Downtown Stuart - The Way It Is, The Way It Was

By: Steve Winston

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The Treasure Coast town of Stuart, 110 miles north of Miami, is a trip back to another time.

Here, the way it is, is the way it was. The past is prologue. And visitors are taken back to a gentler place and time.

About 25 years ago, city fathers decided to transform Stuart’s nondescript downtown area into the way it looked back in the 1920s. The result is one of the most charming downtowns in Florida.

Downtown is anchored today – as it was then – by the legendary Lyric Theatre, transformed back to its original 1920s glory. When the Lyric opened in 1926, it brought visitors from all over Martin County to watch silent movies in red velvet seats. The Lyric was destroyed by a hurricane in 1928, and then rebuilt during the Depression. Eventually, it fell on hard times, and was empty by the early ‘80s. In 1987, however, officials raised funds for the refurbishing of the theatre. And that was the spark igniting the upgrade of the entire downtown area.

“Now, we do over 300 events a year,” says John Loesser, executive director of the Lyric. “And the impact on this town is tremendous. We bring 80,000 people a year downtown – who also eat in downtown restaurants and patronize downtown merchants.”

These days, the theater features the performing arts, special film screenings and lectures. The roster of talent that has appeared on the Lyric stage includes Poco, Kris Kristofferson, Travis Tritt, Kevin Bacon and his band, comedian Paula Poundstone, Arlo Guthrie, musician Keb’ Mo’, writer Mary Higgins Clark, Pilobolus, Dave Mason, Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, the New Christy Minstrels, the Yardbirds, the Village People, the Glenn Miller Orchestra and Mel Tillis.

“We’re an intimate theater in which every seat is close to the performer,” Loesser says. “We bring back memories of the glorious theaters people remember from childhood. And we don’t have to go out and pursue performers – they often call us!”

The downtown area around the Lyric brims with eclectic shops, galleries and eateries – many with sidewalk seating. It’s a downtown made for walking.

Down the street from the Lyric is the Stuart Heritage Museum. Here you’ll find fascinating photos, documents and artifacts from the town’s earliest days and most colorful characters. Visitors will learn about Trapper Nelson, an early-1900s frontiersman known as “The Wildman of the Loxahatchee,” whose ghost, according to many folks here, still makes occasional appearances. The museum also documents the exploits of the John Ashley Gang, local guys and gals who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor – after keeping a nice slice for themselves – and were eventually killed in a shootout with police.

At the Stuart Coffee Company, you can enjoy some Florida art with your java (or wine). At The Gauze Shop, there’s a selection of ladies’ clothing. The Luna Restaurant serves good Italian food, inside and out. There’s an old barber shop, with a real barber pole. At Rare Earth Gallery, you’ll find wood carvings, paintings and pottery in interesting shapes and patterns, along with antique-type kaleidoscopes and woven baskets. The Gafford offers upscale dining and ambience.

Osceola Street is lined with old buildings with balconies overlooking the street, and a third-story mural of a woman waving. Here you’ll find eclectic art in the Geoffrey C. Smith Gallery and at Albert G. (with hundreds of pennies forming part of the floor), contemporary cuisine at the B. Merry Gastro Pub and Asian art at Joseph Lynn. Duck into the Cook’s Kitchen for kitchenware and leave your willpower at the door at Hoffman’s Chocolates, which is filled with treats from a South Florida chocolatier that has become the largest in the state.

Nearby are the Old Colorado Inn, a 1920’s pastel-colored hotel, and Spoto’s Oyster Bar, overlooking the wide St. Lucie River.

There’s a Riverwalk along the banks of the St. Lucie, anchored by Flagler Park at one end and an amphitheatre with live music on weekends at the other.  

Larry Auerbach, a local marriage and family therapist and author of Westerns, grew up here. His family owned another long-time Stuart landmark, The Stuart Department Store, from 1938 to the late ‘80s.

“My grandfather founded the store. And he, my father, mother, aunt and uncle all worked there,” he says. “A lot of celebrities lived in Stuart in those days. And they all came into the store – (noted singer and actress) Frances Langford, Bob Hope, (bandleader) Vaughan Monroe, the actor Hugh O’Brien, Ralph Evinrude (inventor of the outboard motor). Back then, we could ride our bikes on East Ocean Boulevard into downtown without seeing a car.”

One of downtown Stuart’s most notable landmarks isn’t a building. It’s a road – a crossroads known as “Confusion Corner” because eight different roads feed into it, and it can prove confounding for many motorists – particularly non-locals. Confusion Corner drew legendary CBS newsman Charles Kuralt to Stuart in 1979 to film a segment for his popular “On the Road” series.

Despite the often-harrowing experience of trying to navigate Confusion Corner, Mary Jones, executive director of the Stuart Heritage Museum and a lifelong resident, can recall only one deadly accident there. It happened in the ‘40s, and the victims were her grandparents.

On a beautiful afternoon at the Sunday Market, no one’s worried about navigating Confusion Corner. People stroll among aisles brimming with local produce and flowers (at one time, Stuart was called the “Chrysanthemum Capital of the World”), home-baked brownies and cakes, natural soaps, “Worm Hotel fertilizer by Cracker Jim’s World,” hand-crafted leather belts, artisanal jewelry (and cheeses), homemade honey, fine silks, wooden carvings and plant hangers, paintings and prints, and a saxophonist.

“The ‘new’ Stuart is a really warm – and very authentic – re-creation of the original Stuart,” Larry Auerbach says. “And I love the way it looks and feels now.”

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