The Mound House at 451 Connecticut Street, the oldest standing structure on Estero Island and owned and operated by the Town of Fort Myers Beach as a museum and cultural complex, recently learned that is it now officially on the National Register of Historic Place (NRHP)! “We received the congratulatory email from the Florida Department of State’s Bureau of Historic Preservation on Wednesday, April 10,” said a smiling Alison Giesen, Director of Cultural Resources for the Town, Mound House Director, and Interim Parks & Recreation Director, “but held the news pretty close to our vests until we could inform Town Council at their April 15 meeting!”
The NRHP is the official listing from the National Parks Service; U.S. Department of the Interior, of historically-significant sites and properties throughout the country that include districts, sites, buildings and objects of importance to American history, architecture, archaeology, engineering and culture that reflect the prehistoric occupation and historical development of our national, state and local communities.
NRHP listing encourages the preservation of significant historic resources in three ways: by providing official recognition of the historic significance of the property and its historic value in future developmental planning; imposes limited protection from activities by Federal agencies that could result in damage or loss of its historic value; and makes the property eligible for Federal financial incentives for historic preservation.
Giesen called the NRHP inclusion “essential to secure official significance for the Mound House, while making it eligible for financial preservation programs through the Federal Government, to ensure our long-term existence. This is, quite simply, the highest historic designation the Mound House can achieve. This was an important component in our long-term strategic plan, so it is very rewarding to be a part of this successful process, as this is the summit! We now know for sure that future generations will enjoy the Mound House and all it has to say about the Fort Myers Beach community’s long and rich history.”
There are so many people to thank, said Giesen, “including all of our fantastic volunteers and current and previous Town Councils and Mound House staff. Bill and Susan Grace and Dr. Bill Marquardt did an invaluable review of our application, while Max Imberman was a key player in making this possible, as he helped us receive State of Florida approval first, and that is huge, as a site cannot attain NRHP status unless your home State first agrees.” Bill Grace is the great-grandson of William and Milia Case, the Mound House owners in 1906; Dr. Marquardt is Director of the Randall Research Center and Florida Museum of Natural History for The University of Florida; and Imberman is with the State of Florida’s Division of Historic Resources.
Giesen said she believed that the Mound House had a very strong application. “We submitted it in February, after learning last November that the Division of Historical Resources from the Florida Department of State had qualified us under three of its four potential criteria: the local level for its contribution to the exploration and settlement of the community of Fort Myers Beach; its status as a locally-significant example of Tudor and Bungalow/Craftsman-style architecture; and the potential of archaeological study of the 2,000-year-old Calusa Indian mound.”
With NRHP status, “we will definitely promote our inclusion in all our press releases and marketing, as well as with an on-site historical marker,” explained Giesen. “Most importantly, the Federal Government will promote our designation on a national level, as many tourists travel the country to see and experience HRHP sites.”
Calusa Through The Town
Over 2,000 years ago, Calusa Indians in small fishing villages dominated Southwest Florida, and were the first inhabitants of our barrier island. The Calusa were fisher-gatherers whose lives depended on their rich and diverse habitat, but by the 1750s they vacated the area. In 1898 Robert Gilbert filed his claim to build what is now the Mound House that underwent numerous owners and renovations over the next century-plus. The mound was partially destroyed during the construction of the Shell Mound subdivision, and it received further damage in 1958 with the installation of an outdoor swimming pool.
Roughly forty years later, the newly-formed Town of Fort Myers Beach acquired the Mound House in 2000 to save the structure and its 2.77-acre grounds from demolition for prospective villas and condominiums. Today it is a walk through time where the Calusa set foot all those years ago. Improvements since the Town’s purchase include the Shell Mound Exhibit where visitors walk inside the Calusa Indian Mound, a kayak launch, observation pier and landscaping signage to identify the property’s distinctive flora and fauna.
The Mound House has become a popular spot for both visitors and residents. During the 2017-2018 fiscal year, over 12,000 people visited the site. The scenic grounds are open sunrise to sunset.
Restored to its 1921 grandeur, Estero Island’s oldest standing structure, the Mound House, opened to the public on November 14, 2015, as a cultural and environmental learning center. The unique historic and archeological attraction sits atop an ancient Calusa Indian shell mound, directly on Estero Bay, offering a variety of programs for residents, visitors and school groups, including guided tours to explore the 2,000-year-old Calusa Indian Shell Mound, beach walks and kayak eco-tours. It is open Tuesdays, Wednesdays, & Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. For information and a program schedule, call 239-765-0865 or visit www.moundhouse.org.
“The Town took such a chance on preserving the Mound House,” marveled Giesen, “as it only incorporated five years before, with limited financial resources to undertake such a monumental purchase. When you think of it that way, it is an amazing achievement, and speaks well of the Town’s leadership, then and now. One person I must mention is the late Ted FitzSimons, who was on the original Town Council and spearheaded the purchase under the phrase, ‘Preservation is Progress!’ That should be the mantra for every organization like ours!”
Past & Future
While the excitement over the NRHP designation is immediate, the formal celebration will not occur until fall. “The Mound House opened to the public on November 14, 2015,” Giesen related, “so we are planning our events in conjunction with that fourth anniversary later this year, in and around Thursday, November 14. We however are barely in the planning stages, so mark your calendar but stay tuned for the details! In the meantime, we will offer several free special events, programs and activities throughout the summer specifically for Fort Myers Beach residents, to thank our local citizens for their ongoing support.”
While the NRHP is drawing the most attention now, the Mound House recently launched its Endowment Fund. “This is a huge and important step,” Giesen explained. “We are excited about the Endowment Fund because it will eventually help to strengthen the financial stability of the Mound House for its long-term sustainability.”
Giesen hopes “all Fort Myers Beach residents are as ecstatic as we are about the Mound House gaining NRHP status, as this is a great honor. This places the Mound House on a very short list of historic attractions throughout the nation, and our entire Town should be proud of this recognition.
“Thank you to everyone in the Fort Myers Beach community who supports the Mound House, and even though we are here to preserving the past, together we look forward to an exciting future!”
By Gary Mooney