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Weeki Wachee Springs — mermaids and all — lands on National Register of Historic Places

Iconic roadside attraction chosen for its place in the nation’s cultural history.
Elvis Presley gets a close-up look at one of the Weeki Wachee Springs mermaids during a visit to the park in 1961. [Times] [HANDOUT | WEEKI WACHEE SPRINGS]

WEEKI WACHEE — Decades ago, Weeki Wachee incorporated as a city to get on tourist maps and road signs.

Now, as state lawmakers consider disbanding the city, the state park that bears the Weeki Wachee name and touts its mermaid attraction, has a new reason to be on the map.

The Florida Department of State has placed the Weeki Wachee Springs onto the National Register of Historic Places.

"On behalf of Secretary of State Laurel M. Lee and our historic preservation staff, I congratulate you on achieving this formal recognition of the historic significance of this property,'' wrote Ruben Acosta, of the Bureau of Historic Preservation, to the Hernando County Commission. "We appreciate your interest in preserving this important element of Florida’s cultural resources.''

Weeki Wachee joins eight other Hernando locations with the historic designation, including Chinsegut Hill Manor House, the William Sherman Jennings House, the May-Stringer House, the Judge Willis Russell House, the Frank Saxon House, the South Brooksville Avenue Historic District, the Spring Lake Community Center and the Richloam General Store, which was added in 2017.

Weeki Wachee is the only entry on the Register in western Hernando County.

The Manor House at the Chinsegut Hill Retreat and Museum in Brooksville is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places and is the centerpiece for events held on the grounds. [MICHELE MILLER | Times]

"This is a wonderful piece of the park’s history and a benchmark the park deserves,'' said Weeki Wachee Springs State Park manager Mark Abrizenski. "We often underestimate a site’s history and its importance. We are excited about this and the opportunity to celebrate preserving our natural and historic resources unique to Florida.''

Listing on the National Register requires a site to meet specific criteria: "Districts, sites, buildings, structures and objects may be considered to have significance in American history, architecture, archaeology, engineering, and/or culture if they possess integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling and association.''

Eric Burkes has restored and reopened the Richloam General Store, founded by his great uncle in 1901.

"This designation provides the park with an elevated level of recognition and protection for its historic significance alongside other sites important to American history, and documents the contributions of the people throughout history that made Weeki Wachee Springs a distinctive and internationally famous attraction,'' said Weesam Khoury, deputy press secretary for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees the state parks. Seventy state parks now are on the Register, she said.

Weeki Wachee started out as a popular roadside attraction. It hosted its first mermaid show on Oct. 13, 1947, years before the age of Disney and the high-tech theme parks of today. Weeki Wachee has long been the premier tourism draw to Hernando County.

During that early history, springs around Florida were popular with tourists and many worked to find special draws. For Weeki Wachee, it was the mermaids, young woman sporting mermaid costumes swimming in an underwater theater.

In 2008, Weeki Wachee Springs became a state park, and its first management plan anticipated that the site’s historical significance should be memorialized in some way. State agencies must inventory and protect historical resources and natural resources, including the first-magnitude spring that is the centerpiece of the park and the source of the Weeki Wachee River.

"The remaining buildings and other remnants of the former attraction are an important representation of tourism development in Florida during the mid-20th Century,'' the management plan notes. "The Mermaid Theater, with its dramatic underwater views of the spring basin, is of particular architectural significance.''

Crystal Burchhardt performs in The Little Mermaid at Weeki Wachee Springs in 2016. Burchhardt had worked as a mermaid for two years. She grew up near Weeki Wachee and loved going to see the mermaids as a child.

The management plan suggests gathering oral histories from original mermaids and staff members to memorialize those early years. And it said the staff was "moving the current collection of photos, film, and other archival material into a separate secure location so that each item can be inventoried, cataloged and conserved.'' Those materials and interviews were to be the building blocks of new interpretive programs for visitors.

Mermaids aren’t the only history at the park.

The uplands around the spring “were also inhabited by Florida’s prehistoric and historic Native Americans, as well as early Florida settlers,” the management plan notes.

Cultural resources at Weeki Wachee include six archaeological sites, including a sand burial mound that produced artifacts dating from 900 to 1650. Pottery was found during past excavations, and Spanish glass beads interred with burials of Native Americans were an indication of contact with Europeans, according to the park management plan.

In addition to the Mermaid Theater, 11 other historic structures have been inventoried. They are primarily decorative or support structures, including the statue of two mermaids that adorns the front entrance to the park.

Weeki Wachee Springs State Park features a variety of adventures — spring riverboat rides, kayak trips, wildlife and mermaid shows, as well as a chance to swim in the 72-degree spring waters, or take a ride down a slide at Buccaneer Bay. [Michele Miller]

A new management plan to cover the park’s next decade is under development.