In 1912, Jacob W. Wilbur, a Boston real estate dealer, established the unique community which today still bears his name...Wilbur-by-the-Sea. Comprised of over 1000 acres, approximately one mile long and bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the East and the Halifax River to the West (a width of about 800 feet), Wilbur today remains an unincorporated community.
In March, 1913, Ernest Branch, a civil engineer, surveyed the area and lots were sold with the understanding that no dwellings were to be built for less than $800 and all were to be set back 15 feet from the street. Wide shell roads with sidewalks and adjacent flower beds were constructed. An imposing hotel, The Toronita, with 50 rooms, each with a private bath, was built on the corner of what is now Atlantic Avenue and Toronita Avenue.
In addition to the hotel, there were various other buildings and infrastructure...a laundry, large garage, stable for riding horses, carriage shed and water tower with a big tank fed by artesian wells that supplied water for all of the colony. A general store and a post office were located at the intersection of Toronita Avenue and Cardinal Boulevard. At the river end of Toronita, a boathouse with large wharf was constructed to service the needs of guests and to accommodate launches which supplied transportation to and from the mainland . Some 25 cottages were constructed and, as permanent residents moved-in, the “Boathouse” soon became a community clubhouse. These “cottagers” organized the Wilbur Improvement Association in 1915 and after the death of Jacob Wilbur in 1917, the building and surrounding property was deeded to the organization. Except for one year, during World War II, the building has been used continuously by the Wilburites as a community center, clubhouse, church and movie theater.
Over the next eight decades, the building was repaired continuously and many changes were made in the structure to accommodate varying uses. The original “hip roof” was reconfigured with gable ends to accommodate the screening of motion pictures and a projection booth was built into a false second story. A fireplace was added sometime prior to 1927 and structural support rafters were installed on the interior to tie the exterior walls together. When the Wilbur channel was dredged to accommodate vessels, soil was pumped under the building to give it a new land base and the wharf was removed and replaced with soil.
Over the years the residents have gathered at the boathouse when repairs were needed, bringing their own hammers, nails, shingles and paint. But after several floods, brushes with hurricanes and “northeasters” and many years, the Wilburites were about to loose one of the last remaining structures built by founder Jacob Wilbur. Even though the building was still useable, it was rapidly deteriorating and the end was near unless drastic reconstruction could be accomplished.
A building committee was formed in 1991 to study options of restoring the building. The group studied the possibility of selling a portion of our land to finance either a restoration of the old building or a demolition of the old building with a new replacement. These options were deemed undesirable and the association applied for, under the sponsorship of the Volusia County government, a DOT ISTEA grant to fund a restoration. The request for funds made it to number 2 priority on the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) 1994-1995 Transportation Enhancement Project list.
In the year 1999, the project finally came to life. In April, H.W. Keister Associates, Inc. an affiliate of Atlantic Engineering Services, (consultant engineers) viewed the property and detailed the condition and the extensive repairs needed. In July the “RFP” of Bender & Associates, a Key West based architectural firm specializing in historic restoration work, detailed a plan to deconstruct the current structure saving as much of the original materials as possible and then restore and reconstruct it to its former glory. In addition, the plan included an annex building to house restrooms and a kitchen facility which were not part of the original structure. This plan was estimated at a cost near $600,000. In August, the MPO unanimously approved the grant which was funded through the FDOT ISTEA Program, administered by the State of Florida. The funding allocation totaled $509,647 and was later supplemented by the Volusia County general fund.
Finally, on August 14, 2000, the restoration project began with a groundbreaking ceremony at the boathouse to mark the occasion. The highly qualified firm of E.C.Kenyon from Jacksonville with their superintendent, Joe Brashear, was selected to perform the construction services. Since it was the height of the hurricane season, they quickly settled into the task of dismantling the building and carefully cataloging the components for eventual restoration and reassembly.
The next 15 months brought many challenges which were all eventually solved to allow the project to move ahead. Wetlands encroachment and mitigation considerations, zoning problems, cost overruns, continuous design changes, engineering changes as a result of the dismantling operation, stormwater retention and environmental issues all contributed to a very lengthy project. After dismantling, a new foundation based on cast concrete and steel pilings which extend down 25 feet was set in place with new structural floor joists. The building was then reconstructed back to its original configuration with a hip roof and cedar shake shingles. Every scrap of wood that was salvageable was reconditioned and reused. Most of the original hard pine flooring, rafters, roofing, interior beadboard, windows and doors were reused. An annex building connected to the Boathouse was built in a similar style and houses restrooms and a small kitchen. A wharf, also built on pilings, visually and symbolically reconnects the building to the river. A floating dock connected to the wharf provides a launching point for kayaks and canoes.
Finally, on December 1, 2001, the project was officially brought to conclusion with a dedication ceremony attended by Volusia County Council members, citizens and the press. The expertise and vision of Bert Bender and his architectural staff and the attention to detail and ingenuity of the E.C.Kenyon Company and their superintendent, Joe Brashear, are self-evident upon inspection of this new, old building. They truly deserve every accolade that can be bestowed upon them.
This rare piece of Florida history will now stand and serve its community for many generations to come. The Wilbur Improvement Association is still the owner and manager of the building, but has guaranteed reasonable public access under a management plan crafted by the association and a written lease agreement with the county. The Association has also signed a Deed of Historic Conservation which guarantees that no significant changes will be made to the building, thus ensuring that the historic integrity of the building remains substantially intact in the future. Click on Play on the picture below to start the slide show