Land was selling for $10 a lot in 1895, when Naples founder Walter N. Haldeman – publisher of the Louisville Courier Journal – built a winter home for friend and fellow journalist Henry Watterson.
Today, that home is known as Palm Cottage. It's become Naples’ oldest house and headquarters to the Naples Historical Society.
In May 2004, the society paid $1.25 million for the lot next to Watterson’s erstwhile home, too. On its new lot, the society planted the historically inspired Norris Gardens, which only adds to the charm of this site rich in history.
Palm Cottage, Naples' oldest house — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
Haldeman built his friend Watterson a home made of Florida pine, tidewater cypress and a type of tabby mortar made by burning seashells over a buttonwood fire. It was one of the first permanent buildings in southwest Florida to be constructed of local materials, modeled after traditional Southern architecture.
Its small confines today brims with history. Haldeman’s star editor and Pulitzer Prize-winning colleague Watterson (also a nephew of Mark Twain) spent many winters in the home. It also housed overflow guests from Haldeman’s Naples Hotel.
Walter Parmer and his wife purchased the home in 1916 and named it “Palm Cottage,” although it was grander in style than traditional cottages of the day. They added a kitchen, plumbing and electricity.
The home’s most colorful period came with its purchase by Laurence "Laurie" and Alexandra Brown in 1946. The Browns loved to entertain, and their guest list included Gary Cooper, Hedy Lamarr and Robert Montgomery.
The house’s library is devoted to their reign, with photos, books, fishing rods and personal belongings showcased within. Some say Alexandra loved it here, so her ghost still roams the glossy heart pine boards.
Other rooms are furnished with period pieces and outfitted with articles of clothing, toys and artifacts that demonstrate life in the mid- to late 1890s.
Alexandra collected antiques; her china, mirrors and other items decorate the home’s Victorian-style parlors.
An extensive collection of historic photographs line the hallway and cantilevered stairway walls.
The newer Norris Gardens, which opened in spring 2007, encircle a green oval lawn. Circular residential-scale theme gardens grow at the quadrangle’s corners.
Naples landscape architect Ellin Goetz designed the garden after researching horticulture at the turn of the last century. The paved path around the perimeter of the oval leads first to the Pioneer Garden, where birds-of-paradise bloom, bromeliads and crowns-of-thorns thrive, bamboo creaks, sapodilla fruits and Fakahatchee grass feathers at the edges.
Between the Pioneer and Edible gardens, a genuine Seminole pole-and-thatch chickee structure provides space for community programs at the gardens.
Coontie fern, a sugar apple tree, papaya, nasturtium, lavender, jalapeños and other herbs and vegetables give the Edible Garden cred.
The Palm Garden pays homage to the Victorian-era fascination with palm trees. It's planted with local varieties and novelty species such as the Old Man palm, named for its bearded appearance.
The Water Garden, in the Italian Renaissance tradition, features water lilies and a graceful heron sculpture in the center of its pond.
The fifth and final garden appeals to two senses: society garlic, frangipani and gardenia for fragrance, as well as pentas to attract butterflies and fountain grass and lavender for further visual appeal.
The Garden of the Senses creates a delightful space where one can sit on the wooden bench behind the white picket fence that surrounds the garden.