Florida’s State Parks — like those of other states — expanded and greatly benefited from New Deal programs as well as from Franklin Roosevelt’s personal interest in conservation (see previous newsletter for review of Douglas Brinkley’s Rightful Heritage.) So skillfully did experienced landscape designers and CCC recruits work to preserve the qualities for which the parks were chosen while simultaneously making them accessible to the public, that few people today are aware that they are largely cultural landscapes as well as natural treasures. That is what their creators intended, but the confusion presents problems for their preservation 80 years later.
Florida established nine State Parks with the aid of New Deal talent. Eight were developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC): Florida Caverns, Fort Clinch, Gold Head Branch, Highlands Hammock, Hillsborough River, Myakka River, O’Leno, and Torreya. An urban park, Ravine Gardens, was built by WPA.
The parks were embellished with buildings and structures that exemplify the National Park Service rustic style, meant to harmonize with their environments. Buildings typically utilize timber and stone, with designs derived from the English Arts & Crafts movement. Employing native building materials—limestone, cypress, pine and palm logs— resulted in similar looking buildings throughout the Florida park system, with the exception of Florida Caverns, which is all stone. Yet each of the nine parks is unique since each was chosen to represent the diversity of the Florida physiographic regions.
Established in 1934 as Florida’s first state park, Highlands Hammock is a rare uncut remnant of the hardwood tropical forest that once covered the central Florida highlands around Sebring. An influential advisory group that included renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., prepared a master plan for a botanical garden and areboretum that would later be annexed to the park. The plan for what was then called Florida State Botanical Gardens and Arboretum employed unobtrusive foot trails, weather shelters, and picnic grounds was careful to preserve the scenic features and biological diversity of the forest. Under the direction of landscape architect Charles Raymond Vinten, two hundred young men of the CCC were tasked with the construction.
Vinten, who worked for the National Park Service, was soon promoted to supervise the development of all CCC park projects in Florida. His skill, dedication, and judgment account for the quality, style, and uniformity of these New Deal-era parks.
Highlands Hammond State Park is primarily valued—and managed—for its natural resources. However, like the other New Deal-era Florida state parks, its cultural landscape is largely neglected. Elements that serve to articulate the parks’ historic, CCC-constructed landscapes are being lost, despite their significance to the state’s heritage.