Iconic New Deal Era Cultural Landscapes in the Florida State Park System
This presentation is part of the A Century of Design in the Parks: Preserving the Built Environment in National and State Parks, June 21-23, 2016, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
David Driapsa: Thank you, Debbie. It’s so nice to be back in Santa Fe. In the late 1980s, I was registered as a licensed landscape architect in the state. In the early 1990s, I moved to Santa Fe to record the cultural landscape of Chimayo New Mexico. I did several other projects for the state highway department before I left.
I’m here today to talk about cultural landscapes of the New Deal Era in Florida. Nine parks created under Roosevelt’s New Deal formed the foundation of the Florida State Park System. Our federal government aided Florida between 1933 and 1942 to develop Highlands Hammock, Hillsborough River, Myakka River, O’Leno, Torreya, Fort Clinch, Gold Head Branch, Florida Caverns, and Ravine Gardens State Parks. These nine parks exemplify the National Park’s Service rustic style of recreational architecture and site master planning using rough cut timber and rubble stone, English Arts and Crafts detailing, and cluster compositions, in a harmonious rural setting.
The parks building program was derived from pattern books, such as Park and Recreation Structures compiled by Albert Good, resulting in a common architecture theme state-wide with regional variations. The recreational amenities also are derived from pattern books, such as Recreation Plans handbook, compiled by Albert Davis Taylor. Each park is a distinctive product of well-chosen land parcels, representing the diversity of the physiographical regions of Florida. The responsiveness to the land of each park site master plan is a testament to the skill of the landscape architects’ careful integration of buildings and recreational amenities in harmony with nature, rendering each park unique and its cultural landscape character-defining.
The Florida State Legislature created the Florida State Park System in 1925, but appropriated no funding. In 1927, the legislature created the State Board of Forestry and the subsidiary Florida Forest Service, which became the vehicle by which the state park system would come into being. In 1933, the legislature directed the board to select land parcels on which to develop parks to be funded by federal assistance. No funding for land purchase was appropriated and acquisition was pursued through donations.
Highlands Hammock State Park was established in 1934 on land purchased for preservation in 1929 by the Florida Tropical Parks Association. This 500-acre parcel near the city of Sebring on the central Florida highlands was a vestige of the hardwood tropical forest that once extended across Florida. A private park was developed, with careful study and sympathetic restraint, to preserve the scenic perfection and biological wealth of the forest. Freeman Tilden, a leading authority on state parks at the time, described Highlands Hammock Park as one of the most fascinating of American wildernesses.
As the economy worsened in 1933, discussions led to preserving this magnificent forest by donating Highlands Hammock Park and two square miles of adjacent land to the state, on which to establish the Florida State Botanical Garden and Arboretum. Acceptance of this donation made this park the first unit of the Florida State Park System. An advisory board of nationally prominent leaders in park and recreational planning, including landscape architects Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr., John Nolen, and Albert Davis Taylor, assembled to guide the strategy creating Florida’s first state park.
The National Park Service hired landscape architect Charles Vinten from the Albert Davis Taylor firm in 1935 as parks projects superintendent, overseeing development of the Botanical Garden. A year later, Vinten was promoted to supervisor inspector over all CCC Parks in Florida, where his professional skill and judgment contributed to the high quality and uniformity of the parks. A workforce of two hundred youth, with the superintendent and technical and supervisory staff was assembled to develop the park. The Army provided standardized camp layouts, barracks and workshops, vehicles, tools, and building materials. At the onset of World War II, work on the Botanical Garden was abandoned. The Highlands Hammock unit was completed and today features the Florida CCC Museum.
Hillsborough River State Park is a natural environment of rich diversity. But at the beginning of the 20th century, the ancient forest had been cut, and in 1934 the derelict land was donated to the state for a forestry restoration project. Landscape architect Prentiss French was hired as a consultant to assist with the park site master planning. He resigned and William Phillips was hired from the Olmstead Brothers firm. The park site master plan bears the names of landscape architects Walter Coldwell and Emmett Hill. The park recreational amenities are centered along a series of Class II rapids, one of the few such large rapids in Florida.
In 1935, a workforce of sixty enrollees arrived to improve the natural swimming area, construct shelters and an amphitheater of native limestone along the river bank, and a suspension bridge crossing the river connecting hiking trails. This cluster of recreational amenities, along with the entry station and administrative complex, are outstanding examples of New Deal Era rustic architecture and land planning.
