Twelve years after being rescued from demolition, the old Summerhouse Restaurant building still sits vacant

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WYNNHAVEN BEACH — The 107-year-old summer house of a Fort Walton Beach pioneer continues to look more and more like a dilapidated haunted house.

“I think the building will eventually fall apart,” said local historian Tom Rice, who owns the Magnolia Grill in Fort Walton Beach.

His wife, Peggy, is the great-granddaughter of the summerhouse’s original owner, Dr. J. H. Beal.

In 2005, Alan Laird, who owns the local AJ’s restaurants, had the building shipped by barge from its original spot at Beal Parkway and U.S. Highway 98 to its existing site just west of Club 51 in Wynnhaven Beach.

While Laird saved the building from being demolished at its original spot, he still hasn’t converted it into an eatery as initially planned. He could not be reached for comment on his plans for the building or the 1.5-acre lot it stands on.

Rice said Laird several months ago offered to give him the replicated Florida Heritage Site sign that pays homage to Beal and still stands by the building. The sign has information on how Beal used to store his huge seashell collection in the structure, which later became The Summerhouse restaurant.

“It’s very sturdy, but it’s not going to last forever,” Rice said of the building. “The chimney is falling down inside. It’s just a matter of time.”

‘Unkempt’

While Okaloosa County officials and Laird have had many disagreements about rezoning and code enforcement issues tied to the building over the years, county Growth Management Director Elliot Kampert said officials do not have any active orders for Laird to remove the structure.

Kampert said the last official action occurred about eight years ago when Laird was required to place the building on pilings, strap it down so it’s secure during major storms and board it up to prevent trespassing.

Even if the building isn’t “pretty,” the county would have to receive a complaint about it before investigating to find out if it has become unsafe, Kampert said.

County Commissioner Nathan Boyles, who served on the county Code Enforcement Board before he was elected to the commission in 2012, recalled some of the county’s past dealings with Laird on the building.

“I was on the Code Enforcement Board at the time he was being hauled in front of the board, when he was being charged with not doing anything with the building,” Boyles said. “When Laird came in, he had or was waiting on a liver transplant, and he had an endless line of excuses (for not working on the building). I and citizens were fed up with him not doing what he said he would do. (The building) has sat there, effectively derelict, ever since.”

However, “provided the structure is secured and does not allow entry of vagrants, and is tied down with no risk to life or property during a hurricane, Mr. Laird has the right to keep it unkempt,” Boyles said. “Many of our cities have much more stringent codes (than the county), and the citizens who live in our cities pay more property taxes to pay for those more stringent codes. In the county, sometimes we have to look at other properties we don’t like.”

He said the county’s complaint-driven code enforcement division receives roughly 3,500 complaints per year about possible code violations.

“We don’t have code enforcement officers roaming the streets looking for code violations,” Boyles said.

Pieces of history

The historical marker that Rice anticipates receiving from Laird describes Beal as “an influential pharmacist, chemist, lawyer, educator and scientist.”

In 1928, Beal bought the building that would become his summer house in then-named Camp Walton. He and his wife lived in a similar-style house immediately to the east, while visitors from around the world stayed in the summer house.

Beal donated the area’s first water well, along with land for recreation centers and the property that now holds the city's fire and police departments, according to the Daily News book “Okaloosa County Memories.”

By 1940, Beal’s shell collection in the summer house had grown to be one of the largest in the world, according to information on the marker. His collection eventually was donated to Rollins College in Winter Park and later was transferred to the University of Florida.

Beal died in 1945, and Rice said the doctor’s descendants lived in the house until the 1960s. Peggy Rice’s aunt and Beal’s granddaughter, Maggie Starkey, was the last family member to own the house and live there.

After an extensive renovation, the house was converted into The Summerhouse restaurant, which operated from 1988 until 1992, reopened under new ownership in 1995 and closed again in 2004. Laird later saved the building from demolition and moved it to Wynnhaven Beach.

“Since the building was going to be torn down, our Aunt Maggie took the chandeliers down” from the fancy interior, Rice said. “We re-wired the lights and hung them here” at the Magnolia Grill.

The original style of the house, with its staircase in the middle, and its now-missing big front porch, was almost identical to the Magnolia Grill’s, Rice said. He said some of the original windows from the summer house add to the ambiance at the East River Smokehouse in Navarre.

In 1999, Rice and his wife spent about $50,000 to move a historic house about 500 feet from a next-door lot before converting it to the Magnolia Grill.

“I have no clue on what (Laird) must have paid to move the summerhouse,” Rice said. “I thought he had a pretty good shot at saving it.”