Key West’s Eyebrow Houses

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525 Margaret St. built in 1886.

Many a Key West visitor has spotted the disproportioned roof on an eyebrow house and thought, The carpenter must have really screwed up on that one. But Key West’s trademark form of architecture is supposed to look that way.

The Classical Revival style eyebrow houses are side oriented gable-roofed buildings usually five bays wide and 1 1/2 or two stories tall. They are distinguished by a gable roof extension that creates a large awning over the top floor windows. The roof extension is the reason they have the eyebrow moniker, though I think “eyelid house” would be more fitting.

Most of Key West’s historic residences were built with one goal: block out the sun. Eyebrow houses take this to the extreme. Back in the late 1800s when most of these houses were constructed, sun-shading vegetation was sparse in Key West. There is no natural source of freshwater on the island, so, historically, Key Wester’s relied on cisterns and desalination plants–and they sure weren’t going to waste that precious liquid on water-chugging trees and plants. That changed once a water pipeline reached Key West in 1942, and the junglelike Key West we know today was born. The proliferation of shady trees–along with air conditioning–has freed up Conchs to focus on more important features when building homes, like where they’re going to put the bar.

Alex Caemmerer suggests in his “The Houses of Key West” that the eyebrow house is derived from either the Louisiana five-bay center hall house or saltbox of New England. Key West’s residents were inspired by both locales, so either makes sense.

The eyebrow houses repelled rays, but they probably didn’t do much for airflow on the top floor. Maybe that is why they seem to limited to Key West. According to the Historic Florida Keys Foundation, approximately 75 historic eyebrow houses exist. Photographed below are those I spotted while biking around the city last month.

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643 William St. built in 1889. It was built by Edward Roberts, a ship’s carpenter from Ireland.

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708 Southard St. built in 1874.

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623 Southard St. was built in 1874.

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410 Margaret St. built in 1892.

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917 Grinnell St. built in 1889.

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710 Ashe St. built in 1889.

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1115 Southard St. built in 1889.

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1108 Southard St. built in 1885.

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1121 Southard St. built in 1889.

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614 Grinnell St. built in 1889.

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618 Grinnell St. built in 1889. A number of Bahamians lived in the home until 1938, when it was purchased by Quaker activist Adele Scott Saul. She owned it until 2011. It was recently restored.

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804 Elizabeth St. built in 1874.

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The Sapodilla Villa at 807 Elizabeth St. was built in 1890.

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What a perfect example–a little too perfect. That’s because it was built in 1998 in the Truman Annex at 62 Front Street.

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Hermitage Artist Retreat

Sarasota County, Florida, had grand plans for the Hermitage and its associated buildings when they bought the property in 1986: they wanted to replace them with a parking lot.

It seemed like a practical decision at the time. The Gulf of Mexico had crept up on the Hermitage, a rambling board and batten residence erected in 1907, and was about to devour it. The other structures, built in the 1930s and 40s, weren’t doing much better after decades of abuse from the sun, sand, and water. So it must have come as a surprise to county officials when a vocal pro-preservation continent responded with a loud “nuh-uh” to their plans to add more parking at the Blind Pass public beach.

In 1907, Sweden-born Carl Johanson built a one-and-a-half story pine and cypress cottage on Manasota Key. He chose a site Calusa Indians had used as a midden, archaeologist speak for “trash dump.” The humble, 2.75 acre waterfront estate had a name befitting its remoteness: the Hermitage.

Johanson, his wife, and three youngest children lived on Manasota Key until 1913. They added a detached kitchen to the north elevation shortly after construction that is today a bedroom. A sleeping porch was also tacked on about 10 years after construction. That space is now the living room. The stone fireplace there was built in the 1920s. Other additions followed through the 1940s, including the current kitchen and two bathrooms.

The property earned its lasting reputation in the 1930s when it was operated as Florida Sea Island Sanctuary, an ambiguous name for a nudist resort. The Hermitage was only accessible by boat then, so Adam and Evan wannabes could frolic in the sand and sea without judgement. But the prude-free environment turned later in the 1930s when a shell road was laid on the key. Nudists packed their very light suitcases, and the Hermitage transitioned into a hotel, owned by former patron Louise Plummer.

