Photo by Lesa N. Lorusso of the Bartlett Family Boathouse and Shirley Bartlett’s great granddaughter Claire. “This Place Matters” is a slogan from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to call attention to historically important structures
Florida Pecky Cyprus and the Bartlett Boathouse, Lesa N. Lorusso
One of the most exciting things I get to do as the Florida Preservationist is play the role of cultural anthropologist. I love being able to not only photograph historical places, but also speak directly to the people who have loved and lived with the structures themselves. Nothing replaces the richness of first-hand historical accounts, and I had the pleasure of engaging personally with an owner recently. While on site to photograph a beautiful circa 1930’s boathouse made out of a rare type of wood known as “Pecky Cyprus” (more on that later), I was able to sit down and speak with the boathouse’s longtime owner and Melbourne resident Mrs. Shirley Bartlett. Her account of her property, the boathouse and the town of Melbourne provided an interesting glimpse into Florida’s past.
Originally from Newport News, Virginia, Shirley married her husband Walter Bartlett in 1943. When they met, Shirley and Walter both worked for NASA’s predecessor the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA); Shirley as a switchboard operator and receptionist and Walter as a research specialist. NACA was founded in 1915 with the intent of being an advisory committee coordinating research being conducted elsewhere. It quickly became a leading research organization in aeronautics and the new field of astronautics contributing to the first supersonic flights and the human space program. NACA passed the torch to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958. (1) Mrs. Bartlett recounted that her husband’s role at NACA was so important to the government that he and his colleagues were considered essential to the war effort and not required to take up arms in WWII; a relief for their families but bittersweet for the NACA men whose brothers and friends paid the ultimate price in the war. NACA images at left provided courtesy of nasa.gov: Top Image is test pilot Lawrence A. Clousing climbing into his Lockheed P-80 aircraft for a test flight at the Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, Moffett Field, California. Lower image is of a flight test of a P-61 aircraft using a ramjet engine, which was used to propel missiles. The P-61 was built by Northrup and used by the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory of the NACA to test the new jet engine.
The Bartletts moved to Melbourne, Florida in 1956 when Walter accepted a position as an aeronautical engineer with the soon to be established government organization known as NASA. Shirley admits that she was nervous about leaving her life and family in Virginia, but maintains her support of her husband’s decision to move their young family. “Walter wanted to get involved with the “big missiles,” she said, referring to the space program, “and you can’t get in the way of your husband’s dreams.” Shirley’s bravery in moving to the space coast could be lost in perspective, but it is important to understand the state of the community that she relocated to with her husband and children. Brevard County was largely under developed in 1957 and was definitely a far cry from the amenities available in Virginia. “There were very few paved roads, and no curbs or gutters,” Mrs. Bartlett said. “There was Kempers in Eau Gallie and an A&P grocery and that was it. We were so excited when a Sears order store came to town because we could actually see the items we wanted to purchase!” Images at right provided courtesty of www.floridamemory.com. Top image is of an A&P grocery store in Orlando circa 1925 and the lower image is of Sears appliance salesmen circa 1955.
Mrs. Bartlett’s description of the under-developed state of midcentury Melbourne, FL leads to the significance of her home’s location and the importance of the boathouse on the property. She recalls that “there was no bridge connecting the north side to the south side of Melbourne, so everyone got around by boat.” Bartlett was referring to the towns of Eau Gallie and Melbourne, which, for more than a half-century were two cities located side by side. Eventually in 1969, with the approval of a majority of voters, Melbourne and Eau Gallie were consolidated into the contemporary known today as Melbourne. (2) Without well-paved roads and bridges connecting the two locations, most people lived near the water and used boats as their major form of transportation. For more information on the history of Eau Gallie click here
The property that Shirley and Walter Bartlett purchased in 1957 is located on the water in the Eau Gallie area. Facing the Eau Gallie Yacht basin and boathouse belonging to the prominent Rossetter family of Melbourne, FL the Bartlett’s property came with a circa 1930’s era boathouse made out of a rare wood known as “Pecky Cyprus. “ Because of the fact that, as Mrs. Bartlett mentioned, many of the area residents used boats as their primary form of transportation for many years, many older homes on the water have boathouses. In fact, from the back of the property, now owned by Bartlett’s daughter Peggy Bartlett Gagnon, you can see boathouses of various shapes and sizes along the water. Photos by Lesa N. Lorusso. Top image showing view of the Bartlett Gagnon home from the boathouse, lower image showing view of Eau Gallie yacht basin.
