- October 26, 2020
You pass them every day, often without a thought.
An island here, a park there. A street or two with a little Latin flair.
And soon join them, a stage expected to be part of the community for at least 50 years, named for a family that made the project financially possible.
Longboat Key leaders this week added to the list of island landmarks honoring people of the past. With a 7-0 vote, Town Commissioners approved calling the to-be-built centerpiece of the Town Center Green the Karon Family Pavilion. Residents Paul and Sarah Karon are donating $500,000 to the Longboat Key Foundation to fund the structure's construction.
The terms of the naming-rights agreement are:
The new stage could be ready in time for next year’s snowbird season if all goes according to plan. Events planned at the Town Center site will operate around the stage construction.
So that’s the latest named project.
But what about those others we see daily? Take a stroll back in history with us.
Affectionately known among locals as Beer Can Island, the popular north-end spot (it’s not really an island) is named after Homer and Mary Greer, though it was Frank and Marjorie Conrad who deeded the land to the state for public use in 1974.
“The said property shall be used and maintained at all times henceforth solely as a public recreation area in its natural state; no permanent structure or improvements shall be erected thereon,” the deed states.
Frank Conrad initially moved to Sarasota in 1933. He died on Aug. 23, 2005.
Decades ago, the Greers and Conrads were neighbors. Going to the very west end of North Shore Road, the Conrads owned the land to the north whereas the Greers owned the land to the south.
The Manatee County Property Appraiser’s Office lists the county as the owner of Beer Can Island (the island’s listed name), with an ownership date of April 1, 1974.
However, the Longboat Key Town Commission passed a resolution in 1983 urging the county to consider changing the island’s official name to Greer Island, after Homer and Mary Greer, though it was never actually done. Today, Beer Can Island and Greer Island are used interchangeably.
Conrad’s grandson Bill Saba disputed the notion of his grandfather wanting to develop Greer Island. Saba said his grandfather could have chosen to seawall the area to develop Greer Island into an area similar to Sarasota’s Bird Key. Also, Saba said his grandfather never applied for a building permit despite several contractors approaching him.
Earlier this year, Saba sought to officially name the lagoon alongside Beer Can Island as Conrad Bay, though the request to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names prompted opposition. The request ultimately was withdrawn. Saba said he is considering making a land donation to the town if he pursues the process of naming the lagoon again.
The park is located at 5550 Gulf of Mexico Drive. The 32-acre site is the result of a private-public partnership to restore one of the remaining vacant island properties on Longboat Key to a wetland and coastal hammock forest.
James Durante (pronounced “dur-ant”) approached the town in 1994 to offer $750,000 to develop a park and restore the property to honor his late wife, Joan.
“Joan was a real outdoorsy individual,” Longboat Key Historical Society President Michael Drake said.
The town also received a $195,000 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to create a wetland and coastal hammock forest in the areas cleared of invasive vegetation.
James Durante died in 2007.
Drake recalls how Durante was an avid cigar smoker. In the 1980s, Drake managed the Sanctuary Condominiums, where the Durantes were among the original owners.
“I spent a lot of time with Jim,” Drake said. “He was quite a character and just a wonderful guy.”
Drake recalls getting calls at the Sanctuary Condominiums office about Durante’s cigar smoke.
“Jim would leave his front door open and smoke his cigars, so that smell of cigar smoke went throughout the entire floor that he lived on, and the other two owners were just — they weren’t cigar smokers, nor did they like the smell,” Drake said.
Drake said Joan Durante Park is “a sanctuary.”
“It was one of the sites that we looked at early on to put the Historical Museum at because, again, it was a town-owned parcel,” he said.
Ultimately, Drake decided in January to move the Historical Society’s Whitney Beach historic cottage at the Town Center site.
Longtime north-end Longboat Key resident and former Longboat Key Historical Society President Tom Mayers said his family has lived in Longboat Key for more than 100 years.
Mayers recalls seeing Gordon and Lora Whitney around town.
“The guy was (really) successful, and he and his wife, I don’t know what his business was, but I knew these people,” Mayers said. “It wasn’t like these were just some abstract people from ancient history. I knew them.”
Mayers recalls how some of the initial Whitney Beach cottages, which were intended as a beachside resort, were erected in close proximity to the Gulf of Mexico. Nature had other ideas, prompting a move.
“It was just beach. That was it, and so they built these cottages there, and some of them were damaged badly with erosion,” Mayers said. “That’s why they moved them because the sand eroded away.”
Longboat Key Historical Society President Michael Drake said the Whitney Beach cottages got moved in the 1950s.
“(The structure) that (the) Chiles Group bought … that was (an) original Whitney (cottage),” Drake said. “The Whitneys were like some of the earlier settlers, and I’m talking like late ’20s, ’30s, ’40s and ’50s.”
Drake, who moved to the town in 1986, said it is his understanding that Gordon and Lora Whitney were very involved in the community.
“They were pioneers of the whole island but mainly here on the north end,” Drake said of the Whitneys.
Drake also said the couple helped launch the now-closed Longboat Key Center for the Arts in 1952.
“They were really just trying to … not necessarily preserve Longboat but to just bring things to Longboat Key that Longboat Key didn’t have, and mainly from a standpoint of not having to get off the island because back then … before the Longboat Pass Bridge was built (in 1957), the only way onto Longboat Key was through the south side,” Drake said.
The Whitneys built 13 cypress cottages, a guest house, a tennis court, a skeet range and a family home on the Gulf of Mexico and Sarasota Bay. The couple bought 1,000 feet of beachfront property around the 6750 block of Gulf of Mexico Drive and called it Whitney Beach.
In 1968, Gordon Whitney sold his property to Paul Neal.
Longboat Key has several street names that pay homage to Spanish explorers from the 1500s, including Juan Anasco Drive and De Narvaez Drive.
“What I have not only heard or read, but those were all put into place by Manatee County as a nod to the Spanish explorers that came on to Longboat Key,” Historical Society President Michael Drake said. “Those explorers were on the same sand that we stand on today.”
Most of them were named, especially roads on the north end, before the town was incorporated in 1955.
Anasco was an officer in Hernando DeSoto’s expedition to Florida from 1539 to 1542. He is said to have come ashore in a “longboat” as part of the Spanish explorer’s search for gold along the Gulf coast.
Panfilo de Narváez was another Spanish explorer who landed in the Tampa Bay area in 1528, claiming the land he found for the crown and marching north along the coast, eventually reaching the St. Marks area.