In 1941, retired naval engineer Alfred Whitney, by all accounts a jerk, had an elevated house built on the parcel south to the Hermitage. His self-designed home, called Liability Lodge, included a corresponding pump house, garage, and cypress water cisterns. Whitney’s property was combined with the Hermitage’s after he died in 1946, and the tracts–totaling 8.5 acres–have remained joined ever since.

Writer Ruth Swayze, most famous for writing some episodes of the TV show “Taxi” starring the erudite Tony Danza, leased the Hermitage from the late 1970s until 1990. She and her daughter Carroll Swayze, a painter, invited their artist pals for stays in a foreshadowing of what was to come for the property.

Fine wine aged quicker than the time it took for the Hermitage’s revival. Shortly after Sarasota County bought the acreage in the 1980s, preservationists, including Ruth Swayze, implored officials to not clear the land for more beach parking. Surprisingly, they listened. Officials even appropriated $8,000 in 1992 to move the dilapidated Hermitage  away from the Gulf’s relentless tug until a plan for the building was in place. The general consensus at the time was that the Hermitage should be turned into a house museum to demonstrate to school children what life was like for early settlers–yawn. But the county wasn’t about to foot the bill for the work.

In the late 1990s, Syd Adler and others affiliated with the Sarasota Arts Council pushed the idea of converting the buildings into an artists retreat. Not only would the use preserve the structures, they said, but they would remain in an active use that would benefit the community. Works for us, county leaders said, and in 1999 the property was leased to the nonprofit Hermitage Artist Retreat Inc. for the princely sum of $1 per year.

The organization cobbled together funding, both grants and private donations. In all, the rehabs cost about $1.3 million, but none came from taxpayers. Work began on the main house in 2002. It was plopped on top of 4-foot tall concrete pilings and restored inside and out. The Hermitage welcomed its first artist, sculptor Malcolm Robertson, the following year. In 2009, the Beach Cottage was the last building to be completed, and earlier this year work wrapped on the pair of restored cisterns.

A nine member committee selects the established artists–painters, sculptors, writers, playwrights, poets, composers, among others–who are offered invitations to the Hermitage. Up to five artists stay at a time for up to six weeks, and their food is provided. Those who stay the six weeks are required to complete two acts of community service, such as a reading, exhibit, or performance. Not bad for an extended stay at such a scenic location.

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The Hermitage, as seen from the dune that separates it from the Gulf of Mexico.

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View of the south and west elevations.

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View of the east elevation.

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The Hermitage before its move.

Hermitage on the move in 1992. Source: The Charlotte Harbor Area Historical Society and Ulysses Samuel (U.S.) Cleveland Collection

Hermitage on the move in 1992. Source: The Charlotte Harbor Area Historical Society and Ulysses Samuel (U.S.) Cleveland Collection

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The dining room is one of two original ground floor rooms.

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Kitchen addition.

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View into the former detached kitchen, now bedroom.

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Tight quarters.

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The living room was a sleeping porch addition.

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I was there to do window restoration work. Source: Hermitage Artists Retreat Facebook page

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Clip books chronicle the Hermitage’s rebirth.

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Stairs to the 2nd floor.

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Second floor bathroom, originally a bedroom.

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View from the tub.

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Second floor bedroom.

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Drift wood dolphin.

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The Whitney Garage.

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The Whitney Cisterns.

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The Whitney Pumphouse, now studio space.

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The Whitney House was built in 1941 and designed by a naval engineer to be hurricane resistant. So far, so good.

Whitney House interior. Source: http://hermitageartistretreat.org/

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The Beach Cottage. It too was moved back from the dune.

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The Beach Cottage before restoration.

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View from the cottage’s front porch.

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Walkway over the dune to the beach.

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Saratoga Race Course

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Waiting for the races to start. These seats filled up quickly.

The hand-rung bell signaled that the next horse race at the Saratoga Race Course was 17 minutes away. This is just one of the many traditions at the historic venue, established in 1863 and the oldest of its kind in the United States. For the non-hardcore handicappers on the grounds that day–and there were many of them–the sound was their cue to put down their drink, pause their conversation, and pick up their program to quickly choose a horse to bet on.

