Photo: Homed in the Harbor Oaks Historic District. The District on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. Photographed by Ebyabe, 2007, (own work) [cc-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons, accessed September, 2022.
The Harbor Oaks Residential District [†] represents the rapid development of new residential subdivisions in Florida between World War I and the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. The styles of the buildings in the district reflect the popular architectural tastes of the period, and the district contains some notable examples of these styles, as interpreted for a Florida setting.
At the turn of the twentieth century, Clearwater, Florida was a small rural community of approximately 350 population, opened to settlement by the Armed Occupation Act of 1842, in the latter days of the Second Seminole War, it had developed slowly as an agricultural community. A post office was established in 1852. In 1888, the Orange Belt Railroad connected the town with the Orlando area and points north, supplementing the established seaborne access to Key West and Cedar Key. Agriculture was thus encouraged. Extensive orange groves were developed and soon came to dominate the economy of the surrounding areas. In 1891 the town of Clearwater was incorporated.
By 1910, the population of the town had grown to 1,171. A central business district had taken shape. Residential areas had been developed along the bluff overlooking Clearwater Bay on the west and expanded in an unplanned fashion to the north and south. The Ft. Harrison Orange Grove occupied. an area at the southern end of the incorporated town, and it was in this area that the Harbor Oaks development would soon occur. Formally organized under multiple ownership in 1904, the Ft. Harrison orange Grove Company was the culmination of sixty years of successive homestead occupations. It derived its name from the short-lived military post established on the site in 1841, and occupied briefly during the Second Seminole
Interest in the area as a winter resort, had also been stimulated by the expansion of railroad transportation throughout the Tampa Bay region, and by the construction of major resort hotels, notably the Tampa Bay Hotel in Tampa and the Bellview Hotel on Clearwater Bay south of the town of Clearwater. it was this interest that attracted Dean Alvord to Clearwater in 1910, and led to the development of Clearwater's first exclusive modern subdivision, Harbor Oaks.
Dean Alvord was a major developer in New York City and on Long island. He first became involved in the renovation of older homes in Garden City, Long island; -His first development project involved the Roslyn Subdivision where he established his own home on a thirty-acre tract. His other projects included the development of several sections in Brooklyn including prospect Park South and Flatbush. On Long island he developed Belle Terre and Dean Alvord Estates. Most of Alvord 's projects were for upper class homes which brought him and his son Donald into close contact with wealthy industrialists, financiers, and attorneys.
Like many of his fellow New Yorkers, Alvord was interested in Florida. He visited the state on several occasions. At one point he became acquainted with Henry Flagler who took him to Miami to get advice on real estate development there. After much careful examination Alvord decided to establish a permanent winter home in the state and around 1910 or 1911 he decided on Clearwater. E.H. Coachman had recently purchased the grove from the Ft. Harrison Orange Company and had just sold the fruit. Alvord did not want all the land, but only enough to build his winter home. Coachman would not sell it in small parts and so Alvord acquired the entire property. Dean Alvord constructed one of the first homes (800 Druid Road) in Harbor Oaks, just past the point where Druid Road turns south. This house was a simple Colonial Revival stucco structure.
Alvord decided to undertake the development of an exclusive neighborhood designed to attract wealthy residents and protect the values of the property which was purchased. Sophisticated development was not the norm in Florida during the 1910s. Most developers merely sold surveyed land with graded roads and without amenities such as paved streets, curbs, sewer and water. This was, however, the age in Florida of rapid expansion of public facilities as residents became more sophisticated and demanded more services for their money. Promoters found that qualitative features such as roads, sewers, water and landscaping could be promoted to discriminating buyers who recognized the value of such improvements.
