Acts of Kindness
Back in the 1960s, E.E. Nutting wrote down the stories of settlers and longtime residents in Bonita Springs, afraid that the area's history would be lost as these pioneers vanished. Last year local landscape architect Christian Busk paid for a crew to move Nutting's former home-boarded up, peeling and stripped to less than the essentials-from the banks of the Imperial River to the corner of Pennsylvania and Tennessee avenues. The early 19th-century frame structure now sits across from the Williams-Packard house, a once-derelict, now-restored 1915 jewel Busk bought for a dollar before moving it as well. If Busk has his way, more old houses will soon join them, on nearby lots he has already acquired.
Like Nutting, Busk is doing what he can to preserve the sometimes quirky, always captivating story of this community. For the Bonita Springs Historical Society, which published Nutting's The Beginnings of Bonita Springs Florida, Busk is a welcome convert to their cause. "He feels the same as we do-that it's a shame to lose these beautiful homes," says Lynn Becker, past president of the society. Becker got to know Busk through his work on the Williams-Packard house and told him about other structures the society dreamed of saving, a list that included the Nutting home. The previous owner had talked about restoring it, but the process got mired in red tape. When it became available for the cost of moving it, Busk made the commitment.
"If you drive around Bonita, there's so little left from the early days," says Busk, who has been landscaping homes from Port Royal northward for almost 20 years.
Busk grew up in the Palm Beach area, where he played hooky to drive past Addison Mizner-designed homes. The less visible history of Florida's west coast began to fascinate him as he learned more about the pioneers whose lives were ruled first by the river and then by the rail. "What kind of people would come to this place? I enjoy discovering their stories through restoring these homes," Busk says.
He had less to work with in the Nutting home than with his first Bonita restoration. The previous owner, convinced the house would be razed, had given away just about everything, from the staircase banister to the windows to the baseboards and even parts of the floor. Wildlife was living under the house, and ficus trees were threatening to invade it. "Everyone said, 'This thing is a piece of junk. Are you sure you want to move it?'" recalls Busk.
But the house still had the frame and the original chimney. And although the roof was rotting, it wasn't bowed, which he took as a sign of good bones. "I don't see the point in pitching things away," he says.
In June 2003, Busk got all the necessary permits for relocation, which required the temporary removal of a railing on the Oak Creek bridge. The Bonita Springs Historical Society videotaped the entire operation, carried out by Flint & Doyle of Fort Myers. "And there it sits in its shambled state," Busk jokes, while he waits for the go-ahead on restoration, which he hopes to tackle soon.
Busk received a small grant from Lee County to help fund the Nutting house's relocation, which cost $23,000. But he moved the Williams-Packard home at his own expense-about $40,000. He originally estimated the price of that home's restoration at about $150,000, but he spent at least twice that, moving walls, replacing vintage fixtures and making it habitable. He lived there for about eight months and now rents it.
He's already acquired a third old house next to Bonita Springs Elementary School, which will be moved if the land is needed for public use. He envisions a historic neighborhood where visitors can see what the homes of early Bonita Springs were like. "Seeing one old home doesn't give you any context. Seeing them together gives you a sense of what it was like," Busk says.
Now people are starting to approach him about threatened structures whose owners might be interested in moving them. And he's always interested in hearing about more. As Bonita Springs rapidly gentrifies, and as the city revitalizes the neglected central district, Becker hopes that more activists like Busk will begin to appreciate the city's past. Right now, at least 50 more historic structures in Bonita Springs face an uncertain future.
"This is such a great thing [Busk is doing] for Bonita Springs," says Becker. "At the rate he's going, he can have his own historic district."
For more information about the Bonita Springs Historical Society, call president Xandra Poole at (239) 992-6997.