For 40 days each summer, the thoroughbred horse racing syndicate converges on scenic Saratoga Springs in upstate New York. Horse racing’s popularity is freefalling, but Saratoga Race Course seems to be OK considering the drastic drop in patronage and handles at other tracks. More than 20,000 people attended on the Thursday I visited earlier this month–a lot considering that Saratoga Springs, a town of 27,000 permanent residents, is surrounded by a whole lot more trees, hills, and lakes than people.

Unlike most tracks, Saratoga does not rely exclusively on gambling to spin the turnstiles.  The track has grown in spurts in its 150 years but has managed to cling to its Gilded Age appearance and feeling–all while accommodating modern conveniences. This commitment to historic preservation attracts people from all social realms, from the bigwigs in the clubhouse dressed in bespoke suits to the family in the picnic area dressed in T-shirts and jeans. Yes, some of the racegoers were there solely to try it hit it big. But the majority were there to enjoy the ambiance with their friends and family.

The tone for my day at track was set once I got out of the car. Usually, the journey from the parking lot to a venue the size of the Saratoga Race Course (capacity 70,000) is a hurried walk through a concrete maze of vehicles. Instead, on my way to the entrance, I walked down a grassy corridor beneath shady maples. To the north was the practice track, which was originally the main track for a year back in 1863 when Saratoga opened. Today it’s tongue-and-cheekily called Oklahoma because of its perceived distance to the main track, about a quarter mile away.  To the south were historic stables, filled by horses and tenders. Parking areas were marked not by numbers or letters but by the names of the many legendary thoroughbreds that have galloped on Saratoga’s hallowed dirt.

The harmonious design extended to the main track. The nonhistoric Union Avenue entrance was stately yet reserved and blended well with the other structures. The grandstand nearly doubled in size after a 1960s addition but it matches the original in scale and appearance, though it utilizes different materials. Flowers and decorative ironwork serve as decorative elements and are scattered throughout the grounds. The trademark peppermint-striped awnings added flair and provided additional covered seating areas. Everything is meticulously maintained.

The lag between races passed quickly with so much to explore on the 350-acre property. I observed the jockey-mounted horses trotting through the crowd on their way to the track, gulped my first Shake Shack milkshake, listened to a bluegrass band playing in the gazebo, and drank the putrid water spouting from the Big Red Spring. Not even rain showers kept me in my seat for long. This left little time to handicap, as evidenced by my lightened wallet by the time I left. All well. It was a wonderful day nonetheless.

1890s.

Ca. 1900. Library of Congress. Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994001584/PP/

Enjoying the lawn in 1940. Source: Courtesy of Saratoga Springs Historical Museum, George S. Bolster collection

Racegoers in the 1954. Source: Times Union Archives

Affirmed, the last Triple Crown Winner. Times Union Archives

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The Union Avenue entrance.

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The grandstand, expanded in the 1960s, is a quarter-mile long.

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The oldest portion of the grandstand and clubhouse.

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A festival-like atmosphere permeates the grounds on other side of the grandstand. The area includes live music, food tents, and pop-up shops. Oh, and lots more betting windows.

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Equestrian designs are everywhere.

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TVs showing the races allow picnickers to watch the action while under the maples.

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A spring bubbles up on the grounds and is named after Secretariat and Man O’War.

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The water tasted like a metal pipe colada.

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The paddocks are in view for racegoers.

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The horses strut through the crowds on their way to the starting gate.

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There are no shortage of betting windows.

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Vintage signage.

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Here they come.

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View of the finish line from the grandstand.

 Links

http://www.saratoga150.com/

 

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Rod and Gun Club, Everglades City

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The walls, ceiling, front desk, and stairs at the Rod and Gun Club are all made of locally harvested pecky cypress.

Dozens of unblinking eyes stared at me as I stepped through the lobby and dining room at the Rod and Gun Club, a motor court and restaurant in Everglades City, Florida, that was once a private hunting and fishing getaway for the nation’s most powerful. Of course, the eyes belonged to the musty taxidermy fish, animals, and reptiles hung long ago from the pecky cypress walls. The unofficial living history museum hasn’t changed much since it was built in the 1920s, but that is a good thing.

Everglades City pioneer William Allen constructed a house on the footprint of today’s Rod and Gun Club ca. 1870. Allen sold his holdings to George Storter Jr. in 1889, and the core of the current club structure was built shortly thereafter. There weren’t a whole lot of options for travelers in those parts at the turn of the century, so Storter began to take in wealthy Northern sportsmen and yachters. He expanded his home to accommodate them.

