Clearwater is known for modern hotels, homes and high-rise condos, but many historic buildings have survived to recall the story of earlier times and the people who lived here.
For one, there is the Plumb House Museum, dating back to 1896 and now home to the Clearwater Historical Society. There are the Fort Harrison Hotel and Capitol Theater and even the Cleveland Street Post Office, an example of Mediterranean Revival architecture. The Palm Pavilion Inn and 1920s cottages still stand on Clearwater Beach.
But to see an entire neighborhood of about 80 historic homes, you have only to go to the Harbor Oaks Historic District just off South Fort Harrison Avenue in Clearwater. This charming area of wonderfully-preserved houses in various architectural styles turned 100 years old this year.
Begun in 1914, it is said to be Florida’s first planned residential community, built in a park-like atmosphere, along tree-lined streets and parkways. Harbor Oaks, tucked just inland from Clearwater Harbor, covers about 400 acres, nearly two-thirds of a square mile.
It includes architectural styles such as Mediterranean Revival, Colonial Revival, Tudor Revival, Mission and Bungalow styles. Some large estates face onto Clearwater Harbor, and more modest homes can be seen a block or two inland -- on streets named Jasmine and Magnolia. Down the middle of Bay Street is a beautifully landscaped median.
The original Fort Harrison is believed to have been located within what is now Harbor Oaks. The U.S. Army established the post in 1841 during the Second Seminole War as a recovery center for sick and wounded troops.
Harbor Oaks is the subject of a 2013 book from Arcadia Publishing, entitled Clearwater’s Harbor Oaks, one of a community history series called Images of America. The book, by Tom Adamich and Gary Dworkin, M.D., was featured in this newspaper last fall.
The Harbor Oaks Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.
Harbor Oaks is the vision of a New York real estate developer, Dean Alvord, who was known for creating architectural and community beauty in New York in the 1890s and early 1900s, before he came to Clearwater.
He was one of the first residents and marketed Harbor Oaks as a residential oasis for prominent people of the time, from New York and other cities. Early residents included pioneers in industry, inventors and celebrities, as well as at least one judge, doctor, attorney, banker, writer, antique dealer and race car driver.
In the 1890s, Alvord had created the Prospect Park South neighborhood in Brooklyn. Later, he acquired and developed parts of Long Island, including Belle Terre, an elaborate summer colony near Port Jefferson Harbor on the North Shore of Long Island. According to published reports, Belle Terre fell into receivership, Alvord left for a tour of Asia in 1913 and then moved his family to Clearwater.
Among the most prominent waterfront homes in Harbor Oaks, located at 802 Druid Road, is the Dean Alvord Estate. Alvord later moved to another house and spent his final days in Florida, dying in 1937.
In the Harbor Oaks Historic District, owners have carefully preserved these homes over the past century. They have carried forward the Alvord legacy of community beauty and safeguarded various architectural styles right up to today.
A self-guided historic tour of Harbor Oaks, as well as downtown Clearwater and Clearwater Beach, can be found at floridahistory.org/clearwater.htm.
If you like history, if you like charm and you like historic homes, you’ll love Harbor Oaks, 100 years old and counting.
Joseph Santangelo is a former reporter for the Bergen Record in New Jersey. He also has written for magazines in Connecticut and Massachusetts.