Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Part I: The Building
The diminutive train depot at the foot of Centre Street in Fernandina Beach today serves as a welcome center for the many visitors to Fernandina Beach and Amelia Island. But between 1899 and the early 1930’s it actually served as a passenger railroad depot. It replaced the very first train depot, built closer to the waterfront and north of the current location. That structure blew away in the Hurricane of 1898, the strongest hurricane to ever strike this island. While the building is small, it was considered architecturally significant enough to be included in the Historic American Buildings Survey administered since 1933 through cooperative agreements with the National Park Service, the Library of Congress, and the private sector. The depot is part of a collection consisting of more than 556,900 measured drawings, large-format photographs, and written histories for more than 38,600 historic structures and sites dating from Pre-Columbian times to the twentieth century. Details on this structure as well as other significant Fernandina Beach structures are available digitally through the Library of Congress website: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/habs_haer/.
When the railroad determined that the building was surplus to its needs, it deeded the building to the local historical society, which in turn deeded it to the City of Fernandina Beach. Both the railroad and the Historical Society added qualifying language to their deeds, specifying that the building must be used to promote history. In the recent past it housed offices for the Amelia Island Fernandina Yulee Chamber of Commerce. When the Chamber moved to its new location on Gateway Boulevard, the Amelia Island Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) took over the welcome center functions and continued operating in the depot.
The city of Fernandina Beach, as owner of the building, sought federal and state grants over recent years to renovate the aging structure and halt significant deterioration to the brick, doors and windows. With the economic downturn, grant money dried up as well. Thanks to preliminary investigations of Ken Smith, a prominent historic preservation architect well known in Fernandina Beach for his award winning work on the lighthouse, the Amelia Island Museum of History and the Peck Center, the city obtained a realistic but sobering estimate of what it would take to stabilize and restore the building in 2009: $250,000. While Smith concluded that the building was structurally sound, the costs of deferred maintenance, asbestos removal, replacing missing features and upgrading the electrical system would not come cheap.
When it became apparent that the building was deteriorating so rapidly that it might not be possible to wait for possible future grant possibilities to materialize, Gil Langley, President and CEO of the Amelia Island Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), approached the City of Fernandina Beach with a plan to restore and rehabilitate the 1899 train depot. On behalf of his organization Langley offered to contribute $125,000 to the project, if the city would match that amount and also extend the CVB’s lease of the facility as a welcome center for 20 years. Local history buffs and preservationists were overjoyed. The Amelia Island Fernandina Restoration Foundation agreed to contribute an additional $50,000 to the project to assist with renovation and to commission a statue and an interpretive exhibit to honor David Levy Yulee.
At its October 10, 2012 regular meeting the Fernandina Beach City Commission approved Resolution 2012-163 on a 4-1 vote formalizing a memorandum of understanding among the three parties to fund and commence work on the project. Only Commissioner Jeffrey Bunch opposed the motion, citing his concern that no city money should be used for a statue or kiosk.
Langley as the project manager for the restoration effort has contracted with local architect John Cotner to scope out plans and further refine costs. The plans have passed muster with the Historic District Council (HDC case 2011-15) and Arts and Culture Nassau. Work on the building will begin soon.
There may be some surprises in store for those who have become accustomed to the present look of the depot. Paint analysis has been done indicating that there was very little white paint on the original structure, but vestiges of both yellow and green paint have been found. Also, while there will be no attempt to remove the door that opens onto Centre Street , early photos and plans revealed that there were originally two doors opening westward toward the train tracks and no door on the north side. According to Smith’s report the north side door was added in 1965 when the side doors were bricked up. The west side doors will be returned. Depending on the ability to stretch the project’s budget, restoration may also include returning the covered platform that once held arriving and departing passengers. Today such a platform might serve as a covered area for visitors to enjoy the waterfront vista.
An account has been established to accept donations for this effort. For information on how you might contribute to restoring this important part of Fernandina Beach’s nationally recognized Historic District, please contact Gil Langley, [email protected].
You will find more detail on the condition of the building, Ken Smith’s assessments and the HDC case on the city website www.fbfl.org.
But wait … what about the proposed statue? And just who was David Levy Yulee anyway? And what’s his connection to the railroad depot?
Watch for future parts of this series!
March 26, 2013 11:03 a.m.