In 1922, Barron Collier bought Storter’s dwelling and much of the land in Everglades City, then known as “Everglades” and before that “Everglade,” to use as his base of operations for construction of the Tamiami Trail, the first road to plow through the wilderness and link southeast and southwest Florida. In exchange for funding the road, Collier, a New York City-based advertising magnate and owner of 1 million acres of Florida land, had just one humble request: that a new county be created and it be named after him. Thus, Collier County was sliced from Lee County in 1923 with Everglades City as the county seat.

Collier converted the old Storter house into a hunting and fishing club for his esteemed friends and guests. The club proved a popular place, attracting rich and powerful men during the winter months eager to drink, smoke, and slaughter creatures out in the boonies. At least five U.S. presidents visited, as did tough guy celebrities such as Ernest Hemingway, John Wayne, and, er, Mick Jagger. (I really want to know the circumstances that brought the Rolling Stones frontman and his then wife, Jerri Hall, there in 1991.)

Everglades City had a brief boom during construction of the Tamiami Trail, boasting a few thousand residents and a trolley at its pinnacle, but the Great Depression halted the growth. Hurricane Donna inundated the town in 1960, and both the Collier Corporation and county government hightailed it for higher pastures. Everglades City and nearby Chokoloskee gained notoriety in the 1970s and 1980s when a number of citizens were busted in drug smuggling crackdowns. Today the community of about 400 people mostly survives on the money brought in by recreational fishermen and eco-tourists who venture into the nearby Everglades National Park. Elevated modular homes–often seasonal residences–are the most popular modern building type. But many Everglades City lots sit empty.

Collier died in 1939, and the Rod and Gun Club remained in the hands of the Collier Corporation until 1962. Now open to the public, the club has been owned by the Bowen family since 1972. I visited on a scalding day earlier this month. I was prepared for the cash only policy; I wasn’t prepared for the lack of air conditioning. The rooms in the original building are no longer rented out because of the fire safety risk, so overnight guests are relegated to the newer–and air conditioned–duplex cottages nearby. The Bowens make no qualms about the lack of upgrades and write on the club’s website: “The Rod and Gun Club does not cater to the needs of all vacationers but to those whom are seeking to experience a piece of history!” My wife and I had lunch on the veranda. It was hot, but the ceiling fans and breeze off the Barron River made it bearable. The food was decent, but the service left a lot to be desired. It didn’t matter. Opportunities to experience a place like the Rod and Gun Club are rare.

The George W. Storter Residence ca. 1915 before Barron Collier converted it into the Rod and Gun Club. Source: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/2797

The building is located on the Barron River. Source: Everglades Rod and Gun Club

Source: Everglades Rod and Gun Club

Fresh catch on the dock in the 1950s. Source: Collier County Museums Photo Archive

Soon-to-be President Dwight Eisenhower and his wife, Mamie, on the dock in 1951. Source: Collier County Museums Photo Archive

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The main entrance fronts the Barron River. The truck lies; the club wasn’t established in 1864.

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The veranda.

The veranda overlooking the water.

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The front desk and antique cash register.

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Sorry, buddy.

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As close as I will ever get to a panther.

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The large fireplace probably doesn’t need to be used very often.

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The Mrs. checks for a dial tone in the  cypress phone booth.

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A pool table and piano provide the evening entertainment.

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A bar is tucked away off the fireplace in a cozy room.

This is what it looked like in 1950. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/69668

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The dining room.

I wish it still had the chairs from ca. 1950. Source: Collier County Museums Photo Archive

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Pool and waterfall.

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A 1970s lounge area off the pool.

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The jukebox features the greatest modern hits.

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I want this chart.

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I expected a statue of Barron Collier or a monument at the grandiose circle in the middle of town. Nope. It’s this unsightly radio tower. 

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The Collier Corporation’s laundry building is now the Museum of the Everglades.

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Bank of the Everglades (1926).

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The former Collier County Courthouse (1928), now the city hall.

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Former train depot (ca. 1928). The tracks into town have long since been removed.

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Modest former Collier Corporation worker housing.

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A work boat and crab traps. Stone crabs are a big deal here.

