Friday, November 13, 2015 / by Michael Donovan
Naples Pier A landmark reborn
History of the Naples Pier
Pier a foundation for city from the beginning
From the time it was born in 1885, Naples was married to the water.
And if the Gulf of Mexico was the young settlement’s bride, the Naples Pier was its wedding band — forever connecting the two.
“There were no railroads, few roads — just a shell road between here and Fort Myers,” Captain Charley Stewart, an “old timer” who came to Naples in 1900, told the Collier County News in 1961. “The only way in for mail and freight was by boat … sailboat, by the way. There were no power boats for years. We had to have a dock.”
The fragile, wooden structure, built by the Naples Town Improvement Co. in 1888, was the fledgling town’s doorway to the outside world.
Sailboats, first from Punta Gorda and later from Fort Myers, would bring “freight, mail and people,” said Elaine Reed, president and CEO, of the Naples Historical Society.
“That was the only form of transportation,” Reed said. “There weren’t roads and there surely wasn’t transportation of any other sort at that time.”
From the Pier, Reed said, it was a straight shot for visitors and their luggage to the Old Naples Hotel, which opened in January 1889.
And while visitors weren’t heading to Naples in droves just yet, they were coming nonetheless.
With the 600-foot, T-shaped pier acting as a logistical kick-starter to the burgeoning community, the town soon grew around it.
“At this point in time (Walter) Haldeman came in here and started making a deal with a group of foreman to take over what they had here in this particular area and built the Pier and built the hotel,” Reed said.
The historic Palm Cottage, built in 1895, and personal residences along the beach followed.
From there Naples “started to cater to those who wanted to come down to have fishing and a winter respite,” Reed said.
As the Pier patiently served the community, elevating its status and importance, volatile winds and waves knocked it down time and time again.
A hurricane in 1910 dealt the landmark some big blows, destroying much of it and forcing a major rebuild. In 1922, flames devoured the post office at the foot of the Pier and torched some 20 feet of the wooden planks. A hurricane in 1926 damaged the Pier severely, followed by another one in 1944 that triggered an almost complete rebuild that added 100 feet to the structure.
A decade later, the battered Pier had to be repaired once more.
Fred Lowdermilk, longtime city manager, told the Collier County News in 1961: “It was about one-third destroyed in 1954.”
Then came Donna.
“Hurricane Donna was fairly massive and in part because it really set a change for the entire community,” Reed said.
The Category 4 hurricane barreled through Collier County on Sept. 10, 1960, as storm surges of almost 10 feet and winds of up to 135 mph caused more than $25 million in property damage locally.
The Pier once again fell victim to Mother Nature’s rage.
And while Naples was the beneficiary of millions of dollars in insurance money post-Donna, an unfortunately timed decision by City Council to drop the hurricane insurance policy months before the storm hit, shrouded the Pier’s future in uncertainty.
“In the event of destruction, the terms of the dropped policy would have paid $21,150 of the pier’s insured value of $64,500,” according to documents compiled by the Naples Historical Society.
Then a Chicago Tribune cartoonist-turned-businessman came to the rescue.
Lester Norris offered the city $70,000 to help pay for the reconstruction of the landmark.
When construction costs rose to $107,361, Norris bumped his pledge to $100,000 with the city paying the difference, according to accounts from the Naples Historical Society.
In exchange, City Council agreed to drop plans for a proposed municipal utility tax.
“He thought it was sort of important for the morale of the people to have it rebuilt,” said Lavern Gaynor, Norris’ daughter. “He was very community-minded. He loved Naples.”
The future of the Pier was secured. But not for long.
Needed repairs to the Pier’s piling on the west end during the late ‘60s and into 1970 dragged on for months after construction workers walked off the job, causing competing lawsuits between the city and the Ohio-based construction company.
After deeming repair bids too high, the city briefly considered tearing down the Pier’s west end and rebuilding it completely. Norris again offered to help, donating $25,000 to cover part of the repair costs.
The repairs were finally completed early in 1971, but the Pier would be back at the center of attention soon thereafter.
In January 1971, City Council had voted to charge a 25-cent admission fee to the pier to cover recurring repair and maintenance costs. But a referendum in March 1971 overturned the decision. The Pier remained free.
The public’s loud support of an admission-free Pier was a testimony to the landmark’s transformation from a landing spot to a meeting place where old and young converge.
“When I first came here, even in ‘45, there wasn’t all that much to do in Naples,” Gaynor, 91, said. “The Pier was sort of the gathering place.”
The historic landmark is synonymous with the city itself, said councilman and former Mayor Bill Barnett.
“The Pier is just a special place,” he said. “To us it is Naples.”
Video: Reconstructing paradise
Business of the Naples Pier
Businesses look for return to normalcy
For thousands of tourists drawn to Naples, the point of reference and first stop is often the Naples Pier. And when it reopens Nov. 13 following an overhaul, the crowds will be met by a taste already popular with Neapolitans but new to the Pier — that of Cosmos Pizzeria.
