There it is, deep in the Flagler County Commission’s budget for the current year, Section 7 (capital projects), page 1, item 6: “Holden House: Repainting of exterior, replacement of damaged wood, installation of a hand rail along rear porch, restoration of windows, and rehabilitation of bathroom.” Cost: $23,415. And with less than six weeks left in the year on the fiscal calendar, the county this month is about to make good on freshening up one of the county’s oldest houses, and the home and museum of the Flagler County Historical Society.
This time it’s for real. Mary Ann Clark, president of the society—and “the local nag,” in her words—got the call this week from the county administration, announcing the culmination of what had begun a year and a half ago, when the annex next to the house had a hole in the roof and the house was in terrible shape. Clark invited the county’s Heidi Petito, who handles all sorts of special projects, “to come and look at all the repairs needed to bring these county properties up to snuff.” The administration put the money in the current year’s budget subsequent to that visit. It was then a matter of finding the right contractor.
“The reason it hasn’t happened sooner is that they had to get three bids, and there aren’t many people who are willing to refurbish the kind of windows we have at the Holden House,” windows that came with the house when it was originally built in 1918. In the next few weeks, the house’s exterior green will be restored to its original white (with green trim), the windows will be redone, and the upstairs bathroom in the house, which has the distinction of being the first indoor bathroom in Bunnell, and has been more of a storage and clunker room of late, will be remade in more or less period fixtures. It doesn’t have to fit a flapper’s desires: the last time the house was inhabited was the 1970s. “I don’t know if it’s going to have water or not, I don’t care about that, but it will look like a bathroom again,” Clark said. She announced the renovation plans to a gathering of the historical society the evening of July 15 in Flagler Beach, ahead of a talk by Dan Warren.
Built of coquina and stone quarried from Flagler grounds, Holden House was the wedding gift of Samuel Bortree to his daughter Ethel when she married pharmacist Thom Holden Jr. in 1918. His son-in-law’s small pharma was no help though: Bortree was among the 675,000 Americans felled by the flu epidemic of 1918-19. The couple raised two daughters and lived there until the disco era. (Tom died in 1974, Ethel in 1977). Aside from a sunroom built in 1947, the house is pretty much what it was in 1918, when it was built just nine years after the Bunnell Development Company platted the area and seven years after Bunnell was incorporated.
On Aug. 6, 1979, the county commission approved buying the house from Eleanor Black, who was living in Ormond Beach at the time, for $40,000 (in so-called federal revenue-sharing dollars) to be used as an annex for its own offices. There had been some consideration to tear down the house in the late 1970s, but after three architects looked at the property, it was found to be so fundamentally sound that repairing it was then-Circuit Court Clerk Shelton Barber’s recommendation.
In 1988 the building again was under assault—from two fronts. Bunnell city commissioners wanted the property condemned and demolished. The county also wanted to level it and use the land as a parking lot. By then it had been yielded to the historical society, but in such poor condition that the society didn’t move in there.
Armed with a $57,000 historical grant from the state, the society’s Jamie Likins and her associates—like Jane Jacobs famously facing down Robert Moses’ plans for a highway through Lower Manhattan in 1968—beat back the county’s and city’s blinkered plans. So the building stands, and the society itself not only endures, but quietly expands, too: the cinder block structure next to the building that once housed the county’s veterans services became the society’s archival repository and offices when veteran services moved to the county’s Versailles a few years ago (the Government Services Building next to the equally palatial and somewhat glacial new courthouse).
It’s not yet clear how the society will handle visiting hours at Holden House during refurbishing, but even then, Clark says, visitors are encouraged to come by for a look. The house is usually open Wednesdays between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Whatever may be happening at the house, the annex will still maintain those hours.
“We are going to have a wonderful new exterior which will last for another, I hope, many years,” Clark said, stopping short of putting a number on it. “We need to have more people who care about the history of this county, and there is a lot of history, which we’re going to try to keep before the public’s eye.”