Squares? What squares? If there are squares here, where are they? Natives and newcomers alike raise these questions. It’s sad to think that so little is known of them although they are as old as Apalachicola itself.
The answers to these questions are: Yes, Virginia, there are squares, six of them, named Gorrie, Franklin, City, Washington, Madison and Chapman. They have been on Apalachicola’s plat since it was designed in the 1830s. Here’s where they are:
Gorrie Square, 6th Street and Avenue D
Franklin Square, 6th Street and Avenue L
City Square, 8th Street and Avenue F
Washington Square, 11th Street and Avenue G
Madison Square, on 14th Street and Avenue L
Chapman Square on 14th Street and Avenue D
It’s been noted that the squares can be seen from one to another. From Franklin or Chapman you can see Gorrie Square – try it!
“The Restore Apalachicola's Historic Squares Campaign is certainly one of the many good things currently happening within the Apalachicola community,” according to Mayor Van Johnson. ‘However, what’s been missing from this economic mix or perhaps completely overlooked is the potential of the city’s historic plan, which includes the six historic squares.”
The six squares were originally intended to be open spaces used by the public long before streets, automobiles, and intersections came into being. They form a cross anchoring the city, a pattern common to the times such as in Savannah and Charleston, but unusual in more modern cities. Tallahassee once had squares but they have been obliterated by development and cannot be seen today.
Why should one care about the squares? As well as being part of the original 1830 plat, the squares are community gathering places. The annual African American History Festival takes place on Franklin Square. Trinity Church’s House Tour, now in its 26th year, begins at Gorrie Square, also the site of a state museum honoring John Gorrie, inventor of the ice machine, his grave and monument. Chapman Square is the site of much-used tennis courts. When other squares undergo restoration, they will again be the parks they were always intended to be.
“We are now learning that historic preservation has become a fundamental tool for strengthening American communities,” said Johnson. “It has proven to be an effective tool for a wide range of public goals including small business incubation, affordable housing, sustainable development, neighborhood stabilization, job creation, promotion of the arts and culture, small town renewal, heritage tourism, economic development, and many others.”
Restored squares will become highly desirable locations for houses on the lots surrounding them. Think of the appeal of having a “house on the square.”
In addition, traffic rerouted around, instead of through, the squares creates a documented, desirable “calming effect,” causing vehicles to slow down. Roundabouts or traffic circles such as those on Gorrie Square are enjoying new popularity here in America, in part because they keep traffic moving without the need for signs or other traffic devices.
Don’t think of the squares as “just empty lots,” as someone said. Though parts of some of the squares may look like that, the very reason they need restoration, they are important historic assets, as fundamental to the integrity and appearance of Apalachicola as its alleys and streets.
The good news is that Apalachicola’s squares are still remarkably intact, though they are underutilized, underloved and even disrespected. One person who recognized the appeal and desirability of the squares is native son and architect Willoughby Marshall who has worked tirelessly and often alone to restore them. Marshall’s landmark study “Apalachicola Economic Development through Historic Preservation,” published in 1974 led to the designation of Apalachicola’s Historic District on the National Register in 1975 and has been incorporated into the city’s land development code.
Even better news is that there is now a movement to restore the squares. The Restore the Squares project has been adopted by the local non-profit foundation, Historic Apalachicola Foundation, Inc. a 501c3 founded in 1988 by Marie Marshall and others, to preserve the historic assets of Apalachicola. The Foundation has been successful in restoring Lafayette Park and its beautiful gazebo enjoyed as the setting for many a wedding, concert and the like. The Foundation also restored the Fry-Conter house on 5th Street now occupied by the St. Vincent’s Island National Wildlife Refuge.
The Restore the Squares project was formally introduced at the Apalachicola Area Historical Society’s 2017 annual meeting. Apalachicola’s Recreation Committee has endorsed the square restoration as one of two most desirable projects it recommends be done.
Restoring the squares has achieved recognition by the city commission, whose support is evidenced by their passing of two resolutions to protect the squares from further damage. These resolutions prohibit new development, long-term commitments, and expansion of existing improvements on all six city squares.
While it likely will take time to restore the squares to their original configuration and purpose, at least they will suffer no further disrespect. With little fanfare the project’s volunteers have begun restoration activities with the creation of a Facebook page, Apalachicola’s Historic Squares, fund raising on GoFundMe, and having the squares surveyed. Surprisingly, only Washington Square, the current site of Weems Hospital, had ever been surveyed. The surveys will enable the boundaries of each square to be accurately determined so visible markers can be erected at all four corners of each square. The surveys will form the basis for restoration design.
The first local fundraiser was held May 2 at the Richard Bickel Gallery on Market Street, attended by more than 40 people including the mayor and two commissioners. The meeting generated much needed money for the surveys. A self-guided tour and map under development will do much to tell the story of the squares. Join the movement to preserve the historic squares in Apalachicola so many generations in the future will see an authentic American town as it was.
As Mayor Johnson said, “Moving forward, with your support through this grassroots effort can pay huge dividends towards the historic preservation of the city’s plan along with the restoration of our squares.”
Diane Brewer, a property owner in Apalachicola since the late ‘90s, and permanent resident since 2014, heads up the Restore the Squares project. She is familiar with historic neighborhoods, having grown up in Coral Gables, and a longtime resident and owner of a historic home in in Ft Lauderdale, where she was active in the historical society and served as an appointee to the city’s historic preservation board.