Myakka River State Park is one of the largest in Florida, covering fifty-eight square miles. It is the southernmost and most subtropical of these nine parks. The vast openness has been compared to the African veldt. The park is noted for migratory birds, so abundant that it has been described as reaching spectacular concentrations. The contribution of an African American workforce is notable. Black enrollees were stationed at the park in 1935 and the white community protested under Jim Crow laws. The state representative warned that the workforce would build the park or the camp would be abandoned. The white community objected and the camp was evacuated. Removal of federal relief money from the local economy led the community to repent and the workforce returned.
The workforce entered a landscape of stunning beauty and rattlesnakes. Conditions in the camp were very unsatisfactory at first, with outdoor kitchens and no floors, and rattlesnakes crawling into tents. Some enrollees became sick with malaria and others deserted, shocked by the primitive conditions they had to endure.
The park site master plan was produced in 1934 under acting Florida State Park Service Director Charles Schaeffer and bares the names of landscape architects Emmett Hill and Walter Coldwell, with Prentiss France as consultant. Landscape architect William Cook produced building plans for overnight cabins along the Myakka River, standing firmly on limestone piers and featuring large stone fireplaces and chimneys. Superintendent A. D. Lawson commented that the grace and distinction of the picnic pavilion with its ashlar floor constructed of carefully sawed limestone, was the park’s glory.
O’Lena State Park originated in 1934 as a state forestry camp on land with a long and rich history of human use. The town of O’Lena was established in the mid-1800s where the Santa Fe River sinks underground and forms a natural bridge. Water from dams on the river powered saw mills. Prosperity resulted in O’Lena growing large enough to have a Post Office, until construction of the railroad bypassed the town and set off its decline. The ghost town was selected for development of a state forest service training camp, under the auspices of the WPA. The funding expired in 1935, work came to a standstill, and the facility was turned over to the Florida State Park System.
Landscape architect Emmett Hill produced the park site master plan centered along the river, with mess hall, lodge and cabins, museum, picnic pavilion, stone amphitheater, and suspension bridge crossing the river connecting hiking trails, all constructed of native materials, harvested and manufactured on the site.
Torreya State Park and the northern highlands of northwest Florida is a landscape of high bluffs and deep ravines where clear streams flow over waterfalls, sink underground, and resurface downstream. It is the fabled forest of Torreya trees visited by Harvard botanist Asa Gray, in 1875. The forest was intensively cut over before 320 uncut acres were donated for the core of the new park.
CCC Camp SP-6 was installed in 1935 to conduct forestry, land conservation, and road construction, but abandoned in 1937 due to funding reductions. A side camp from Florida Caverns was transferred to the park in 1939 and resumed the work. Landscape architect Emmett Hill oversaw production of the park site master plan, creating an antebellum motif, recalling “Life in the Old South” during the early nineteenth century when plantations and slavery stretched from Jacksonville to Pensacola. The Gregory plantation house was disassembled from along the Apalachicola River, barged across to the park, and reassembled as a visitor center high on the bluff overlooking the river. Moving and reassembling the house required most of the workforce, leaving the park largely undeveloped.
Fort Clinch State Park overlooks the Saint Marys River on Cumberland Sound, along the Atlantic coast of northeast Florida. Construction of the pentagonal-shaped red brick fortress began in 1847 as a component of the federal Third System Fortifications. Advances in cannon technology rendered the thick masonry walls obsolete and the fort was never finished. Landscape architect Emmett Hill oversaw production of the park site master plan for recreational amenities, environmental restoration, and treatment for preserving, rehabilitating, and restoring the fort.
CCC camp SP-8, a company of mature and skilled World War I veterans, was transferred to the park from Ocala National Forest in 1937. Work progressed slowly, leaving sections of the fort as stabilized ruins. Several new buildings were constructed using the surplus brick. A beautiful three-mile drive was constructed to the fort through live oak forest and across sand dunes, with spur roads leading off to scenic overlooks, picnic areas, and overnight trailer camps.
