Florida’s New Deal Landscapes in Jeopardy

CCC Picnic Shelter at Highlands Hammock SP

CCC Picnic Shelter at Highlands Hammock SP
Historic structures are the focus of preservation management but not the surrounding setting.
Photo Credit: David Driapsa

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.

CCC fences, part of the cultural landscape

CCC fences, part of the cultural landscape
Fence posts to keep roving cattle out of the park were made of concrete to resist fire and rot, but cannot withstand neglect.
Photo Credit: David Driapsa

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.

CCC museum at Highlands Hammock SP

CCC museum at Highlands Hammock State Park
The museum honors the CCC, but much of the landscape they shaped has fallen into disrepair.
Photo Credit: David Driapsa

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.


David Driapsa, FASLA, is a historical Landscape Architect in Naples, Florida. He is working to gain preservation status for Florida’s historic landscapes, including its parks. [email protected] davidjdriapsa.com

3 comments on “Florida’s New Deal Landscapes in Jeopardy

  1. This article presents a picture of Highlands Hammock that is totally untrue!
    First, the building pictured as the CCC Museum is, in fact, the Hammock Inn.
    Given that entire park site was recently added to Nation Register of Historic Places,
    disputes many of the negative statements in the article. The CCC structures are in fine shape.
    The only project that has been abandoned is the roundel area which was to be planted with -now
    invasive – tropical plants. (The are was repurposed into a primitive camping area.) The Tropical Gardens and Arboretum project depended on a long-term relationship between the park and the New York Botanical Garden which ended when the CCC disappeared in 1942. It is very unfortunate that the author didn’t visit with the CCC Museum curator before making such disparaging claims.

  2. The well written article focuses upon the cultural landscape, of which the buildings are important but only a small part. Don’t be critical by throwing a hissy fit about something that you do not understand and do not see. Peace and love, mate.

  3. The historic buildings are in good shape, although the historic landscape is being lost from the absence of understanding and appreciation of cultural landscape authenticity, such as the replacement of stone retaining walls with concrete walls.

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