Sample old-world charm in Florida. It's a cracker
Practical homes built for simple folks during the Great Depression have inspired a new wave of cool holiday architecture in resorts across the Sunshine State. Adrian Mourby reports
Sunday 03 May 2009
'I was born and brought up in a Cracker house," says Dean Fowler as the wine is poured. We're in Steinhatchee, a part of Florida where they don't see many Brits, and tonight my wife Kate and I are breaking bread with Dean and his wife, Loretta.
Steinhatchee lies at the end of an empty road overhung with trees dripping Spanish moss. This inlet on the Gulf Coast used to be a swamp. During the Civil War a whole community of deserters hid out for years down here in the humid undergrowth. Nowadays, it's affluent. Good ol' boys come here to fish and global warming is still only a theory.
While my wife is admiring Loretta's jewellery, Dean tells me about how he pioneered the Cracker revival that has swept through Florida. Of course, he doesn't put it like that. Dean is far too modest. He just set out to build houses like the one his grandmother brought him up in.
"Cracker evolved when the pioneers were trying to find architecture with natural cooling. So we had wraparound porches with large roofs that overhang – to shade the outside walls – and we had roofs made of tin to reflect the sunlight. Floors were elevated above the ground with open space below for the wind to blow through. Those houses often included a "shotgun" hallway running from the front to the back of the house that created a draft. It was a comfortable place to sit or work, even on a hot day."
We're used to seeing Cracker architecture in the movies, especially if it's a Tennessee Williams adaptation. These were not the houses of Florida's wealthy, who built with Spanish tiles in the "Mediterranean" style, or with wrought-iron balconies in the "Caribbean" style. Cracker was for simple, decent folk who just wanted to keep cool during the Great Depression.
Dean was brought up poor but made his money in old folks' homes before building Steinhatchee Landing, his model Cracker community. He always intended it as a business.
The 90 houses and cottages function as hotel and time-share. There's also a shop and a chapel which is popular for weddings. Recently, former president Jimmy Carter booked the whole resort for the Carter clan to stay in – children, grandchildren and the secret service.
What Dean didn't expect was that the Cracker style would take off the way it has. Since the opening of Steinhatchee Landing and the planned community Seaside (where The Truman Show was shot), Cracker resorts have been blossoming across Florida.
Gentry Baumline, who represents tourism in Florida, says: "In the past few years, a lot of new vacation communities have sprung up featuring this architecture. People seem to like the idea of a more relaxed vacation like the days of old – where families spend time reconnecting and just sitting on the porch together instead of jet-setting."
Further up the Gulf there's WaterColor Inn, Seagrove, Rosemary and Hollywood Beach, all offering the same sense of faux community for weekenders.
Now it's growing late. We finish our catfish and Hushpuppies and Kate and Loretta say elaborate southern farewells. Dean gallantly insists on driving us back. Fiddler's Restaurant is only a few hundred yards from our bungalow but this is America, land of free men and cheap fuel.
The first time we see our holiday home it is picked out by the headlights of Dean's monster car. It is single storey with a huge porch and painted in muted shades of green and red.
"We use six or seven coats to get it just right," says Dean as he opens the door and switches off the security.
Inside there's a sturdy wooden bed with huge cushions, a massive satellite TV, and a gigantic fireplace with a "living" log fire controlled from a remote by the bed. The fire opens both into the bedroom and the bathroom next door where we find a CD player and five-person Jacuzzi. Somehow I just don't think Dean's grandma lived like this. We're Cracker on the outside but Bang & Olufsen within.
"You folks make yourself at home now," says Dean. "There's breakfast in the shop."
The next morning we swim up from the deepest mattress in the world to hear a team of women carpenters putting the finishing touches to Dean's latest project, a holiday home that is disguised as the local filling station, complete with 1930s "Dino Gasoline" pump.
Our host has his office in the village shop and he meets us as we're filling up on biscuit (in Florida a kind of giant scone) and innocuous American coffee. We are given a leisurely tour of the whole estate and then call in to say goodbye to Loretta at Dean's own house, which is a few miles up river. It proves to be a stunning piece of modern Japanese-style architecture striding two rocks and a river.
I look at my host in a new light. I guess if you spend your working day with one foot in the past you may want to come home to the 21st century.
How to get there
Virgin Holidays (0844 557 5825; virginholidays.co.uk) offers a seven-night Orlando Flydrive from £489 per person, based on two sharing, including return Virgin flights from Gatwick or Manchester to Orlando, and car hire. Steinhatchee Landing Resort (001 352 498 3513; steinhatcheelanding.com) offers one to four-bed cottages from $172 (£116) per night.
Florida Tourism (visitflorida.com).
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