Alvord was used to installing such facilities in his urban projects in New York and set out to develop his new subdivision complete with roads and sewers. He turned the land and the project over to his son Donald, who was young but becoming an astute real estate salesman. The subdivision was developed out of land which included waterfront, an orange grove and a marshy pond. Druid Road, named for the well-known English religious cult, was named by Dean Alvord and became the first major improvement. The road was graded and paved, and furnished with curbs, gutters, and sidewalks of concrete. Brick pillars were installed at several entrances to the project. A complete sewer system was installed which drained into a large septic tank system at the southwest corner of the development. The overflow originally ran into the bay. At some point, probably in the 1920s, a tennis court was added to the neighborhood's amenities near the corner of Bay Avenue and Magnolia Drive. It was later removed. Underground utilities were installed along the street in 1915 by J.G. McClung, the owner of the Clearwater Ice Plant which supplied electric power to the city. The underground utilities were mainly buried cable which supplied power to 27 street lights. There was no street front electrical wiring. The electricity for the lots was placed at the rear lot lines and originally installed on power poles painted green. These lines went underground in conduit where they crossed the main roads. Alvord also acquired oaks and palms which were set out along the parkways. A channel was dredged to the pier at the end of Magnolia Avenue and the spoil was used to fill behind a bulkhead along the shore. The fill was also used to fill a marshy area which probably contained a spring near the southeast part of the subdivision. Alvord had to fill the area three times before the streets were usable in that area. This marsh and small lake was the location of a drowning before the filling work was complete.
The development was opened by January, 1914. Several large advertisements in the Tampa Tribune, Clearwater Sun and the St. Petersburg Times called Harbor Oaks "The Riviera of the Sunny South" and the "finest shore development on the West coast of Florida." The description indicated that portions of the development were completed by 1914. This was probably the portion along Druid Road and Jasmine Way and Magnolia Drive, since most of the houses on these streets date from that period. Alvord offered a relatively new and innovative approach to development in Florida, through the use of deed restrictions. Such restrictions were the precursor of zoning and land use controls in a period before governments attempted to institute them through their police powers. The need for such controls became obvious in rapidly developing communities. Restrictions were needed to prevent residential areas from becoming commercial with the resulting construction of incompatible new structures which, in those days, would have reduced property values. The restrictions included permitted uses, setbacks, and cost of house built. The advertisements for the project emphasized the lot restrictions. Prospective buyers were promised that the restrictions constituted "fully one third the value of residence property." An October 1914 advertisement noted that several new residents had been forced from other areas of Clearwater because of a lack of control over the adjacent uses of property.
The arrangement of the lots and their purchase price were fairly typical of the period. The lots were 60' wide by 130' deep except for the large lots along the west side of Druid Road which were 400' deep. These lots were platted to the water and included a drop in elevation of twenty-five feet at the bluff. Terms of purchase were twenty percent down and ten percent semi-annually with six percent interest.
Harbor Oaks was not a large development, but it was exclusive and attracted many well-known individuals. The first houses in the neighborhood were completed by 1915. Most of them were homes for current residents of Clearwater. Taver Bayly (301 Jasmine Way), a local citrus man and banker, built a bungalow at the corner of Druid Road and Jasmine Way. This bungalow became a prominent feature in Alvord's promotional material on the neighborhood. John B. Lyon, a lumberman, built a home at 1005 Druid Road which was also featured in the local advertisements. Sewell Ford (803 Druid Road), a nationally famous writer, constructed a home in the project and called it Casa de San Antonio. He was the first of several nationally-known figures who established winter homes in Harbor Oaks. In all, seven houses were built during the first years of the development. The development of Harbor Oaks continued at a slow pace over the following ten years. A few homes were built each year with 1918 being a busy one when five homes were built by local residents. It was not until the peak of the Florida Boon in 1925 that many of the better-known residents built homes in Harbor Oaks.
Many of those who bought lots in Harbor Oaks were acquaintances of the Alvords. Dean Alvord and his son circulated in wealthy circles in the New York area and were close friends with many financiers and industrialists. These contacts produced prospects for their many projects, including Harbor Oaks. For example, Edmund Lyons, who purchased the original Alvord house on Druid Road, was a close friend of Dean Alvord. The family also became close friends with the Browns and Judds along Druid Road. In a recent interview, Donald Alvord admitted that he sold many lots to people whom he knew, and that these were the best clients for such a development as Harbor Oaks.