Gold Head Branch State Park lies upon the rolling red clay sand hills within the broad uplands of the Central Florida Ridge. The karst landscape is dotted with sinkhole lakes, including one the oldest in the state, approximately twenty-four thousand years old. The principal natural feature is the ravine, 40 feet deep, 1.5 miles long, reaching several hundred feet across. The park takes its name from the stream and the ravine originating from many streams merging to form the substantially flowing Gold Head Branch. A nature trail encircling the wooded fern-lined ravine and a foot bridge crossing the stream near the remains of a nineteenth-century grist mill were constructed by the CCC.
The park was developed between 1937 and 1939 with landscape architect Emmett Hill overseeing production of the park site master plan. CCC company 2444, consisting of twenty-five mature veterans from World War I, all seasoned craftsmen, and two hundred youth were installed to develop the park. They built the most complete New Deal Era park in Florida, constructing wood frame cabins, a sand beach with a swimming area and concession facility, large picnic shelters overlooking the lakes, the contact station, and entry gate all in the rustic style, which has been described as having a Boy Scout feeling.
Florida Caverns State Park was created on a spectacular karst landscape of limestone cliffs, caverns, sinkholes, flowing springs, and clear streams that makes the park one of the “crown jewels” of the Florida State Parks System. The Marianna Cavern Association started to develop the so-called Indian Cave in the early 1930s as a tourist attraction and later donated the land to the state for the park. This was the last full CCC camp activated in Florida with federal assistance to stimulate the local economy.
A side camp of local experienced men and twenty-five enrollees detached from Torreya State Park to excavate the Indian Cave discovered the spectacular cavern named the Florida Cavern, and it became the focus of park building activities. Superintendent A. D. Lawson, known for his ability to execute speedy and efficient work, was transferred from Myakka River Park to supervise the workforce. Landscape architects Emmett Hill oversaw the park site master planning, Ray Vinten served as work inspector, and Walter Coldwell served as project coordinator. A 3,000-foot long underground trail system was surveyed and designed with architectural drawings produced for entry and exit portals, with steel doors to secure the cavern from trespass.
The workforce, known as the Gopher Gang, tunneled fifty-five feet underground with pick, shovel, and wheelbarrow removing mud to enlarge and reveal the spectacular cavern featuring wonders of stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, flow stones, drift stone formations, and draperies. The buildings in the park are constructed of locally quarried limestone and are among the most notable accomplishments of the rustic style in Florida. Foundations of the visitor center are sunk into bedrock and multiple levels of the building are terraced, with stone retaining walls and stone steps all integrated organically into the landscape.
Last but not least, Ravine Gardens State Park is located in Palatka, a historic port city on the Saint John River in northeast Florida, at one time the most southerly resorts for winter visitors to the state. The park encompasses two adjoining ravines enhanced with stone terraces and dazzling botanic display. The park was initiated by the community to grow tourism in the city, and later federally funded by the Work Progress Administration. This is the only one of these nine parks that had no CCC participation in its development.
Landscape architect Richard Forester produced the park site master plan. Born in Holland into a family of landscape gardeners, he served as beautification director for the WPA in Florida. He also served as the Palatka city manager and supervised construction of this park that became known as the nation’s outstanding WPA project. The Court of States inside the entrance at the top of the ravine is a marvelous architectural space. The grassy rectangle was framed by a pair of limestone pillars of a pergola rising fifteen feet, supporting a lattice of sabal palm logs, framing the commemorative Roosevelt arch that soared sixty-five feet into the sky.
Beyond this court, leading into the ravine, the park is transformed from geometry to nature. Think of Villa Lante in reverse. Limestone terraces buttressed with stone retaining walls are interconnected by sweeping flights of stone stairs, becoming increasingly natural looking as they descend 100 feet to sky reflecting lakes, surrounded by forest at the bottom. This designed landscape is a brilliant work of great artistry and an outstanding example of the high art of landscape architecture created by the New Deal in Florida. Joseph Pratt, the southeast regional engineer of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration stated, “This park is a project, which not only Florida, but the entire FERA is proud. The skillful blending of artificiality with nature is superb.”
Each of these nine parks is a historically significant designed landscape. Together, these parks represent the deep foundation of the Florida State Parks System. Management of these landscapes as natural resources, rather than as historic resources, is resulting in an incremental, and often barely perceptible, decline of historic integrity. Such impairment will continue in the near term and likely continue until cultural landscapes are understood, appreciated, and protected as legacies of our state heritage.