Ponce Inlet Historic Preservation
A rope stretched across a private dirt road blocks access to the Pacetti House — the town’s oldest building.
No uninvited visitors are welcome. They haven’t been for decades.
But if all goes well for the current owner — the Greenacres Foundation — the secluded road will open in September 2013, and busloads of schoolchildren will begin rolling into a renovated waterfront complex, a one-of-a-kind destination where the town’s rich maritime history and marine environment will be taught.
Greenacres took over the 125-year-old house from the descendents of James Gamble, of Procter & Gamble fame, in 2009. Gamble family members Louis and Louise Nippert established the Cincinnati-based, not-for-profit organization in 1988, offering similar programs for elementary school-age children at that renovated mansion that includes 600 acres of farmland.
The Ponce Inlet plan calls for a $2 million renovation that includes building a dock and buying a boat, possibly with a glass bottom, so up to 60 students at a time can study local sea life.
Carter Randolph, executive director of Greenacres, said he hopes all the zoning and legal twists and turns with Ponce Inlet and Volusia County are completed by next spring, so an architectural firm can be hired to draw up detailed plans and a contractor can begin work.
“It’s pretty much conceptual now,” he said. “There’s nothing specific. We have to get through all the hoops first.”
Greenacres’ successfully negotiated its initial hoop in September, when strict preservationists in Ponce Inlet failed to convince the Town Council to place an involuntary historic designation on the property, with its more restrictive regulations for renovations.
Greenacres representatives said the Pacetti House would be modernized — with upgraded wiring and bathrooms, a commercial kitchen and new handicapped-accessible ramps — but promised to maintain the historic landmark’s character and look.
Greenacres officials point to their mission statement: “Preserve the land for the education and enjoyment of future generations,” where hands-on learning can occur.
The Cincinnati facility is more expansive in both size and scope, focusing more on agricultural, cultural and freshwater experiences, while Ponce Inlet will center on ocean life.
Randolph said he expects two of the major parts of the five-acre Ponce Inlet facility — a dock and boat — to cost about $1.2 million, with an estimated $800,000 going toward renovating the house.
“We haven’t figured out the boat yet. But it will be at least for 60 passengers that can go out to any barrier island,” he said. “Maybe it will be equipped to do water samples and have a glass bottom. We have to see what works best for the dock and the water, and design it accordingly.”
Randolph said a student exchange between Ohio and Florida youngsters might be established so they can learn about very different ecosystems.
Locally, Randolph said the plan calls for the Pacetti House to open four days a week, with one school group a day visiting for free.
He added that Greenacres has established a $12 million endowment to run the Pacetti House, with about $600,000 annually going toward operating the place and programs after the renovation.
“It will be a permanent gift to the community,” Randolph predicted.
JoAnne Hamilton, a 64-year-old Ponce Inlet resident who owns a place in Cincinnati, visited the Greenacres mansion and farm back in September while on a trip to Ohio with her husband. The couple toured the grounds and saw children being entertained by dancers in a Cincinnati ballet company.
Hamilton said she was impressed by the unintrusive ways that Greenacres combines the old and new — “maintaining the original flavor with modern touches.”
“As far as education, they do amazing things with kids,” she said. “It’s not just come to the farm for a day.”
Hamilton, who lives near the Pacetti House, predicted that once renovated, it will become a huge draw, a landmark that embraces Ponce Inlet’s past and future.
“It’s going to bring it back to an era where it looks like 1900, but underneath it will be very modern,” she said. “I know there are purists. But there’s a point where you have to be logical and make it accessible. You have to make modifications.”
No one can visit now.
“It’s an old home that needs tender-loving care. It’s a private residence, and no one can go there now,” Hamilton said. “It’s just marvelous that it will be restored into something.”
The two-story Pacetti House is being compared in some ways to The Casements in Ormond Beach, industrialist John D. Rockefeller’s former winter home on the Halifax River that was modernized by the city in 2009. A major difference is The Casements is not privately owned.
But for many Ponce Inlet residents with deep roots, early settler Bartola Pacetti’s one-time boarding house is much more than a secluded Cracker-style structure overlooking the inlet. It’s a revered community landmark that was built a year before Ponce Inlet’s famous lighthouse opened in 1887.
Over the years, the Pacetti place went from boarding house for those lighthouse construction workers to a hotel to a private residence last owned by the Gamble family, before current matriarch Louise Nippert turned it over to Greenacres.
Several residents in September voiced opposition to the Town Council regarding the planned renovation, preferring any changes remain consistent with the current architecture.
Randolph said a recent meeting with about 35 residents helped calm some nerves by giving a clearer idea of Greenacres’ plans for the future look of the structure and grounds.
“People were ready to get involved,” he said.
Randolph said the foundation will maintain as much of the house’s current look as possible, both inside and out. But new wiring, air conditioning and a commercial kitchen for catering events are needed, something a historic designation by the Town Council wouldn’t have allowed.
He said that over the years many modifications to the house occurred, including with flooring and cabinets, making the term “historic” somewhat relative.
“We are not a historic preservation group,” Randolph acknowledged. “But we’re very respectful to the past.”
For the Pacetti House, time will tell.