Clearwater became a part of the rapid real estate land boom in Florida in the 1920s. In 1920 there were 2,247 residents and by 1925 there were 5,004 in the city. The large citrus industry in the area was damaged by a hurricane in 1921. Many of the owners replaced their groves with subdivisions as they moved out to cash in on the fever of real estate buying occurring throughout the state during the decade. Large subdivisions grew everywhere with elaborate advertising and promotion. L.B. Skinner developed Mandalay on Clearwater Beach in 1922, and the Fort Harrison Hotel was finished in 1926. There was an extensive development project in Belleair to the south, as well as areas all along the southern peninsula.
By early 1925 only twenty lots were left unsold in Harbor Oaks. These were mainly along Magnolia and Lotus Path. During the winter and spring of 1925 Alvord ran nearly daily advertisements in the Clearwater Evening Sun promoting the remaining lots. He used new advertisements at least three times a week. Many of them featured photographs of the houses of prominent residents. Alvord was using his well-established real estate company to promote the development. He was also involved in several other projects in Clearwater and on Clearwater Beach. His firm operated as a broker for other properties in the community and at one point operated an office in St. Petersburg. Alvord also owned a gladiola farm which was eventually developed into a subdivision known as Skycrest.
The advertising campaigns were directed at obvious markets. In the winter, it was that winter tourist who was in the mood for a permanent winter residence. The advertisements promoted the fact that the buyers of Harbor Oaks lots could live near "America's best-known men and women in literature, art, and finance." The spring campaign was directed at local buyers. Several advertisements featured local residents who purchased lots and built homes to emphasize that "prominent" local men had chosen Harbor Oaks for their home. The campaign was successful, and by the fall only nine lots were left and by early 1927 the project had been sold out.
Donald Alvord was also involved in building several speculative houses in the subdivision. In 1925 he had three houses on Magnolia Drive under construction and for sale. These houses included Los Robles (429 Magnolia Drive) which was designed by Franklin O. Adams of Tampa, and Casa del Mar (423 Magnolia Drive), one of the Mission style houses which he built on the street. These two houses were featured in several advertisements which offered the homes for sale, as well as several newspaper articles. It is probably safe to assume that other houses were built this way. Alvord himself said that his father had a habit of building a house and^living in it a few years, then selling and building another one.
Robert S. Brown acquired the original Alvord estate during the decade. He added extensive wings to the north and south of the main house, changed the configuration of the original windows and made extensive alterations to the inside. Elaborate gardens were constructed down the bluff. He constructed a large bell tower and installed an extensive organ system in the building.
Florida was a destination of many of America's leading individuals in the 1920s. Large winter homes were constructed in Harbor Oaks by prominent figures, particularly along Magnolia Drive. Important persons included James Studebaker III (413 Magnolia Drive), a banker and member of the famous automaker's family; Robert Ingersoll (322 Magnolia Drive), founder of the machinery firm which was predecessor to the IngersolI/Rand Corporation; and Charles Ebbetts (301 Druid Road), owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers. It is likely that several of these individuals knew Alvord from New York and could explain their presence in the town. Another writer, Rex Beach, shared a home with A.B. Crews for several years in the 1920s.
In 1929 another estate was completed nearby which rivaled the Brown estate. This large and imposing Tudor style house was built for Donald Roebling who was from New York City. He became an important engineer, philanthropist and inventor. He would later become famous for his Alligator amphibious vehicle which he designed and built during World War II. This property was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
Prominent local individuals also built homes in Harbor Oaks in the 1920s. These included M.A. McMUllen (302 Druid Road), circuit judge and son of a pioneer family of the area, and W.F. Rehbaum (302 Druid Road), who owned West Coast Hardware and was instrumental in developing packaged mail order fruit.
Two local builders were active in the neighborhood. Robert Thompson built several homes in the neighborhood in the late 1920s and 1930s. G.A. Eichelberger (410 Jasmine Way) built his own home on Jasmine Way and was Alvord's official builder.
