CLEARWATER — The tidy, gray masonry building stands looking as pristine as it might have when it was newly built in 1907. The two-story, lighted interior, which once contained public school classrooms for the students of the South Ward Elementary School, will now contain artifacts and images collected over the years by the Clearwater Historical Society.
After years of fundraising and work by society volunteers, the Clearwater Historical Society Museum and Cultural Center will become reality on Saturday, when the society hosts the public, including history lovers and local leaders, at its unveiling.
It has been a long time coming. The society has spent years planning, raising money from state and local sources and renovating the old buildings at 610 S Fort Harrison Ave. The South Ward property, which the society is leasing from Pinellas County Schools for $1 a year for 50 years, contains seven buildings, including the main building — called Heritage Hall. Another structure, a library built in 1958, has been renovated as an events center for rent by local organizations.
“With a dedicated team of volunteers and support of local business and government, we’ve been able to prepare the property and exhibits to get ready for this day,” said Clearwater Historical Society President Allison Dolan.
The group raised about $640,000 from public and private sources to fix up the buildings, she said.
“We got a $528,000 grant from the Florida Division of Historical Resources in 2016, and with that money we paid for a survey of the land, hired an architect, the painting of the interior and exteriors of the buildings, air conditioning, and updating bathrooms.”
In addition, the city will donate $12,000 a year toward the maintenance and operation of the museum and cultural center, which will be staffed by volunteers, Dolan said.
Other work included landscaping, painting of a new patio, a new air conditioning unit, new flooring, restroom upgrades, and the painting of shelves and cabinets.
Larger donations have come from private Clearwater benefactors, including $110,00 from the Amber Turner Estate, as well as smaller donations from the public.
Attendees at the grand opening will see exhibits that tell the story of the city’s history. Local stage actor Sam McClelland will portray Robert J. Whitehurst, an early Clearwater land purchaser (1854) and other actors will mingle with the crowd, depicting other pioneer figures of Clearwater’s history, Dolan said.
According to documents from the Clearwater Historical Society, the U.S. Army built Fort Harrison in 1841 during the Seminole Wars. The Seminoles, unlike the Creeks and other Florida tribes, refused to be moved from Indian land in West Florida.
The founding clans of Clearwater, which include the McMullen, Severs, Stevens and Stevenson families, settled near what was then called Clear Water Harbor after Congress passed the Armed Occupation Act of 1842. The law offered 160 acres to any Florida resident who bore arms, cleared the land, and built a house in the first year after receiving the land.
Dr. Buddy Gross is a retired dentist who served many local families during his long career. On a recent day, he sat at a long table at the museum, archiving photographs and news clippings.
He picked up a box of Eckerd Drug bandaids, a reminder of the Eckerd family, whose drug store fortune helped fund a college and of course, Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater.
“I was born at Morton Plant in 1934, and I always stayed on top of things that were happening in the community,” Gross said. “It brings back memories but it also hurts my pride, because I’m finding things, and I think, ‘When did that happen? How did that news get by me?’ It hurts my pride when I see one slip by me like that.”
“That’s because you were busy being a dentist and raising a family,” Dolan laughed as Gross agreed.
The grand opening starts at 10 a.m. when members of the Pinellas County Historic Preservation Board unveil the Florida Historical Marker for South Ward Elementary School.
“I want to point out that this was all done by volunteers; there are no paid staff here,” Dolan said. “We started this journey in 2016 and since then, a core group of volunteers, the most passionate, most wonderful people I’ve met in my life, have made this possible. This opening is just the beginning.”
Attendees should park in the lot across from the First United Methodist Church at 411 Turner St., at the intersection with Fort Harrison Avenue.
For information, call (727) 754-8019 or email [email protected]