“The Pier is the No. 1 attraction in Naples,” said Gianluca Corso, the owner of Cosmos Cafe and Pizzeria. which will be taking the spot of Russell’s Clambakes and Cookouts. “This is a little exciting and scary.”
Cosmos has served nine seasons of Naples tourists and seasonal residents inside a restaurant off U.S. 41 and Fifth Avenue North, besting most other establishments in local pizza ratings. Corso also owns Pompano Surf and Turf in Naples.
The Italian native said he bid for the spot of the Pier because he hopes to bring his beloved pizza to his community’s signature landmark — and give back by redirecting tourists to other attractions in the Naples area.
“It’s not to make a fortune on a little concession stand,” Corso said.
“ It’s about providing good food and good service. From that point on, you can direct the tourists to the other beautiful things in the city.”
He added that he hopes to display maps and serve visitors’ guides along with pizza.
Fortune or not, for Cosmos and for many businesses around the Pier, the reopening will mean a bottom-line boost and more traffic, which some say slowed to crawl when the Pier closed for renovations.
Mario Mellusi, the general manager of Barbatella, an Italian restaurant on Third Street South, said the construction along the Pier has taken a visible toll on the number of guests he served at his restaurant this summer.
“A lot of people come to spend time on the Pier, and then they walk down Third Street South and some come in here. Right now, many people won’t even bother. They’re at other beaches,” Mellusi said.
Sharda Spahr, the owner of the Old Naples Surf Shop, said the construction on the Pier has had a similar effect on her business this summer.
“Our foot traffic has been slow after the Pier closed,” Spahr said. “We noticed it right away in July.”
She said that those likely to walk in looking for last-minute beach supplies have probably settled at other nearby beaches or other shops.
“We get a lot of people looking for beach supplies. We sell sunscreen, towels, flip flops, bathing suits,” Spahr said. “(The construction) has a fair impact on businesses like ours. We miss the Pier visitors.”
At other businesses, the scant traffic is blamed on the season: Summer simply doesn’t draw the crowds that descend on the area in the fall and winter.
David Verbruggen, a managing partner at Ridgeway Bar and Grill, also on Third Street South, said it is very much the case at his restaurant.
“The people we’ve always had around this time are still here this year,” Verbruggen said. “Maybe they’re not here specifically for the Pier.”
Don Stock, who manages The Mariner Beach Motel and Apartments said that the construction hasn’t taken a toll on his business. The family-owned motel, built in 1966, is located on Gulf Shore Boulevard just a block away from the Pier. Stock said that when he looks out to the Pier in the late afternoon, he sees the same usual crowds.
“Some people will have negative comments, but everybody still shows up for sunset,” Stock said.
Process of construction
Naples landmark gets refitted to last decades longer
Hidden behind green plastic sheeting and amid the din of screaming circular saws, workers recently were putting the finishing touches on the long-awaited reconstruction of the Naples Pier and outbuildings.
Having begun work in early July, they’re hurrying to finish before the Pier’s grand reopening Nov. 13.
Although the budget for the construction process swelled from a proposed $1.5 million last year to about $2.6 million now, city officials are excited about how the project is proceeding.
“It’s reasonably in line with what we anticipated,” said Naples Mayor John Sorey, explaining that the cost increase was due to some additions to the scope of the original project. They included revamping and doubling the size of the existing restrooms, and sprucing up the termite-ridden concession stand that sits midpoint on the Pier.
Using a Brazilian hardwood called ipe (pronounced EE-pay), which has the same fire rating as concrete and steel, also upped the costs. The dense lumber is being used for the deck, planking, stairs, railings and interior finishes.
City Council decided in favor of the sturdy wood, because it looks more natural than the wood and resin composite that they were originally considering.
With a 30-year projected life span, it also lasts about twice as long as composite.
It also was a better long-term choice than the pressure-treated lumber the city had been using to replace worn boards, said Dave Lykins, Naples’ community services director.
“With amount of sand people bring on the Pier on their feet, it was like sandpaper — the pressure-treated wood had to be replaced almost immediately after it was put in,” said Lykins, adding the city had been spending around $12,000 to $15,000 a year on lumber replacement.
The Pier, he said, is the most popular public facility in the city; a recent survey showed it was visited by 71 percent of its residents over the past 12 months, as well as thousands of tourists.
“This is a great way to reduce annual maintenance,” Lykins said.
Fortunately the concrete pilings that support the decking were in good shape and didn’t need replacement, he said.
“They were built like the superstructure for a highway bridge,” he said.
Once the project got underway in July, there were a few challenges, said Naples City Councilman Doug Finlay.
One was “how to construct the project without interfering with residents’ ability to enjoy or stroll along the beach.”