The neighborhood became a tightly-knit community which was structured to insure the maintenance of the special qualities of the subdivision. Alvord led the way by insuring that each homeowner would participate in the continued maintenance of the streets and landscaping. On February 17, 1920, the Harbor Oaks Association was formed by the residents pursuant to the requirement of their deeds. The Association functioned as a neighborhood owners' association. There were mandatory assessments which were used to pay for the maintenance of the streets, curbs, plants and trees. This organization was formed to perform these activities without the help of the city. In most communities, the city was not involved in continued maintenance of amenities. This mechanism became popular as a sales tool and provided security to the investments of the residents. This approach to development became prominent in the 1920s, but in 1914, was still rare in Florida and makes the organization and development of Harbor Oaks significant. This association continues to operate today and works to maintain the character of the neighborhood. The organization of the association provided for an extremely representative form of government. The nine-member board was elected so that each street in Harbor Oaks was represented. Standing committees were established for finance, police and fire protection, streets and sidewalks, taxation, public utilities, and law. The board had the authority to set yearly assessments which were used to maintain the roads and parkways in the neighborhood.
In establishing its purpose, the association sought to perpetuate the qualities which made Harbor Oaks attractive to its first residents. The by-laws stated that the benefits of the association were derived from:
The charm of Harbor Oaks, which is lacking in many residential districts of even larger cities lies in the uniformity of planting and the continued upkeep of the plants, palms, trees, and parks. General municipal and state taxation has never been sufficient to properly plant—much less continually keep up—the street parkway in front of each home, hence the usual heterogeneous growth of weeds and grass found there. Harbor Oaks funds are expended entirely upon the street parkways in front of the building line of each plot and the entire time of a gardener employed yearly by the Association is necessary for this work.
There are several exceptional homes in Harbor Oaks which are landmark examples of architecture in their own right. The Harrison/Plunket House (205 Magnolia Drive), and the Dean Alvord House (208 Magnolia Drive) are exceptional examples of the Mediterranean Revival style. Both houses feature elegant detailing such as quions, elaborate entrance architraves, and large terraces. Both houses anchor the west end of Magnolia Drive. The Bowen House (421 Druid Road) is an exceptional example of the Prairie School. The use of the broad, low hip roof and the rectilinear pilasters are the main features of this house. It appears that this structure may have been a one-of-a-kind design and not derived from popular plan books. The Alvord/Brown House (802 Druid Road) is an interesting transformation. Robert Brown created a magnificent eclectic home from the simple Prairie School-influenced home of Dean Alvord. Eventually Brown improved the gardens and added a campanile tower on the waterfront. The Price House (301 Lotus Path) is an interesting combination of Classical and Prairie School designs. The house bears the typical broad eaves with modillions, and incorporates the distinctive belt course between the first and second floors which was so common to the prairie School, yet it also incorporates classical balustrades and classical details at the entrance.
Preservation activities in Clearwater and Harbor Oaks began with a private effort. In 1976 Volunteers in Preservation was formed to undertake a survey of much of the area in central Pinellas County, particularly in Clearwater. The group was supported by assistance from the Division of Archives, History and Records Management through an historic sites specialist. The project identified fourteen buildings considered eligible for the Florida Master Site Files and a recommendation was made to pursue the development of an historic district. A local survey form was developed for the project and research on each house in the neighborhood was collected by several volunteers. Jan McNutt undertook the detailed work of tracing tax roll information on the various properties. No final Florida Master Site File forms were ever submitted for this project.
The City of Clearwater first adopted an Historic Preservation Element for its Comprehensive Plan in 1979 and revised the plan in 1984. This plan recognized the significance of Harbor Oaks as a neighborhood which contained the "finest examples of period architecture and material use." It recommended the designation of the community as an historic district under a local historic district ordinance.
As a follow-up to the plan, the City Planning staff proposed an ordinance to designate the area as an historic district. This ordinance included the appointment of an architectural review board. The proposal met with neighborhood opposition and it was never brought before the City Commission. The city later decided to seek a grant from the Division of Historical Resources to fund a survey of Harbor Oaks to prepare a proposal for the nomination of the area to the National Register of Historic Places. The project was also intended to prepare an ordinance which would be acceptable to the neighborhood and which would provide for recognition and protection of the resources in the neighborhood. In 1985, the city was awarded this grant to undertake the survey.
† Adapted from: W. Carl Shiver, Historic Sites Specialist, Florida Bureau of Historic Preservation, Harbor Oaks Residential District, nomination document, 1987, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.
Bay Avenue • Druid Road • Jasmine Way • Lotus Path • Magnolia Drive