“In the beginning was the land.”

Jeff Lytle

So says a display in a new museum dedicated to the genesis and progress of Southwest Florida through the lens of real estate. The addition to the vibrant local museum landscape is natural and logical for an area which was launched as and continues to be one very big land transaction.

The prominent John R. Wood Properties realty company has dedicated a storefront in an apt location — on Naples’ Fifth Avenue South, where John R. Wood opened his first office in 1958, when air conditioning was new and two years before the transformational Hurricane Donna.

Museum leader Jack Joyce with diagram of original layout for Marco Island, where he worked with the Mackle Brothers

Attracting curious shoppers – some of them licking cones from the ice cream parlor next door — and history buffs alike, the museum tells of Naples starting as a hard-to-reach hunting and fishing destination with mosquitoes nicknamed “swamp angels’’ – then kept at bay with smoke and by smearing bodies with oil and herbs. The project is spearheaded by Jack Joyce, who worked with the Mackle Brothers development team on the design and marketing of Marco Island.

John R. Wood’s son, CEO Phil Wood, hired Joyce, now 88, a few years ago to make historic presentations. Joyce coincidentally harbored a dream – opening a museum to local development. “There are a zillion real estate offices on Fifth Avenue,’ Phil Wood explains. “In fact, we have two. So we just decided we would do something unique and different.

“It also ties in well for us, since we are the oldest major brokerage in Collier and Lee counties. We have always been
interested in preserving local history, and this gives us a good opportunity to further that goal.’’ The museum, occupying about 800 square feet of valuable real estate on a street whose history could fill a museum of its own,
includes a separate room full of Marco Island maps and memorabilia and highlights niche locales including Bonita Springs and major subdivisions such as Bonita Bay, Pelican Bay, Grey Oaks, The Moorings and Park Shore.

Sign on U.S. 41 at Fleischmann Boulevard directed traffic to today’s Naples Zoo.

Look closely and you learn the museum raises the bar on historic and civic collaboration. Not only did the project solicit input from those areas and The Collier County Museums network, but the formally named John R. Wood Southwest Florida Real Estate Museum also refers visitors to myriad other museums and historical societies.

Amanda Townsend, director of the county museums, calls the project “fabulous.’’ She introduced Wood and Joyce to Donna Shelley, who compiled the attraction’s storyboards’ content – which was fact-checked by Townsend’s staff, which also trained Wood realty associates who serve as docents; a video was made for docents-to-come.

“Collier County Museums is very excited to support a local business who wants to further our mission and appreciative of the opportunity for recognition at this high-profile location,”  Townsend  says. “We hope and truly expect that the Real Estate Museum will be a catalyst for visitors and potential new  residents to take a deeper dive into local history.’’

Elaine Reed, leader of the Naples Historical Society, whose headquarters at Palm Cottage is a museum, is equally enthused. “Preservationists work better when there are more people in the community aware and actively engaged in that work,” she says. “The Naples Historical Society, as the central voice of Naples history, is proud to partner  with John R. Wood on the Real Estate History Museum.

Ad displayed at museum is
ringed by properties a la “Monopoly”

“We’ve already had other real estate firms and other industry leaders ask about partnering on such a mission. The Society is delighted to be a part of this.” On a more fundamental level, Phil Wood adds: “Almost everyone likes to learn about how different subdivisions occurred, and what prices used to be 25, or 50, or 100 years ago.’’ Those prices are showcased throughout the museum on enlarged placards of vintage Wood real estate ads. One features a Monopoly spinoff labeled WOODopoly. Several displays tout the firm’s old slogan “Walk On It Before You Buy’’ – a nod to swampland sales scams.

County namesake Barron Gift Collier earns a special tribute for his vast property holdings and completion of the Tamiami Trail – pivotal to Southwest Florida public access and growth. The streetcar advertising magnate’s crews worked through “miserable, life-threatening conditions” on the road, which a storyboard says Collier called “as sturdy as the Appian Way.” The display says Collier called the project “fun,’’ though it nearly bankrupted him.

Vintage Jeep helped clients see frontier properties and “Walk On It Before You Buy.”

There is much more to see at the museum, open at no charge Monday-Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. at 824 Fifth Avenue S. Updates and additions via signage, documents, photos and videos are promised by Joyce, whose mission is “to preserve the past for generations to come.’’

Lytle is the retired editorial page editor and TV host at the Naples Daily News. Jeff can be reached by email at Jlytle@comcast.net

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