The Gilmer Heitman Mansion is a Queen Anne style structure built in 1908 for Gilmer M. Heitman, the younger brother of Harvie E. Heitman, invariably known as the King of First Street. This 14-room mansion, complete with servants quarters, no longer serves as a private home, but instead continues its decades-long function as a reputable wedding venue.
Fig. 1: Street view of the Gilmer Heitman Mansion, 2021.
Up until the turn-of-the-century, the Victorian Age was an excessive era of ostentatious styles. The advent of the new millennium had ushered in a new movement for refined tastes, and thus, the Colonial Revival subtype evolved, taking root during the first half of the 20th century. What largely differed from the examples of earlier versions of American Colonial structures was the either strict or loose adherence to colonial details and order.
As an offshoot of this style, Queen Anne took hold.
Popularized within a 30 year period, 1880-1910, Queen Anne is a subset off the Colonial Revival – the two most reputable and fashionable styles at the time. Queen Anne employs English characteristics, such as “patterned masonry of Medieval and Jacobean style-buildings….there was an emphasis on the playful use of different building materials; the first floor may be brick, the second…stucco or wood-frame, the roof was often an intersecting gable roof…with…dormers or turrets, the windows were often multi-paned and stained-glass; [as well as] wooden spindlework.” The second floor was typically given more emphasis, with varying jutting out areas of the structure, difference in single shapes, and a balance in window quantity.
Similar to the Floweree Mansion, the Gilmer Heitman Mansion is another structure off First Street that abides by Colonial order, but also incorporates Queen Anne style elements, such as a turret, large over-extensive porches, asymmetrical lines, balustrades, and geometric proportions where multi-faced stories that jut out of the frame of the house, double-hung windows, as well as spindlework on the balcony railings, to name a few.
Fig. 2: Side elevation of the Gilmer Heitman Mansion, showcasing its elaborate details in its Ionic columns, brick work, and turret on the right hand side with its curved porch and central pediment that crowns the top of the structure.
Fig. 3: Detail photograph displaying front entrance and second floor balcony.
Fig. 4: Yard view of the Gilmer Heitman Mansion, exposing the original interior shutters from several of the second floor bedrooms.
The Heitman Family has an intriguing international past full of scandal, oppressive regimes, and a harrowing escape. During the Napoleonic conquests in the early 17th century, a Prussian aristocrat, McCrary Heitman, found himself living in his former homeland, now brandished as a defeated, French occupied territory. “Prussians resentful of the oppression and wrongs often perpetrated during war times were restrained from objections under penalty of imprisonment.”Purportedly, Heitman’s sister’s beautiful looks attracted unwanted attention from French soldiers. Unwilling to sit by and overlook the unwarranted advances, Heitman challenged a French soldier to a duel with sabers, or a cavalry sword that has a curved blade from the handle. In this altercation, Heitman majorly wounded the French soldier. Although a victory on behalf of his sister’s honor, Heitman was forced into hiding in order to evade dire consequences of imprisonment. Fortunately for him, trustworthy friends and acquaintances hid him during extensive searches. He was smuggled onto a ship bound for America where he disembarked in Charleston, S.C. He remained there until he had earned enough money to travel and improve his English. His travels were interrupted in North Carolina (N.C.) when he met, and later married, a wealthy heiress. “Three generations later it was his great-grandson, McCrary, who wed Louise Josephine Earnhardt and sired sons, Harvie and Gilmer.”Harvie would be the first to leave home in N.C. in 1888 and venture to southwest Florida, stumbling into Fort Myers where an uncle, Howell A. Parker, owned a store in the largely primitive downtown commercial district. Gilmer would follow his brother’s footsteps several years later.
Parker, a pioneer merchant, had unfortunately been struggling with his business in the rough frontier town of Fort Myers. His decision to close his business prompted Harvie, at the age of 16, to invest all his savings into opening his own general store at the corner of First and Jackson Streets. The year was 1893 and luckily for Harvie, and his unwavering ambition, the already settled Montanan millionaires, John T. Murphy and Daniel A. Floweree, took on Harvie in good faith and gave him the job of overseeing and handling their business ventures in orange and fruit groves outside of Fort Myers. Now acting as a supervisor, and being paid as such, he began to expand his enterprises. With the money he was making from his general store and his supervising role over the Murphy and Floweree citrus groves, Harvie would be the first to tear down his flimsy wood store and replace it with an imposing brick structure, the first of its kind in Fort Myers. In the same year of 1897, Harvie married Florida Schultz, daughter to a hotelier family. With his personal wealth steadily increasing, he began a building spree that would develop into a battle to be on top of the social and commercial scene (refer to the Langford Mansion for more information on this building battle). In 1905, he “built a hostelry which he named Bradford for the son of his close friend. Because of his business acumen his advice was sought by wealthy investors and he became manager and consultant for many moneyed men. He instituted a coach line to Naples, planted avocado groves and raised fine thoroughbred Kentucky horses.”With his interests rapidly expanding and earning, he built a beautiful yellow brick building with eight storefronts on the first floor and offices on the second. It was named “Earnhardt Building,” which still stands to this day (See Fig.9). Throughout this whirlwind of a success, he made sure to involve his brother in his business dealings. Once Gilmer had finished high school, he ventured to Fort Myers, following in his brother’s footsteps. Eager to learn the business trades his brother had started from scratch and has been willfully maintaining on his own, Gilmer started working his way up.
