Sunday, April 19, 2015

Please stand by for station identification: the vintage Flamingo gas station of the Everglades

 Back in the 1960s...

 ...and the '70s.

 It's now home to a friendly swarm of bees...

 ...and this Florida Tourism Ambassador is just down the road apiece.

You never know where you'll find a great example of mid-century architecture. Take the Everglades National Park, for example. All swamps, great blue herons and mighty alligators, you think? Well, yeah, but they've also got what's left of a 1958 filling station next to the visitors' center in the Flamingo section of the park. And what's cool is they recognized it as something worth keeping, even though it stopped pumping gas back some time ago. It was part of Mission 66, a nationwide program to upgrade the National Park visitor centers that were overflowing with car-driving enthusiasts post World War II. This station was considered ideal for all the roadtrippers who had made it all the way down to the 'glades, and there are pictures of it being used up through the seventies. At some point, the pumps were moved to a nearby marina and the station was then a post office. Not sure exactly how long it remained empty, but in 2012 it was given a makeover and done-up in a luscious shade of Googie pink to offset the beige stonework on its facade. It would be awesome if this place could get the full museum treatment of looking like a real 1950s-60s station, with pumps, rotating sign, triangular flags, and an interior featuring oil cans stacked in a pyramid, maps, a Coke machine and a hose that rang a bell if you ran over it. Oh, and don't forget the guy in the white coveralls, policeman's hat and bow tie, ready to fill 'er up and wash your windshield. Happy motoring!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Coral fixation: Coral Castle of Homestead, Florida

 Ed welcomes you.

 This 9-ton gate moves with one finger.

 Coral stone, dense and heavy, man.

 Ed's homemade tools...that's all he used.

Ed's Florida table...

 ...complete with Lake Okeechobee.

 Ed's living quarters...a bit medieval-looking, if you ask me.

Yes, yes you will.

Ed Leedskalnin was an immigrant from Latvia born in 1887 who lived in Canada, California and Texas before moving to southern Florida to help get over a case of tuberculosis. When he was 26, he became engaged to marry his true love, 16-year-old Agnes Scuffs. She left him just one day before the wedding and, like the Taj Mahal guy, he devoted the rest of his life to building a shrine dedicated to his lost love, only Ed's material of choice was coral stone, and unlike the Taj Mahal guy, he built it all himself. Unlike coral from the sea, coral stone is incredibly dense and heavy and how a 5-foot, 100-pound man with a history of respiratory illness could spend from 1923 to 1951 building the amazingly complicated structures you see today by himself with only homemade tools has remained a mystery on the level of Stonehenge and the great Pyramids of Egypt. There is a two-story castle-shaped structure where Ed lived very spartanly, chairs, tables, planet sculptures and even a 9-ton gate that moved with the touch of one finger. Ed, who never got past the fourth grade, said he knew the secrets of how the pyramids were built and since no one ever saw him building anything (he worked at night by torch), many believed he had supernatural powers. He used to charge 10 cents for tours and sold pamphlets, all the while adding more structures to his obsession. And since the Coral Castle is in the town of Homestead, it's even more miraculous the place was one of the few spared the devastation of Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Ed died in 1951 at the age of 64 and the place has changed hands a couple of times over the years. Today, it is a museum open every day with tours and a swell gift shop. So, make the'll be bowl-Ed over, dumbfound-Ed and you won't be disappoint-Ed.

Monday, March 9, 2015

A little something to keep you posted: The country's smallest post office of Ochopee, Florida

 Postmaster Shannon Mitchell, at your service

 It really is a living, breathing post office

 One of the friendly neighbors along the mail route

 There is a glorious 264-mile stretch of Florida's old Highway 41 that runs from Tampa to Miami that is, appropriately enough, known as the Tamiami Trail. Predating the Interstate, it's still dotted with old fashioned tourist attractions and the kinds of oddities we eccentric roadside attraction fans pine for, not the least of which are real, live alligators you can see from your car window along the roadside canals. The Everglades stretch of the Tamiami is also the home of a magnificently unexpected roadside treat: the smallest post office building in the entire USA. In the early 1930s, the tiny town of Ochopee, about 36 miles southeast of Naples (Florida, not Italy, silly) was settled as a tomato farming community and once had a general store with a post office inside it on Route 41. In 1953, a fire destroyed the building, but quick-thinking postmaster Sidney Brown removed the postal records before they were damaged and set up shop in a nearby undamaged 7 x 8-foot shed formerly used to store irrigation pipes and hoses and the post office has remained there to this day. It's just large enough for one postal employee to sit and tend to the postal matters at hand, which include processing mail for a 132-mile mail route across three counties, and taking care of walk-up customers and curiosity seekers. We were lucky enough to catch postmaster Shannon Mitchell hard at work. She cheerfully answered our inane questions (Where do you use the rest room? Across the street at Joanie's Blue Crab Restaurant. How long have you worked here? Nine years. You must like all your coworkers, don't you? nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.)  She sold us a commemorative postcard with a one-of-a-kind cancellation for the low, low price of a dollar, too. Lots of tourists drop by to take pictures to make their friends back home envious, which does our hearts good and just goes to show you that good things really do come in small (postal) packages.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Big shoes to fill

There's nothing that gives us a kick quite like the sight of extra large footwear along the open road. We've been lucky enough to spot a few along the way, so try these on for size (I take a 9 1/2):

 The big boot of the L.L. Bean headquarters store, Freeport, Maine.

 An extra large Timberland Pro series with the Titan Safety Toe, Pompano Beach, Florida

The Haines Shoe House of Hellam, Pennsylvania (being worked on by cobblers, er, contractors when we were there)

The Silver Slipper (size know how it is with ladies' apparel), at the Neon Boneyard, Las Vegas, Nevada

Monday, January 19, 2015

How Swede it is: Jenguard, the Viking statue of Jensen Beach, Florida

For forty some-odd years, the Jensen Beach Elementary School, in the mid-eastern Florida coast town of Jensen Beach, has had an 18-foot fiberglass Viking warrior standing watch outside their front door. Jenguard, as he's known, has survived hurricanes and vandalism and stands looking every bit the ferocious Norseman, what with his horned helmet, blond beard and locks, blue tunic and yellow tights. And being a European visiting Florida, he's also wearing white tube socks with his calf-strap sandals. He started out as an employee of the Viking Carpet chain back in the 1960s. Back then, they used these longboating behemoths as eye-catching barkers for their flooring emporiums along the open road. Nowadays, the surviving statues appear mostly as Viking mascots in front of schools much like Jensen Elementary. You can get the whole saga here from road scholar Debra Jane Seltzer on her indispensable roadside architecture website.

And even though this is Florida and Vikings weren't known to winter or even summer here, Jenguard seems appropriate because Jensen Beach is named after John Laurence Jensen, an immigrant from Denmark who set up a pineapple plantation here in 1881. May the Norse be with you.