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Past meets present at unique Hutchinson Island museums

FloridaRambler.com
Get out of the heat and slip into the past at two noteworthy museums in Stuart

Hutchinson Island, the barrier island east of Stuart and Fort Pierce, is best known for its miles of unspoiled beaches.

But in hot and humid September, it's a good place to visit for a pair of captivating air-conditioned museums -- one preserving something very old and one featuring something very new.

The old: Gilbert's Bar House of Refuge, a lovely 1876 wooden cottage, which tells a little-known story of Florida's system to save shipwrecked sailors. It also is located on a stunning beach with coquina rocks and a shipwreck you can snorkel 100 yards off shore.

The new: The Elliott Museum, rebuilt three years ago with an innovative museum exhibit, where visitors use a touch screen to "order" antique cars that are delivered by robot and placed on a turntable for a 360-degree view.

The two museums are operated by the same organization and you can buy a joint ticket and visit them in the same day -- and still enjoy one of the stunning beaches afterward.

The Elliott Museum

The eclectic Elliott Museum was opened 55 years ago. The original building was razed and the new one opened three years ago with this state-of-art "racking system" to display its priceless collection of vintage vehicles.

Planning a new museum that owns 90 vehicles was a challenge, said Jennifer Esler, museum president and CEO. All the square footage to display those cars would be very expensive.

The computerized racking system cost about a million dollars, Esler said, "But when you talk about building space and the cost of expanding the footprint of the building, it is actually pretty cost effective."

The computerized racking also dazzles visitors. The vehicles and how they're presented is their favorite thing at the museum, Esler said.

"Sometimes people sit there and watch it for hours," she added.

It takes about three minutes for a car to be taken out of its parking space and delivered to the turntable. The unit holds 54 vehicles. The racking system technology is commonly used in large freight warehouses or parking garages where land is expensive. It has never been used in a U.S. museum before, according to Esler.

The Elliott Museum is a history museum founded by Harmon Elliott, a winter resident of the area, to honor his father, Sterling Elliott, an inventor, businessman and social reformer.

Elliott was a pioneer in bicycling in the 1880s, even inventing the ladies' bicycle, which was controversial because of the independence it gave women.

The museum's antique vehicles include Sterling Elliott's 1903 Stanley runabout (with original upholstery), a 1914 Detroit Electric, a 1903 Cadillac, a 1905 curved dash Olds and a 1905 REO runabout. The museum also has a 1909 Hupmobile that was originally purchased by Harmon Elliott.

The museum is about more than vehicles, however. Wide-ranging exhibits include a Votomic booth from the 2000 presidential election, with an example of Florida's "butterfly ballot." which resulted in George W. Bush becoming president instead of Al Gore; a 100-year-old wedding dress that had been worn by five generations of the same local family; and a signed collection of baseball-related items.

You can see the Elliott Museum in about 90 minutes, so if you make a weekend or day trip, it is easy to enjoy a stop at the House or Refuge or the beach, too. A gorgeous public beach is directly across the street from the museum. You don't even have to move your car.

The House of Refuge

About two miles away along the beach, the House of Refuge was built in 1876 and is the last surviving example of havens built for sailors shipwrecked along Florida's unpopulated coast.

The House of Refuge system was unique to Florida, built because of the high loss of life and property along the Florida coast, where reefs and hurricanes were great hazards to sailing ships.

The southern-most house was on Miami Beach (there's a marker on Collins Avenue); the northern-most in what is now Daytona Beach. Each was manned by a single keeper and his family. In between, signs on the beach pointed to them.

Somehow, despite its prime beach location, Gilbert's House of Refuge has survived. It became a U.S. Coast Guard station and important lookout for German U-Boats during World War II.

After the war, it sat abandoned on the beach for eight years, when the county purchased it and 16.8 acres of beachfront land as government surplus (for $168!).

Today, the site has been restored and is probably more beautiful than it ever was in the past. It is located on a picturesque section of beach called the St. Lucie Rocks, an outcropping of Anastasia limestone similar to what you see at Blowing Rocks on Jupiter Island. Now the house is surrounded by an award-winning garden of native plants and flowers. The site offers spectacular views of both the ocean and the Indian River Lagoon.

Elliott Museum, 825 NE Ocean Blvd., Stuart. elliottmuseum.org, 772-225-1961. Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.

Gilbert's Bar House of Refuge, 301 SE MacArthur Blvd., Stuart. houseofrefugefl.org, 772-225-1875. Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday- Saturday, 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday.

You can buy individual tickets ($8 House of Refuge; $14 Elliott Museum) or a combo ticket for $18 adults. Prices are lower for seniors, children and military.

Bonnie Gross gives tips on visiting the natural and authentic Florida at FloridaRambler.com.

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