post Office, designed by prominent Florida architect Nat Gaillard Walker, opened on the site. A rare masterpiece of Neoclassic Revival architecture in Florida, the building’s massive columns were made of limestone from the Florida Keys. Plus, the walls were embedded with coral formations and sea shells.
The Post Office on 1st Street will always be memorable for lifetime Fort Myers residents. It was a local landmark used by Edison, Ford, and Firestone, as well as many average citizens in the area. Until it’s renovation, the Post Office served the community for decades.
The building, later known as the George Whitehurst Federal Building, was converted into a Federal Courthouse in the 1960s. Judges, lawyers, defendants, and plaintiffs passed through the rooms and hallways on a regular basis. Much of the original 1930s architecture remained intact, which allowed eventual renovations to preserve the site’s history.
The building was abandoned after a new courthouse was built nearby. The vacant building suffered deterioration from water infiltration, adding to the great wear from public use and deferred maintenance it sustained while it served 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) 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.
In 2007, Berne Davis pledged $1 million to Florida Arts, Inc. for the building’s restoration. In honor of the Davis family contribution, the building was renamed the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center. Matching funds came from individual and corporate donors and the City of Fort Myers to begin renovations on the first floor.
Phase 1 was completed June 2008, with the exception of the original door openings in the front loggia area, the first floor air conditioning, and the granite flooring. Completion of these three remaining items was at budget and ahead of schedule, so the building opened to the public September 10, 2008. By the end 2008, 10,000 square feet of the building had been restored.
SBDAC is granted a Cultural Facilities grant for $650,000 to continue the restoration of the mezzanine and upper floors. The elevator was installed, and the building’s second floor was renovated to include the Capital Gallery, and classrooms for the arts program. In addition, the gorgeous artist green room was completed on the mezzanine level. Renovations were completed Summer 2014.
In 2013, SBDAC was awarded a second Cultural Facilities grant for $328,000 to create a rooftop sculpture garden and reception area. By the end of 2014, the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center had revitalized a once dilapidated classic Florida structure, and the downtown River District along with it. Work is scheduled to be completed in 2017.