Few people in Ponce Inlet, whether visitors or residents, have any idea about the 'grand old dame' tucked away in the heart of the town's "historic area," just a stone's throw from the Lighthouse.
It's called the Pacetti House, a majestic riverfront jewel and the oldest house in Ponce. Its fascinating history goes back 125 years. Now, its fate is on the line. At issue is whether or not to preserve this sacred piece of history.
Built in 1886, the Pacetti Boarding House was temporary home to the many workers who labored hard building the Lighthouse in what was then called Ponce Park. The House was named for Bartola C. Pacetti, who came to Ponce in 1843. After marrying in 1860, Bartola and his wife, Martha, acquired a sizable portion of waterfront property at the south end of Ponce. In the early 1880's, the Pacettis sold 10 acres of their property to the U.S. Government, whose purpose was to build a lighthouse near the inlet.
After completion of the Lighthouse in 1887, the Pacettis, at the urging of their long-time friend and artist William Aiken Walker, converted the boarding house into a resort. By 1895, the Pacetti House had become a regular destination for fishermen and sportsmen alike. The growing guest list read like a "Who's Who." One of the more notable guests was Cincinnatian James Norris Gamble, of Proctor and Gamble fame, the inventor of Ivory Soap.
The resort continued to thrive for a number of years. But in 1898, Bartola Pacetti passed away. By the turn of the century, the number of visitors to the Pacetti House began to slow.
In 1917, Martha Pacetti died. With the "boom days" over, the once proud and elegant Pacetti House began to fall into disrepair. The Pacetti heirs sold the property to a family from Pennsylvania, who, in turn, sold it to Olivia Gamble, older daughter of James Gamble.
After purchasing the Pacetti property in 1936, Olivia saw to it that the house received much needed repairs. It was through her efforts that the magnificent structure was restored to its previous grandeur.
In 1961, Olivia Gamble died, leaving the Pacetti property to her nephew, Louis Nippert,
grandson of James Gamble. Mr. Nippert and his wife, Louise, were wealthy Cincinnati philanthropists. Both enjoyed vacationing at the Pacetti House. They also had an interest in the nature preserve Gamble Place in Port Orange, built by James Gamble in 1907. It was through this connection that the Nipperts met Ann Caneer, whose husband's grandfather had been a caretaker of Gamble Place. In the spring of 1970, the Nipperts asked Ann to move into the Pacetti House and become its caretaker. She would remain there for the next forty years.
The Nipperts holdings were vast, and included a large farm in Indian Hills, near Cincinatti, called Greenacres, which they purchased in 1949. In 1988, the Nipperts created Greenacres Foundation, a nonprofit organization geared towards conservation and educational programs, particularly for children. It has been described as a "nature center, farm and cooking school."
Upon Mr. Nippert's death in 1992, the majority of his fortune went to his wife, who at age 100, still sits on the Board of the Greenacres Foundation, which owns the Pacetti property.
In February of this year, Ann, the former Executive Director of the Lighthouse Preservation Association, was forced to leave the Pacetti House, due to health problems. She now lives in Alabama near her family.
Shortly thereafter, Greenacres announced its plans for the property. The proposal includes a change in land usage that appears to be patterned after the Greenacres property in Cincinnati. The plan would also allow changes to the house itself, including alterations to its priceless interior.
In my opinion, there is a better use for this pristine property than to have its unique place in history despoiled. There are citizens who want to see this historic property preserved. Just recently an application was submitted nominating the Pacetti House for the Town of Ponce Inlet's local Historic Register.
The future of the Pacetti House is uncertain. Some might say, "It's only a house." Others say, "this is our history" - an entity whose walls touched hundreds of lives over decades of time; a home whose beautiful timbers are imbued with the energy of every soul that ever stepped foot inside those great halls.
The Pacetti House, though dying to be saved, is providing us a lesson and that is to preserve this Grand House and keep history alive.
Cathy Wharton is the daughter of Inlet Harbor Fish Camp founder Redwood Wharton.