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Everglades City is connected by a causeway to Chokoloskee, about 4 miles to the southeast. The most significant building there is Ted Smallwood’s Store (ca. 1917). Seminole Indians used to trade with Smallwood, and outlaw Ed Watson, of Killing Mr. Watson by Peter Matthiessen fame, was killed there.

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Aiken-Rhett House

My most recent visit to Charleston corresponded with an Instameet inside the Aiken-Rhett House, a house museum operated by the Historic Charleston Foundation.

The house was constructed in 1817 at 48 Elizabeth St. and was expanded a couple of times until it reached its final incarnation in 1858. Once home to South Carolina Governor William Aiken, it featured a fine collection of books, furnishings, art, and architectural embellishments. It was effectively entombed for many years until the Charleston Museum gained ownership in 1975 and opened it to the public.

It is now owned by the HCF. They do not usually allow photos in the interior of the house, so the Instameet was a plum opportunity. Similar to nearby Drayton Hall, many rooms inside the Aiken-Rhett House are in a state of preservation, complete with tattered furniture, flecked paint, faded wallpaper, and cracked plaster walls and ceilings. This hands off approach showcases the building’s evolution. Some may find the unrestored rooms ghastly, but others find beauty in the patina. Judge for yourself.

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This gallery room on the bottom floor has been restored.

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A chandelier and ceiling medallion, looking up from the floor.

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The upholstery on settee in the background is supposedly about 180 years old.

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The house from the backyard.

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Former slaves quarters.

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Well worn stairs.

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Slave quarters hallway.

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Carriage house with Gothic Revival doors.

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For more photos of the Aiken-Rhett House Instameet, search the hashtag #arhinstameet on Instagram and Facebook.

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Five-Year Anniversary

I debuted this blog five years ago today!

In the past five years, this blog and its 87 posts have been viewed 40,998 times, though about 175 of those hits were me accidentally. This is up from 2,490 hits after the first year, 6,409 after the second, 15,542 after the third, and 28,204 times at the four-year mark.

The most popular post this past year again was Cocoon House with 1,847 hits, bringing its all-time total to 4,672–the most for one of my entries by about 3,000 views. (Who knew a weird looking guest house would be so popular throughout the world?) Of the posts written in the past year, the top three most popular were:

The last one was written by a friend of mine, and I hope for more guest posts in the future. I think my best entry of the year was on Derby Lane, the oldest greyhound racing track in the world. In addition to that post, I also presented on Derby Lane at the Society for Commercial Archeology Conference last month in St. Petersburg.

Gator Preservationist is no longer only accessible through Word Press. Last October, I signed a contract with Google to share much of the blog’s content on their Field Trip app.

Meanwhile, the Gator Preservationist Facebook page, where I post my photos of old structures as well as links to preservation-related articles, is up to 188 likes, not including myself. Last year it had 98. This year I have posted photos from my travels in New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, and throughout Florida. I also still write for Curbed’s Past Lives series, which features unique multifamily rehabilitation projects. And I’m still working as an architectural historian at a cultural resources management company in Florida.

And, in personal news, I am happy to announce that my wife and I got married in September.

Until next year, thanks for reading.

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Derby Lane, St. Petersburg

I presented on this topic at the 2014 Society for Commercial Archeology conference in St. Petersburg. Click here to watch my presentation.

Perfect Break At Derby Lane St. Petersburg

The starting box doors flip up, and the greyhounds burst toward the rail where the remote-controlled lure–a white fake rabbit appropriately named Hareson–zips around the turn. The dogs gallop full speed in pursuit around the dirt oval, which measures 1,320 feet long and 21 feet wide. They complete about a lap and a half before Hareson is halted and jerked out of the dogs’ reach just before they catch up to it. They stop running and seem disappointed, but their mood buoys at the sight of their handlers, who come onto the track to corral the dogs and return them to the paddock. This scene has been repeated thousands of times in Derby Lane’s 89-year history, but it’s unknown how many more times it will be repeated at the landmark, considered the oldest of its kind in continuous operation.

Greyhound racing is called the sport of queens, but it’s more like the sport of queens’ servants. It traces its roots to the 17th century English pastime of coursing, in which two greyhounds chase after a rabbit. Greyhounds can reach speeds of 45 mph, so they were well bred for the game. A coursing judge scrutinized the hounds not for how fast they killed the rabbit, but by the amount of athleticism they exhibited in the process. 

