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Reviving History

By Robert Hurst, Photography by Jordan Williams

 

The masonry vernacular building at 133 Harrison Avenue, once known as the Van Kleeck Building, is now a home to the recently relocated Bay County Museum. Its balconies, railings, skylights, pine flooring and masonry walls are characteristic of the commercial building interior design that was popular in the 1930s. In fact, it is the best (some would say the only) unaltered example of commercial architecture of that period in
Bay County.

In the first half of the 20th Century, with the real estate and building market expanding the continuously swelling economy in Bay County, there was a need for building supplies which, no doubt, Roy Van Kleeck recognized. When his father, Jeremiah, came to Lynn Haven with his family in 1911 from Poughkeepsie, New York, he operated a draying business. In 1917, Roy opened the Van Kleeck Company in the newly-developing town of Lynn Haven. Seeking an additional outlet and new territory for expansion, on November 14, 1931, he opened a second store at either 133 or 135 Harrison Avenue, offering paint, builders’ hardware, fishing tackle, stoves, sporting goods, linoleums, and building materials. By 1932, Van Kleeck served as a county commissioner.

By October, 1933, the Van Kleeck Company had expanded into the adjacent unit, formerly occupied by The Ideal Millinery (hat shop), a lady’s “ready to wear” clothing shop, managed by Mrs. Laura I. Biggs. In just two years, Van Kleeck had doubled his work space. The company was one of the major suppliers of building materials during the boom that continued into the 1950s. Until its closing in the early 1990s, the Van Kleeck Company was still considered to offer the best building materials in Bay County.

Tragically, in 1939, Van Kleeck’s life was cut short. His murder was perhaps the most famous and dramatic crime in Panama City in that period. It involved a shooting in the alley, the formation of a posse, and the murderer’s execution by a lynch mob. The story sounds like something out of the Wild West and is told in a 2008 issue of Panama City Living, “Historic Buildings of the Downtown: The Van Kleeck Company.”

Roy’s widow Alice Van Kleeck continued to operate the business with a partner until 1946, when A. N., Norman A., and Larry G. Smith purchased the company. After the new owners vacated the building in 1960, Surplus Sales Service moved in, and the building continued to serve the community as a hardware store until it was vacated at the end of 2002. The site bears the distinction of having housed the longest continuously operating hardware store in the county.

The original exterior façade was clad in large black faience-surfaced tiles, interspersed occasionally with colored tiles the hue of which can no longer be discerned. This pattern may have been influenced by the art deco style of the times.

Upon entering the double doors, a short walkway is flanked by an irregular wooden stage that used to outline the large show windows. The stage retains the shape today. There used to be a recessed exterior hallway that funneled down to an entrance door. The façade and entrance underwent alterations by new building occupants in circa 1960-61 when the Van Kleeck Company moved.

The general layout of the interior is that of a large showroom, flanked on one side by pine shelving, originally lacquered, but now painted a maroon color. Second floor balconies are at the front and rear. An office area in the rear may have been added at a later date, since a few community citizens recall an office on the rear balcony from which the personnel could oversee the daily happenings on the ground level.

The walls and ceiling have retained their original white color. The trim on the stairs and balcony rails is now painted forest green, replacing a black finish. This color was selected because it was more in keeping with the favored trim color of the 1930s. Indeed, evidence found in the extreme southwest unit at 131 Harrison indicated that underneath the black finish was a forest green paint.

The flooring is likely the most beautiful part of this vintage building. Made of heart pine, some of the boards are over 18 ½ feet in length, and were laid using the tongue-and-groove method. They were left unfinished, and were oiled occasionally to preserve the wood. Over the years, oil and dirt buildup caused them to darken considerably, but this did not diminish the beauty of the craftsmanship. Sometime between 2002 and 2005, all the flooring was sanded to its original light-colored finish before being sealed with a clear satin polyurethane varnish – a perfect setting for a new history museum. Read about the new exhibits on the next pages.

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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