Fig. 5: Portrait of Harvie Earnhardt Heitman in professional attire.
Fig. 6: Portrait of Gilmer McCrary Heitman in professional attire.
Together, both brothers formed a partnership that would last 25 years. A typical day involved a tedious routine, which started with overseeing the offloading of supplies to the Heitman Grocery Company at four in the morning. As the sun rose, the morning and afternoon was occupied with time spent on the docks off the Caloosahatchee supervising the menagerie of traded goods coming in and out of the ferries and river steamers. Next was inspecting the business of the grocery and general store, which typically comprised of grovers, farmers, and locals making the daily trip to purchase necessities and engage in the gossip of the day. With the money he made working alongside his brother, Gilmer’s big break did not come until he grabbed the chance to plant a citrus grove for himself, and selling it at its ripest peak. This would be Gilmer’s first true substantially earned sum. Seeking to invest the money he had made, he ventured out to the Lee County commissioners in 1899 and “secured a franchise…and organized the Lee County Telephone Company which went into operation February 21, 1900.”As it turned out, telephone services were a much-needed commodity. Cattlemen and citrus growers attempting to meet their demands desperately needed a way to keep in constant communication with their buyers and suppliers. “They wanted to keep in daily contact with their representatives in Fort Myers but the only means of rapid communication available [at the time] was the telegraph, and only a few lived near telegraph stations.”The operation, although grandiose in sound, actuated in a small series of offices over the Heitman Grocery Co. This enterprise consisted of six circuits with one telephone operator working the switchboard during the day and Gilmer sleeping in the office’s adjoining living quarters as to ensure that if someone called at night, he would be there to patch the call through.The first subscribers to the Lee County Telephone Co. were the “Fort Myers Inn, W.R. Washburn’s store, Hibble & Lightsey’s Meat Market…the Fort Myers Press…the Post Office, George F. Ireland Seminole Canning Co., Seminole Electric Light Plant…and the Heitman-Evans Co.”With the success of the telephone company, Gilmer returned to education and attended the Atlanta Business College, whereupon returning after his graduation, he continued his partnership with Harvie, thus starting another business, the Mutual Realty Company, which was responsible for the development of Bonita Springs, an adjourning city further south of Fort Myers. He would develop the land, sell the plots, and build a hotel for guests to enjoy the natural environs and springs that gave the up-and-coming town its name. Gilmer would own this company for twenty years before selling it and its interests in 1920. With all these ongoings, Gilmer also opened the Heitman Clothing Company, which had a prominent space in the downtown commercial district.
Fig. 7: First Street's commercial district looking west. The following represent just two of Harvie's properties:
1 - Harvie's new brick building, which housed a grocery, general store, and early bank all located on the first floor, whereas Gilmer's Lee Telephone Company was located on the second floor.
2 - Harvie's docks, wharf, and the Lee County Packing Company.
Fig. 8: Side elevation view of Harvie's wood structure home, formerly the home of Captain Winfield Scott Hancock.
This wooden house was originally the headquarters of the quartermaster within the original fort - built in 1856. The Harvie House right next door to his Grocery and General Store, as he wanted to be close to all his investments and business interests.
After his passing, the house was moved to Bay Street where it served as a library for many years before being demolished in subsequent decades due to dereliction.
Harvie's house stood in direct contrast to Gilmer's later construction of his lavish mansion, now known as the Gilmer Heitman Mansion (See Figs. 1-4).
In 1908, Gilmer married Nina A. S. Travers and bore two children, Gilmer M. Jr. and Dorothy Louise. His marraige was one of the social highlights of the season in Fort Myers. During the engagement, Gilmer hired a Tampa architect to construct what would become the Gilmer Heitman Mansion, a 14-room residence for his then soon-to-be bride. It was after their honeymoon that they moved into their new home.
