The Estero Island Historic Society Museum and Nature Center is in two historic cottages at the Matanzas Pass Preserve at 161 Bay Road. Several Southwest Florida people attempted in recent weeks to at least double that with two more donated cottages, but recent developments leaves each of these potential re-locations in doubt.
Local real estate developer Joe Orlandini is one of the prime leaders to preserve one of the Town of Fort Myers Beach’s most iconic cottages that was formerly at 3360 Estero Boulevard, until crews removed it at roughly midnight on Sunday, June 18. “This is one of the best-known cottages on the island,” explained Orlandini. “It is the photograph on the Estero Island Historic Society literature and in a lot of other places. The Historic Society along with Matt Noble from the Town of Fort Myers Beach approached me when we were getting ready to redevelop that site, and that was the first I learned of its historic significance. I determined pretty quickly I wanted to be a part of the effort to somehow preserve it.”
The initial plan was to eventually place the cottage at Matanzas Pass Preserve, to not only join the two already there, but perhaps to serve as the linchpin for a future old-time cottage village, as a history lesson of the beach architecture and community. Several Council members, however, voiced concerns over this at the June 6 Town Council Meeting.
Joanne Shamp stated that the prospective move to Matanzas Pass Preserve is not as easy as it appears. “It is an important property but it does not have a historic resources designation, so that dictates how we can deal with moving structures.” Vice Mayor Tracey Gore noted, “We do not have an application, so we cannot discuss property with an owner who is not here.” Shamp agreed, “People love this structure and it is in our Comp Plan to have it, but not without conversation with and an application from the owner.”
“I am not entirely sure what will ultimately happen to the cottage,” Orlandini said. “The idea and goal is for the Historical Society to have it and be at Matanzas Pass Preserve, and there are a handful of people working out those issues and hurdles.”
While those details remain in the future, he is already working on the past! “We are going to clean up the cottage’s exterior and interior. We can do a lot of restoration work on it right where it sits today, on the steel frame, to rehabilitate it to pristine condition. It is only three feet off the ground, and we have the option to raise or lower that as necessary. It is actually on a more stable foundation now than when it sat on the beach. Most of the restoration will be financed by donations from myself and other area businesses.”
While the Estero Boulevard cottage awaits its new home, it appears the second possible one may not be coming to Matanzas Pass Preserve at all. There was the thought over the past few months that the Hepburn (Kenan) Cottage would relocate from Boca Grande, to be a long-sought-after education center, but the Boca Grande Historic Preservation Board voted to deny permission for that move on June 14. The Hepburn Cottage is the former vacation home of the late Hollywood movie icon, Katherine Hepburn, with the current property owner seeking to rebuild. While it seems that Fort Myers Beach is no longer a possible spot for the cottage, this short-lived possibility may have long-term repercussions to the island’s recreational and financial future.
Lee County is now examining re-operating the Bay Oaks Recreation Center, that it formerly ran until financial difficulties in 2009 forced it upon the Town. This came from an idea floated by Lee County Commissioner and former Fort Myers Beach Mayor Larry Kiker at the County’s June 6 meeting. “I felt this is something we could look at,” explained the Commissioner. “Then what really pushed it over the edge for me to continue this effort full-force was the opportunity to move the historic Hepburn Cottage to Matanzas Pass Preserve.” While the cottage relocation seems dead, County and Town staffs are studying the process to determine what will happen to Bay Oaks.
Although the historic island cottage village at the Matanzas Pass Preserve faces a lot of challenges, “I like the idea of putting up traditional and additional cottages at the Historic Site,” Orlandini said. “We can create a community of old cottages to save our beach heritage. This is a great opportunity to create an attraction and have something special for people to visit, as a focal point, to show how we can all work together to preserve our unique island character.”