BY Renee Warren Lynah: Photos by Katie DeSantis
Some may enjoy the sights and sounds of the beach but, for others condo living means having a quiet spot just south of historic downtown Panama City. These residents trade the beach for the bay and palm trees for hundred-year-old oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. The “Cove” and downtown Panama City are rich with history that keeps some residents for generations and draws others from out of town.
In 1973, the late developer Hamilton Kenner built Panama City’s first condominium on Cherry Street and Beach Drive, adjacent to the vacant Cove Hotel. The luxurious fifty- room Cove Hotel had once featured immaculate grounds, pristine hardwood floors, high ceilings, and fine cuisine . Purchased in 1928 by Robert Sealy and his wife, Ruth Sealy Harris, the hotel had been a sought-after location for social events, celebrations and weddings. Mrs . Sealy Harris oversaw most events personally and was said to be an impeccable hostess . Among the Sealys’ most famous guests were the Three Stooges, Boston Red Sox left fielder Ted Williams, 1950’s Presidential Candidate Adlai Stevenson, and the “King of Hollywood” himself, Clark Cable. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor even stopped in for dinner on their way to the Dead Lakes for a fishing trip. Over the years, business declined as other hotels were built and, in 1974, the Cove Hotel closed its doors. In 1976, a fire, which was attributed to faulty wiring, burned the hotel to the ground. Locals have speculated that the fire was suspicious, though no evidence of foul play was ever published.
Kenner continued with his Cove Condominium project and, in 1975, residents began moving in. Originally, there were seven units to a floor, five two-bedroom, one three-bedroom, and one one- bedroom. The fiftieth unit Kenner designed for himself, a 6,000 square-foot rooftop penthouse boasting a 360 degree view. The penthouse was exquisitely decorated with one-of-a-kind pieces and priceless works of art, including hand-painted wallpaper from China. World-famous celebrities, like Country Music legend Johnny Cash, were hosted.
The layout of the building changed over the years as many of the owners extensively remodeled, some buying two units and combining them for additional square footage. Kenner prided himself on quality construction; indeed, the solid concrete block building has now withstood four decades of hurricanes, sustaining only mild first floor flooding during the infamous Opal, which devastated beachfront homes and hotels in 1995. When the Cove Condo units went on the market in the 1970’s, units sold for $40,000. Sale prices topped out in the $300,000’s during the real estate bubble in 2006 and currently market for around $200,000, depending on square footage, layout and view. Tributes to the old Cove Hotel hang throughout the elevator, foyer, and clubhouse, include a painting by Paul Brent, the local artist with a penchant for capturing the charms of Panhandle history.
Retired Lt. Colonel Larry Nix and his wife, Alice, have been spending long weekends in Panama City for over forty years. Larry grew up in Bainbridge, Georgia, where he served in the Army National Guard through high school. He continued his service in the Guard through college and graduated from Florida State University in 1963 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business. Following graduation, Larry served twenty-four years active duty in the United States Army. While stationed at Fort Knox, Kentucky, he met Alice, who was also enlisted. They married and Alice left the Army when she was pregnant with their first child . She served seven and a half years. Larry retired from the Army in 1986 and then continued to work as a civilian for the Department of the Army for another twenty-three years. Larry is now well into his second retirement. However, he continues to oversee his property management company, serves as President of the Cove Condominium Board, and is active in his local church and sailing club. The couple lives in Atlanta, where Alice works part-time as a physical therapist.
Years ago, the couple began vacationing in Panama City to visit Larry’s brother who lived in Lynn Haven. Eventually the couple bought a condo on the beach . During their vacation one year they took a sailing course in St. Andrew’s and Alice fell in love with the downtown area. She says she remembers looking around and thinking, “This is much nicer than the beach!” They looked at multiple condos and even made offers on a few. Nothing had quite panned out when they visited the Cove Condo in 2007 for the first time. They both recall Alice walking onto the balcony, looking out over the bay, and saying, “THIS is what I want.” Initially, the two bedroom two bathroom home needed a lot of work. In fact, like many of the units in the building, the Nix’s condo was completely gutted all the way to the pipes. The original enclosed kitchen was replaced with an open floor plan, allowing for a breathtaking full view of the bay right from the front door. The renovations were finished just in time (literally the day before) for the couple to celebrate Thanksgiving with their daughter.
The Nix’s feel that their condo in the Cove is the best of both worlds . . . they have a panoramic view of St. Andrew’s Bay, complete with intracoastal traffic, the Yacht Club, dolphin watching, and sailing, but without all the hustle and bustle of the beach. Larry says that staying in the Cove is like stepping back in time. “Things slow down,” says the Atlantan . “Folks are gracious .” Alice agrees, “It’s really nice to be in the historic district .” It is precisely this charm that some condo owners believe brings buyers to the Cherry Street address. The Cove Condominium has become a haven for retiring Bunker’s Cove residents looking to downsize.
After giving a gracious tour of her home away from home, Alice Nix stands on her balcony and reveals a detail that makes her Panhandle getaway particularly endearing. “If I get up early enough and come out, I can hear the revelry in the morning. . . and taps. Then there are the Navy boats and the Coast Guard going by. . . these are the things that make me feel like this is really a special place.” For this retired military couple, the sounds of service carried over the water provide a familiarity atop the beauty, a comfort that perhaps feels a little like. . . home . When asked if they will ever sell their unit, the Nix’s are doubtful. When asked if they’ll ever retire here permanently, they glance at each other and smile . “Anything can happen,” Larry says. “All I know is, our long weekends down here seem to be getting longer and longer…”
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