1922 would be the year Gilmer loses his brother, Harvie, to stomach cancer. Reportedly, Mrs. Florida Shultz Heitman and her only daughter, Lorraine Heitman, were the beneficiaries of 95% of Heitman’s estate. The rest was divided amongst relatives, leaving thousands to aunts and cousins. Faithful and loyal employees of the Heitman Grocery and General Store received $100, whereas Harvie’s private secretary, L.A. Wingate, received $250. However, Gilmer was left something significant, which was inheriting all of Harvie’s business interests in the Heitman-Evans Co., the Bonita Land Company, citrus groves, and other businesses. He also received all stocks and bonds in the Mutual Realty Company. Moreover, Gilmer was named as one of the executors of the holdings that were left in Harvie’s wife’s and daughter’s names.”After assuming controlling interest in the Heitman businesses, Gilmer delegated time to his growing family. He was known for being a family-oriented man, and despite his reputable status in the City and the grand mansion he lived in, he had little time for social functions and instead retreated to a quiet life when time permitted. “Gentle and loving he planned activities to include them all and no trip was ever too short or long – even a tour of Europe – to take the children.”The relaxation of nature trails and treks to the Glades with his children and wife provided a fine balance to the strenuous obligations of his many holdings and businesses.
Fig. 9: Photograph of the creamy brick Earnhardt Building, constructed by Harvie as a showpiece to the community. Eight storefronts were accommodated on the first floor and 34 offices on the second floor, including the town's first public washroom.
Fig. 10: Alice Hendry Tooke, first telephone operator in Fort Myers for Gilmer's Lee County Telephone Company, which occupied the second floor of Harvie's Grocery and General Store (See Fig. 7).
As if his portfolio wasn’t big enough, Gilmer was still looking to expand his ventures. Prior to the Depression, he managed to obtain further interests over the years in “a cattle ranch…, the Lee County Packinghouse, a similar installation at Alva and part interest in several groves. He also acquired the South Florida agency for Henry Ford and was instrumental in popularizing the little vehicle in the region.”His endeavors were so commendable, his spirit admirable, and his business sense appreciable, that Fort Myers moved to pay homage in naming a street after him, as well as one in Bonita Springs. With his keen sense, he survived the Crash of ’29 and bounced back amidst the economically-down turned years of the early Thirties. His dabbling continued in vast areas, including additional hotels. By this time, he was technically a scion and tycoon worth millions. His son, Gilmer Jr., would come to take on the major business holdings of his father and continue the Heitman legacy in name and in business savvy sensibilities, expanding the Family Dynasty into banking, real estate, and insurance. The literal phrase should be renamed “Keeping up with the Heitmans,” the kings of First Street and Fort Myers, as their contribution to the development of the small, laid back frontier town to an industrious city-complex complete with functioning companies and infrastructure is largely attributed to their spirit, determination, and capabilities.
Click on the PDF documents below to download the following:
- The Gilmer Heitman Mansion coloring page
- The Gilmer Heitman worksheet
Please click below to view and listen to a video narration of the page's history.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area, “Queen Anne Style 1880s-1910,” National Park Service, August 2, 2019, accessed December 19, 2021, https://www.nps.gov/articles/queen-anne-architecture.htm.
Betty Hawking, “Duel Sets Heitman’s Course to America,” Fort Myers News Press: Twice Upon A Time, April 25, 1970.
Betty Hawking, “Duel Sets Heitman’s Course to America.”
“Will of Harvie E. Heitman Admitted to Probate Here,” The Fort Myers Press, April 22, 1922. https://www.newspapers.com/image/212078841/?terms=Gilmer%20Heitman&match=1.
“Here Is a Story of Real Comfort,” The Florida Myers Daily Press, February 10, 1912, https://www.newspapers.com/image/211108690/?terms=Gilmer%20Heitman&match=1.
Fig. 1: Street View of the Gilmer Heitman Mansion, photograph taken by Daniel Papanikolaou, 2021, Ft. Myers, FL.
Fig. 2: Angled View of the Gilmer Heitman Mansion, photograph taken by Jonathan Papanikolaou, 2021, Ft. Myers, FL.
Fig. 3: Gilmer Heitman Front Entranceway, photograph taken by Jonathan Papanikolaou, 2021, Ft. Myers, FL.
Fig. 4: Yard View of the Front Elevation, photograph taken by Daniel Papanikolaou, 2021, Ft. Myers, FL.
Fig. 5: "Harvie E. Heitman," in Karl H. Grismer, The Story of Fort Myers (Fort Myers, FL: Southwest Florida Historical Society, 1982), 294.
Fig. 6: "Gilmer M. Heitman," in Karl H. Grismer, The Story of Fort Myers (Fort Myers, FL: Southwest Florida Historical Society, 1982), 294.
Fig. 7: Photograph Looking West Down First Street from Roof of Franklin Arms Hotel, 1925, 01.02.103 F50, First Street Collection, Imaginarium, History & Science Center, Ft. Myers, FL.
Fig. 8: Photograph of the Captain Winfield Scott Hancock House, n.d., Historic Ft. Myers's Houses Collection, Southwest Florida Historical Society, Ft. Myers, FL.
Fig. 9: Front elevation of the Earnhardt Building, looking west, photograph taken by Daniel Papanikolaou, 2021, Ft. Myers, FL.
Fig. 10: Gerri Reaves, "Alice Hendry Tooke - First Telephone Operator in Fort Myers," The River Press, July 25, 2008.