The answer was to build wooden portions of the pier in 30-foot sections and to barge it in from Fort Myers, he said.
Another was to find enough construction workers — about 40 to 50 were needed — to build the Pier during the hottest summer months, said Mauricio Pastor, superintendent at Manhattan Construction in Naples, which is building the project.
“It was very challenging because of the time frame and also because of some of the changes that had to be made,” he said.
One last-minute change was adding a water line halfway up the Pier to make it easier for firefighters to douse any blazes that might arise.
A $74,000 upgrade, it was mandated by the state, Sorey said, as were some lighting upgrades.
“The state took the position that this wasn’t maintenance, it was a rebuild,” Sorey said.
Once the project is done, it will look brand new, with only subtle changes to its often-photographed Polynesian profile, such as a new set of stairs on the South side and cream-colored fiber cement HardiePlank lap siding on the restroom and concession stand exterior walls. To make cleaning easier, flooring will be light blue finished epoxy.
While the Naples Pier has always been a landmark, this will be its fifth major reconstruction since it was first built in 1888. Hurricanes forced rebuilds in 1926, 1944 and 1960. The last big rebuild was in 1995.
Naples architect Matt Kragh did the restroom redesign pro bono. To pay for the rest of the renovation, Collier County is contributing more than $2.3 million from its Tourism Development Council fund; the city of Naples is paying about $270,000 from its beach fund.
It’s money well spent, Sorey said.
“I feel very strongly that everything we do should be consistent with the Naples brand, and not be done in the cheapest way,” he said. “It’s the best way to improve the neighborhood.”
Naples Pier people come in all kinds
Landmark is a personal favorite for many
He wanted to be the one to rebuild the Naples Pier.
KP Pezeshkan, vice president of Manhattan Construction, the Naples company contracted for the renovation, has visited the Pier since he was a kid, with his grandfather, his parents and now his kids.
Pezeshkan — beginning in the summer — has led the makeover for the Pier, a job that he said he knew he immediately wanted.
“I’ve lived here since I was 10. When this project came out, I said I wanted this job. I wanted it so bad,” he said.
“We’ve found innovative ways to build it,” he added.
But he’s also been careful to not change too much of the Pier, which he called the icon of Naples.
Since July, the Naples Pier has been under renovations. Major improvements include bigger bathrooms, lights along the Pier, and a new type of wood called ipe, a Brazilian walnut wood, which will not only cover the planks of the walkway, but also line the walls and ceilings of the bathroom.
The sand near the beach of the Pier was constantly shifted by feet and beach chairs one recent Tuesday morning. Tourists and locals walked by, crouching by the half-fence that separated the construction from the beach to take a peek.
William Michels, hands on his hips, watched construction workers saunter along the Pier. He visits the Pier twice a week, but before the renovations, he liked to walk along the Pier, admiring the view.
The Indiana native, who is deaf, said he can’t wait to see the bigger bathrooms and have lights along the Pier.
People can’t see him use sign language in the dark, Michels said, and he wasn’t able to see before if people around him knew sign language as well.
With the lights, Michels said, he will visit the Pier at night.
In the water by the Pier, there was always someone fishing. There was a man in a kayak, drifting by the Pier with a fishing pole. And then there was Nick Doyle, waist deep in the water, just feet from the Pier and the construction.
“I just love being by the Pier,” he said. Doyle catches two to three fish a day and usually throws them back.
He said he knew about the renovations before it started, but it didn’t, and hasn’t, stopped him from returning to the Pier two to three times a week on his days off from work.
It’s his go-to place, where he brings his fiancée and son to relax and hang out.
Armed with a fishing pole, and a cooler, Doyle said he enjoys the sport of fishing as he tested the waters out on both sides of the Pier.
He said he hardly noticed the construction, which he said is great for the community.
Doyle added that he plans on stopping by when the Pier reopens. Until then, he’ll stick to throwing his fishing line in the waters by the Pier.
Pezeshkan, who used to windsurf and run by the Pier when he was a kid, said he couldn’t imagine Naples without the Pier.
“This Pier was literally the gates of Naples,” he said.
Pezeshkan, 46, can recite the history of the Pier, dating back to its 1888 founding to every restoration. He’ll top it off with a slideshow he made that summarizes the history of the iconic landmark.
“Anyone who ever first comes here will make a trip to the Pier,” he said confidently. He said he’s been out here, in sunny, cloudy, or stormy weather, taking pictures of the Pier. He has more pictures on his phone of it than he cares to admit.
He recalled coming out to the Pier before the construction began, giving the fisherman a heads up on the temporary renovations. They weren’t thrilled, he said, but they understood.
“I apologize to all the beachgoers if we’ve been a hindrance in any capacity,” Pezeshkan said. “But once we open, I hope it’s worth the wait.”