The Bartlett’s boathouse is painted a non-descript gray on the exterior and was left unpainted on the interior. Despite having been restored in the past is now in a state of disrepair. The family is currently in the process of obtaining pricing to potentially have the structure repaired and for now it houses a couple of kayaks and garden equipment. Like so many historical structures, it is only after careful examination that the unique beauty of the boathouse comes to life. The boathouse is made out of beautiful Pecky Cyprus, a rare type of wood with telltale grooves and holes. Pecky Cypress refers to cypress lumber, whether tidewater or sinker, that has holes throughout it. It is rare, since it only occurs in occasional logs, and cannot be discovered until the log is cut. It only forms from the inside out in a circular pattern following the tree’s rings. When milled, the pattern of pecky holes is random, and only lumber cut from the inside of the log will actually contain the pecky texture. (5) The direction of the grooves is randomly patterned and typically oriented vertically due to the direction the log is milled resembling Swiss cheese. The Bartlett boathouse was built in such a way that highlights the beautiful character of the special wood, displaying the grooves in vertical, diagonal and horizontal patterns throughout the structure. Photos by Lesa N. Lorusso of Bartlett boathouse. Left image: interior door, top image: boathouse exterior, lower left image: closeup of porous Pecky Cyprus, lower right: exterior door.
The grooves occur from the porous hollowing of Bald Cypress trees by a wood-decaying fungus – Stereum taxodi. The fungus attacks the core of the trees leaving “pecky” vertical cavities over time. Interestingly, you can’t tell that a particular tree has the pecky cavities until it has been cut down. The cavities are not visible from the exterior of the tree, thus making it a rare find. What’s left today mostly comes from harvesting fallen logs at the bottom of rivers and swamp and reclaiming boards from a previous use. (3) Sinker Cypress is a name used to describe cypress logs that have been submerged in water. The trees were originally cut during the late 1800s, many from virgin forests during the industrial cypress harvest in the US from 1880 to 1930. In light of today’s farmed lumber market, it is hard to believe that these cypress trees were anywhere from 150 years to over 1,000 old at the time of harvest. The advanced age of this lumber contributed to the incredibly strong and often insect repellant qualities of the wood (an important factor in Florida where high winds and termites are seasonal expectations). After the logs were fallen they were then hitched to oxen and taken to the rivers for transport to the nearest riverside sawmill. As the logs were floated down the river, many became waterlogged (especially the porous “Pecky Cyprus” or were caught in a log jam and sank. At the bottom of American riverbeds, the logs aged and were well preserved. The minerals present in the water where the log rests play a part in the color of the finished lumber. Sinker cypress is now retrieved and sawn into lumber for historic restoration and new construction by companies like Sinker Treasures, Old Florida Lumber Company and the Bruner Lumber Company. (4) Image top of Pecky Cypress log from sinkertreasures.com, middle and lower photos by Lesa N. Lorusso: closeup of wood detail.
My visit with Mrs. Bartlett was one I will never forget. I am grateful for the time that she freely gave to tell me about her own history in Brevard County and for her family’s southern hospitality. The unique boathouse on their property was a joy to photograph and is a treasure not only because of its place in Melbourne history but because of the rare and beautiful material it is made of. I sincerely hope that this structure will be preserved for years to come.