Old Florida is alive and well in sunny Stuart, where the past won’t be forgotten
By Nancy Moreland
Oct 29, 2019 | 6:00 AM
It’s no secret that the suddenly single are vulnerable to rebound romances. Even the newly divorced Ralph Evinrude, a captain of industry, found himself susceptible. Who could blame him? The object of his desire was singer and film star Frances Langford.
In the 1950s, both were guests at the Clifton Guest and Fishing Lodge in Stuart, Florida. The self-proclaimed “Sailfish Capital of the World” sits on the Atlantic, about a two-hour drive south of Orlando and two hours north of Miami. The coastal setting was ripe for a tropical tryst: coconut palms swaying in balmy breezes, moonlight reflecting off the St. Lucie River, sensuous flowers blooming at every turn. This tryst, however, turned into a 31-year marriage between two luminaries whose philanthropy benefits the city to this day.
Downtown Stuart is full of stories like that.
You can contemplate all of this while staying in the Evinrude or Langford suite of that same fishing lodge. It’s one of 22 restored dwellings transformed into boutique accommodations by Steven Vitale, a local real estate attorney with a penchant for historic preservation.
“I purchased my first property in 2007, right when the market began to go down,” Vitale says. "I had to make the building pay for itself, so I converted it from apartments back into its original use as a hotel.”
While that first project, now known as the Old Colorado Inn, was driven by necessity, Vitale’s vision soon became a passion. When the turn-of-the-century Clifton Guest and Fishing Lodge was slated for demolition, Vitale bought and barged it down the St. Lucie River to its current spot on Seminole Street.
And so, like Vitale’s other projects, the Clifton has a happy ending. All of the properties balance modern comfort with old Florida character. Guests tread gleaming Dade County heart pine floors and sleep under beadboard ceilings. They chat on porches graced with gingerbread trim. Depending on the property, observant visitors may spot an antique door bell, telephone shelf or mail slot. Nightly rates at the Inn in December start at $119; guest house rates start at $229.
The Clifton sits next door to a literary landmark known as the Lyons House. An 1890 Florida vernacular cottage, it once housed author and conservationist Ernest Lyons. The former Stuart News editor penned “My Florida” and “The Last Cracker Barrel” while living here. The house’s roots run deep into Stuart’s pioneer past. It served as the town’s first school and church, and witnessed its first wedding and first birth.
Around the corner, the Old Colorado Inn has ties to a character as colorful as its bright yellow facade. It was built as a hotel by John Coventry, whose son Frank fueled the local gossip mill. A Prohibition-era rum runner, Frank purportedly drove the getaway car for Florida’s notorious Ashley gang.
“He was later shot in a pool hall over a love interest,” Vitale says. “They held his funeral at the hotel.”
Even Stuart’s most recognizable landmark, the 1904 Owl House, is available for stays, with a three-night minimum requirement. Its sea captain builder designed the four-pointed gable roof to be hurricane resistant. The resulting roofline, forever frozen in a quizzical frown, stares out at the river as it has for more than a century. Inside, the beamed, angular ceilings and expansive windows feel more like Frank Lloyd Wright than the Victorian and farmhouse styles that dominated the Sunshine State in the early 1900s.
Vitale’s efforts to save local history have not gone unnoticed. He received Martin County’s Historic Preservationist of the Year Award for 2019.
Although Vitale’s venture started at an inauspicious time, he had the golden rule of real estate in his favor. All of his properties are located on scenic side streets near the St. Lucie River in downtown Stuart, a success story in its own right.
In the late 1980s, local citizens, with help from Andrés Duany, the influential architect of Seaside renown, reinvigorated the town. Duany’s New Urbanist plan connected Stuart’s historic downtown with its scenic waterfront. The citizenry followed through on his ideas and today, the compact main street hums with activity. Laughter and conversation emanate from sidewalk cafes. Independently owned boutiques entice shoppers. The restored 1926 Lyric Theatre fills with audiences eager to see celebrated performers. People stroll along the Riverwalk past a pier, marina and parks, within view of the elegant Roosevelt Bridge.
At the same time, Stuart evokes an era of languid afternoons on the lanai: mai tai in hand, ceiling fan circling slowly overhead. Even in our overstimulated age, it’s easy to maintain that carefree state. Just stroll around the neighborhood. You quickly realize that this town carefully cultivates its people-friendly pace and scale.
Along Flagler Avenue, brightly colored canvas awnings shade shoppers from the Florida sun. Benches invite weary husbands. A fountain, strategically placed in a traffic-calming roundabout, provides background music for diners in outdoor cafes. A crosswalk painted swimming pool blue alerts drivers and guides pedestrians. Balconies brim with fuchsia bougainvillea. Murals accent buildings, even those that face alleys. Further down Flagler Avenue, a former 1901 mercantile, reimagined as the Stuart Heritage Museum, invites a deeper exploration into local history. Year-round on Sundays, you can peruse artisanal food at the Stuart Green Market, then picnic with your purchases at a free Rockin’ Riverwalk concert, from 1-4 p.m.
Stuart is the seat of Martin County, a mecca for water recreation, with about 22 miles of coastline. Beaches are dotted with sea turtle nests and unusual rock formations. Those at Blowing Rocks Preserve and Bathtub Beach are especially notable.
The subtropical climate makes fall and winter ideal for the beach, as well as downtown events like Christmas on Main Street, Nov. 29, the Stuart Stroll, a community-wide street party on Dec. 5, and the Christmas Parade Dec. 6.
Tourist season peaks around Easter, but spring breakers lean more toward families than Gen Z. If you can take the heat but not the crowds, book a summertime retreat at the Clifton Guest and Fishing Lodge, Lyons House or Blue House; all share a pool.
Any time of year, you can always catch a breeze by the beach or river. In doing so, you follow the footsteps of accomplished Floridians. Whether led by love, literature or landmarks in need of rescue, all found a haven in this sunny city by the river.