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HISTORIC CHARACTER OF DOWNTOWN PANAMA CITY

By Robert Hurst Photography by Harold Bramton

What defines the character of a community? Is it its people? Its landscape? Its architecture? Its amenities? All of the above? When the definition is restricted further to the historic character, one must also delve into the community’s past and its preservation.

The Texas Historical Commission attempted to define historic character as a district’s own unique combination of building forms, architectural styles, streetscape, and landscape features [Defining Local Historic District Character for any Main Street, n.d., www.seguintexas.gov/document_center].

Downtown Panama City’s historic character is rather elusive. More than two decades ago, in a study funded by the Bureau of Historic Preservation and the Historic Preservation Advisory Council and entitled 1987 Panama City Sites Survey, Eric Montgomery of Montgomery Preservation Services, Savannah, Georgia noted: “Practically every building on Harrison Avenue between Government Street and Fifth Street is a pre-World War II structure, but only a very few have not been altered to the extent that they have lost their historical integrity. Especially disappointing was the fact that no residential neighborhood in Panama City proper [Downtown] was found to be enough intact to meet the criteria for listing in the National Register as a district.” Every time a historic building is altered or demolished, or for that matter a heritage oak is cut down, a little more of Panama City’s historic character is taken away. To declare such a glaringly obvious statement would seem superfluous. Yet as city government officials confirm their interest to maintain the historic character of the Downtown Panama City, unfortunately, the destruction and alteration continues, and once a piece of history is destroyed, it is lost forever. Examples in the recent past include the demolition of the train depot and the Elks Club.

The latter had been altered so severely that it had lost its historic integrity. In addition, the eclectic mix of styles only compounded the problem. So, is there any hope in defining the historic part of Downtown Panama City? Many locals who work, shop, visit or live downtown “feel” its character, but what exactly is it? Perhaps an investigation of what our founders and early developers tried to shape this town into would be a good start. A study of the late 19th century maps of “Park Resort” and “Harrison” (early names of the Downtown) give clues about the character its first developers wanted to shape. The very name “Park Resort” indicates that McKenzie Park would play an important part.

A study of the late 19th century maps of “Park Resort” and “Harrison” (early names of the Downtown) give clues about the character its first developers wanted to shape.

There were plans of developing a residential area around the focal point, the park, surrounded by a beautiful mossy oak and magnolia forest – the commercial section along Harrison Avenue was planned to be on one side of the park. Commercial development started at the water’s edge, where eventually a city pier was built. As time progressed, retail establishments spread north. Since the intended purpose was a “resort,” at least one waterfront hotel was built, the Gulf View Hotel. Remarkably, some of this early character is still present and is obvious in the area of the old Sherman Arcade, walking east to the park and to the courthouse. Two wood frame homes, the oldest in the Downtown area, still stand and overlook the park. In the vicinity of the courthouse, there is a cluster of three dwellings at the intersection of McKenzie and 3rd Court. All are still shaded by oaks and magnolias as it was originally intended. Two distinctive dwellings are listed with the National Register of Historic Places, although they are not typical structures. There is a Victorian look to the Sapp House, the home of J. Mercer Sapp, one of the earliest attorneys in the city. The home of Panama City’s first mayor, Robert McKenzie, shows Colonial Revival architecture. According to Montgomery, the most common homes at the time were frame vernacular and bungalow styles. The frame vernaculars have been reduced to only a few. The best examples can now be found north of 7th Street. In the early 1900s that street marked the northern boundary of the town.

There are actually more dwellings with bungalow influence than there are pure frame vernaculars. Commercial buildings in the downtown area date to the 1920s and 1930s with historic masonry (mostly brick) vernacular as the most common. Many were painted over, thereby losing their red brick color. The surviving structures are usually rectangular in plan and are deep with a narrow width. This conforms to the original layout of the lots as illustrated in the 1888 plat map of Park Resort. They can be one to three stories. Some are actually made of block with a brick façade. They traditionally have storefront windows on either side of a central doorway. Many have cornices with an ornamental brick bond or with corbels.

Often the storefront parapets are stepped or arched with a rectangular space framed underneath in a distinctive brick pattern, which can be used for signage. I recently heard the term “a sense of place.” I associate it closely with historic character and would define it as the characteristics that make a place special or unique, as well as those that foster a sense of authentic human attachment and belonging. I can’t help but feel the old Spanish and art deco influences make Downtown a special place. The Martin Theatre with its marquee and neon signs represents the only exception to city codes and rightly so. The elements of art deco clash with the character of the other buildings but undeniably adds to the character and interest.

The Spanish influence of the Sherman Arcade and the old City Hall (now the Center for the Arts) seem to blend in well with the brick vernacular. As mentioned earlier, much of the recent development has destroyed the historic character of downtown Panama City. There are exceptions, however. Refurbishment and even new construction have revived the old commercial architecture. Trigo’s San Francisco Style Deli is the best example. Former owner John Kady in 2007 asked architect/urban designer Medhat Elmesky to design a façade with brick materials. Elmesky best describes what he then did in his own words: “The Trigo design incorporated both historical and newer materials. For example, demolished bricks from old buildings were incorporated, especially within the design of the sign to bring back the original brick facade of the building. New specialty brick was used to create the feel of the European bakery.” “Trigo, Trigo, I love Trigo”, The Design Corner (Oct. 2007) He was especially inspired by the architecture of the old Commercial and First National Banks, but also by the old red brick vernacular structure, once called the Folkes building. He captured the spirit of the arches and natural stone, but also the brick details of the Folkes structure. This style is reflected also in new construction. Both the east and west gateways to Downtown and the McKenzie Park Gateway contain the same style of red brick design and arches. Elmesky hopes that this design concept will encourage others that this is one of the best ways to preserve historic buildings as they are reminders of a city’s culture, its permanency, and its heritage. It is also hoped that this will inspire new development to maintain and encompass the spirit of the architectural style, materials, and details of the existing historical buildings.
There are many projects slated for the Downtown. They should be encouraged, but with the consideration of preserving the historic character of the community. The archetypal Coca Cola, Harrison and Oak Avenue buildings, the more unique Folkes and recent Trigo buildings, the soaring aches of the old bank buildings, the Spanish influence of the old City Hall and Sherman Arcade, and even the white, green-trimmed, wood framed vernaculars and bungalows should all be examined in the design of future construction in our Downtown Panama City.

Robert Hurst

Robert (Bob) Hurst holds degrees in Anthropology and Archaeology from FSU, and the University of London. A high school project culminated in his article “Mapping Old St. Joseph, Its Railroads and Environs," published in 1961 in the Florida Historical Quarterly. His continuing research in historic trails in North Florida will soon result in his book The Spanish Road, Travels along Florida’s Royal Road, El Camino Real.

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