Americans sometimes offered their own take on coursing. For example, in Kansas and other Great Plains states, it was practiced more to eradicate jackrabbits and coyotes than for sport. Owen Patrick Smith is credited with pioneering modern greyhound racing when he invented the mechanical lure in 1909. Greyhounds, Smith proved, would chase anything–even if it wasn’t alive. The first greyhound track opened in Emeryville, California, in 1919, and the pastime spread across the country.

Dog tracks were particularly popular in Florida, which was undergoing rapid development at the time. Promoters played up Florida as an Eden where all life’s fancies could be enjoyed. They billed dog racing as a classy affair on par with thoroughbred horse racing. But racegoers were not Vanderbilts, Astors, or Rockefellers; they were working-class, hence why dog races were held at night and why admission was much cheaper than the horse track. Associations with mobsters like Al Capone gave dog racing a shady reputation.

Derby Lane was a product of greyhound racing’s initial swell in popularity. It was established in 1923 when a group of businessmen bought acreage northwest of St. Petersburg along Gandy Boulevard from lumberman T.L. Weaver and his brother-in-law John Loughridge. The pine scrub land was desolate, but it was near the recently completed Gandy Bridge, the first to link Tampa and St. Pete via automobile.

The consortium had a sand track, grandstand, and clubhouse built. But the group took a financial hit, and the property reverted back to Weaver when they couldn’t pay their bills. It has remained in the family since. The first dogs raced at what was known as the St. Petersburg Kennel Club before a crowd of 4,000 people on January 3, 1925.

Those early years were wild. Cars sometimes dashed around the track. When there was dog racing, monkeys dressed as jockeys rode on the backs of the greyhounds. Neither animal enjoyed the experience, because the monkeys were known to freak out and bite the greyhounds. Betting wasn’t legal, so the proprietors got around it by selling shares in the dogs. Even losing tickets returned a nickel.

Florida legalized parimutuel wagering in 1931, and Derby Lane flourished. There were a few down years during World War II when racing was banned. Then a season was lost when a few years after the war when the  dog owners went on strike. But, for the most part, Derby Lane was consistently a top attraction in the region, and attendance sometimes topped 10,000 for a card. Regarded as the Churchill Downs of dog tracks, famous patrons included baseball superstars in the area for spring training such as Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, and–no surprise here–Pete Rose.

Everything changed in 1988 when the Florida Lottery debuted. Up until then, parimutels were the only legal places in the state to bet. But, with the introduction of the lottery, gamblers only had to schlep down to their nearest convenience store to get their fix. Derby Lane’s attendance collapsed. The Weavers slashed costs. Gift shop? Gone. Band and band shell next to the odds board? Gone. In-house bar? Gone. To counter, they expanded the race season from four to six months. They introduced simulcast wagering and broadcast races over the Internet for the first time. They even opened a lottery ticket window at the track. The Weavers also attempted to convert the Plaza Building into a nightclub, but that didn’t work out. The giant edifice now sits mothballed. 

Beginning in the late 1970s, reports on greyhound racing deterred potential new fans. Greyhounds aren’t pets that also race.  They’re bred, born, and raised do one thing: run. Similar to race horses, they are sometimes euthanized when they can’t run anymore–or don’t run well enough. They live in kennels starkly different from the living situations of most dogs in America. Many are fed meat that the FDA considers unsuitable for human consumption. Greyhound racing opposition groups have brought all this to light. And the mass deaths of greyhounds in kennel fires hasn’t exactly boosted the industry’s image. Even Homer Simpson decried the dog track as “sleazy” in the premiere episode of The Simpsons. 

The decline of greyhound racing is a nationwide trend. In 1997, there were 49 dog tracks in 15 states in 1997. Today that number has dwindled to 22 tracks in  seven states. Twelve are in Florida.

