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Naples Florida History

by Barbara Jones, Docent Naples Historical Society

Early Naples comprised a collection of colorful characters-like, for example, Mr. Speed Menefee, who lived up to his name by being dubbed "Naples 15-minute Mayor". Social life was all-inclusive: rich and poor, young and old gathered here and there at sunset.

Into this happy tradition came the Browns, Lawrence and Alexandra, who stayed in their beach cottage, which can be seen today at the end of Broad Avenue. After it suffered a hurricane, in 1944 they became the fourth owners and long-time occupants of what is now Palm Cottage-the house built by Walter Haldeman in 1895.

According to the stories, Lawrence Forsyth Brown was a remittance man, a term more familiar to the British of a certain era but evidently carried over into American society. When a prominent family produced a "black sheep", in order to minimize embarrassment to the relatives, sometimes an arrangement would be made whereby this son would move far away, with the understanding that his continued absence would ensure a regular income from the family coffers.

Larry fits the profile of the eccentric rebel. One idiosyncrasy was raising cocks for fighting (an illegal activity even in the 40s). He and Alexandra, although childless, would sometimes attend school board meetings (where they liberally proffered advice), complete with portable bar in a picnic hamper, AND their several "babies" who accompanied them everywhere: basenjis, the barkless African hunting dogs. Once when a movie theater in Ft. Myers refused entry of their four-footed companions, Larry took the dogs around the back. Alexandra bought a ticket, opened an exit door, and slipped the "family" into the theater.

Besides eccentricity, the Browns were known for generosity, hospitality and kindness. When the cabinet was full of potables, Mr. B. would post a flag at the front porch, a signal to everyone in town that cocktails would be served that evening. Mrs. B., although apparently an indifferent cook, provided special canapés like Angels on Horseback (oysters baked with bacon) and marinated mushrooms. Alexandra, ever welcoming, also provided free piano lessons to any child who wished to learn.

Although Larry died in 1961, Alexandra remained in Palm Cottage until her death in 1978. In 1979 Palm Cottage was bought and subsequently lovingly restored by the Naples Historical Society, in order to preserve what is now the oldest existing house in Naples.

At Palm Cottage, vestiges of Alexandra Brown's presence remain: her decorative fans, her dining table, dinnerware and silver, her piano and some of the toys she kept for the delight of Naples children. One of the NHS volunteers, a pianist, made a CD from the sheet music found in Alexandra's piano bench. You may hear it when you take a tour through the cottage.

In her last years Alexandra often sat at the front upstairs window, waving at familiar passersby. Numerous people say her spirit can be seen at the window and drifting through the house.

The Palm Cottage house museum is open for tours. Visitors and community members alike can learn about the Browns and many other notable Naples characters with a docent-guided tour. Call the Naples Historical Society for more information: 239-261-8164.