By Eric Barton
City & Shore Magazine
It’s not hard for Patricia Zeiler to picture pioneer Florida, back when civilization barely clung along waterways.
Her office at the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society is on a campus of six buildings that includes an inn from 1905, a replica of the city’s first one-room schoolhouse, and a wood vernacular home built when Teddy Roosevelt was president. But as executive director of the historical society, she knows most people see a downtown Fort Lauderdale dominated by towers of glass.
“When you’re in downtown Fort Lauderdale, I don’t know about you, but with all those tall buildings, it’s hard to imagine what it looked like years ago,” she says. “I always think about those people moving into the condos and having no idea what was on that spot back in the day.”
It’s not like the younger generations are used to flipping through library books for research, so Zeiler is trying something new to get them interested in history. Using a $5,000 grant from the Florida Humanities Council, the historical society is developing a walking tour to be available on mobile phones, offering a bit of old Florida through modern technology.
The tour will be part of an app called Florida Stories, developed by the council and available on Androids and iPhones. Already the app includes 20 tours, including ones on Virginia Key, Islamorada and Key West. But this will be the first in Broward and Palm Beach counties.
The tours include a narrator describing the stops and multiple photos documenting what once stood on each location. The grant covers production costs and rack cards to help promote the walking tour. The whole project will cost about $17,000 to produce, Zeiler says.
The Fort Lauderdale tour will loop through downtown, starting along the New River, where the first stop will describe the Native Americans who once camped along its banks and then the Spanish explorers who descended on Florida. The tour continues with stops at the historical society’s historic buildings and includes stops at the old Bivans Hotel Building, which will soon become a co-working office; and the old five-and-dime McCrory’s, now a beer-by-the-yard spot called Township.
The tour also includes a stop at the Broward County Main Library, designed in a brutalist style three decades ago by famed architects Marcel Breuer and Associates. Nowadays the building is largely hidden behind landscaping and a homeless camp, and Zeiler wonders if those who have made downtown home have noticed the architectural gem that looks like a series of steps and blocks cascading in balconies of pressed concrete.
The historical society hopes the tour is the first of others that will explore more of the city’s history. If time and money allow it, Zeiler next would like to add a tour through the history of the Sistrunk area, named for Dr. James Sistrunk, a World War I veteran and surgeon who founded the city’s first medical facility for African-Americans and is credited with delivering 5,000 babies.
It’s that kind of story that Zeiler hopes to preserve with the walking tour. She can’t help but notice those who come in to the historical society’s offices to do research are of a certain age, and so she’s hoping the app will make the city’s past accessible to a new generation.
“If we don’t share history this way, it’s going to be lost,” Zeiler says. “The people moving downtown are living right there on the tour, and this will give them a chance to see what it looked like, what it felt like, right where they live.”
PHOTO: New River Inn, circa 1902. Courtesy Fort Lauderdale Historical Society