Yet Derby Lane retains its post-war grandiosity. Separated from Gandy Boulevard by acres of empty parking spaces, the main entrance in the grandstand is located just under the signs that read “GREYHOUND RACING” and “DERBY LANE.” The original wood grandstand was replaced by a larger concrete and steel cantilevered structure in 1949, about the same time the property became known officially as Derby Lane. The grandstand is flanked by a pair of International style clubhouses, enclosed by expansive glass windows. The Plaza Building to the west was built in 1967; the Derby Club in 1976. The manicured grass infield includes a scenic pond with a boardwalk to the island in the middle. The odds board was erected in 1949, and the paddock went up in 1967.  The track has been in the same spot since the start, though it has been elevated and banked. The track’s retro feel has not gone unnoticed by Hollywood; Brad Pitt and Rob Reiner filmed scenes for Ocean’s 11 there.

While a big race day might draw a couple thousand people, it is nothing like the pre-lottery days when crowds occasionally eclipsed 10,000 at Derby Lane. On a Saturday afternoon in December, a couple hundred people watched the festivities from the grandstand and blacktopped apron. The mixed bag included leathery old men who smelled like aftershave; pasty senior couples likely visiting from the Midwest; and a grungy man who either had Tourette’s or just enjoyed randomly yelling  sounds. Blue-haired old ladies bedecked in pearls stayed away from this menagerie and munched on scallops at dining tables in the air-conditioned clubhouse.

Below them, in the bowels of the clubhouse, the atmosphere was much more serious in Derby Lane’s poker room. The players–mostly men, some of whom donned hats and sunglasses to imitate the highrollers they saw on ESPN–crowded around tables shaped like a race track. They were devoid of emotion as they tossed plastic chips into the pile at the table’s center.

Poker saved Derby Lane. The track introduced cards in 1997, and the move has been profitable. But, to offer poker, the law requires the state’s dog tracks to schedule 90 percent of the numbers of races they ran in 1996, when the rule went into place. Derby Lane holds more races now than ever. It used to only offer a slate during the coldest months, but now it also hosts the meet for Tampa Greyhound Track, which stopped racing in 2007. The Tampa track found a loophole and moved its races to Derby Lane so it could still have on-site poker.

Legislation is currently in the works to decouple the race and poker provision. Greyhound racing is not profitable at most tracks, and they would stop racing if it’s not required. Ironically, both track owners and anti-racing activists support the measure, the former resigned to their fate as poker dens. Dog men, at risk of losing their livelihoods, adamantly oppose. Should the provision pass, Derby Lane intends to keep racing to meet its simulcast demands. How long that will continue is anyone’s guess.

For more information

Gwyneth Anne Thayer wrote a comprehensive book on greyhound racing in the United States titled Going to the Dogs: Greyhound Racing, Animal Activism, and American Popular Culture.

Front Entrance 1925

The original grandstand in 1925. Courtesy Derby Lane

1925. Burgert Brothers. Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System

The lure was on the outside of the track in this 1925 photo. Burgert Brothers. University of South Florida Library. http://usf.sobek.ufl.edu/SFS0024140/00001

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Babe Ruth eyes the cup for booze while Lou Gehrig is blinded by the camera flash. It must have been bright, because the dog’s trainer is covering the joyousvictor’s eyes.

1938. Check out the Art Deco style building at the finish line. University of South Florida Library. http://usf.sobek.ufl.edu/SFS0010918/00001

State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/161640

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At the ripe age of 14, Derby Lane billed itself as the oldest in the world.

Grandstand Reconstruction arch drwg tiff

Rendering of the current grandstand. Courtesy Derby Lane

After the grandstand was built in 1949. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/161641

State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/163049

Thrilling Finish of Greyhound Races at Derby Lane St. Petersburg

1950 aerial. Courtesy Derby Lane

1950 aerial. Courtesy Derby Lane

Night crowd. Ca. 1950. Courtesy Derby Lane

Night crowd. Ca. 1950. Courtesy Derby Lane

Ca. 1950. Courtesy Derby Lane

Ca. 1950. Courtesy Derby Lane

It's getting bigger. Ca. 1970.

It’s getting bigger. Ca. 1970.

Packed house in 1976. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/59083

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Grandstand entrance.

Photo by Joshua C. Sackett

Courtesy Joshua C. Sackett

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This amazing neon sign was added during filming for Ocean’s 11.

Grandstand

Grandstand.

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Apron, infield, and odds board.

Introductions

Introductions.

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The handlers have a race of their own after the dogs go into the starting box.

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And they’re off.

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Hareson leads the way.

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Simulcast wagerers.

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