Pensacola, Florida
Wednesday July 18th 2018

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Interpreting Pensacola’s Rich History

By Rick Outzen

On Oct. 21, the University of West Florida Historic Trust unveiled its interpretive master plan for downtown Pensacola’ s historic district during an event at the Museum of Commerce.

UWF President Judith Bense, Vice President of University Advancement Brendan Kelly and Historic Trust Board of Directors Chair Jerry Maygarden laid out the plan developed with the assistance of Haley Sharpe Design for the historical and archeological assets of the 8.5-acre, 28-property complex that stretches from Ferdinand Plaza to Seville Square.

The Historic Trust encompasses the T.T. Wentworth, Jr. Florida State Museum, Historic Pensacola Village, Arcadia Mill Archeological Site, Voices of Pensacola Multicultural Center and Pensacola Children’s Museum. The trust has operated under the umbrella of the University of West Florida since 2001 as a part of the Division of University Advancement.

“Pensacola has an incredibly rich history that often flies under the radar,” said Kelly, who also serves as CEO of the Historic Trust. “The interpretive master plan provides a strategic vision which will allow Historic Pensacola to embody a more engaging telling of that story.”

The plan aims to help locals to see the historic district as a resource for entertainment and education, but also as an economic engine for cultural heritage tourism.

“Our goal is to reposition this historic city in the minds of people living around the country,” said Maygarden. “Pensacola’s history can be more than just a reflection of the past; it can be an economic generator for the future. We have an opportunity to impact this region in a positive way through the UWF Historic Trust.”

Rob Overton, executive director of the UWF Historic Trust, told Inweekly that Dr. Bense gave Bill Haley of Haley Sharpe Design specific instructions about her expectations for the plan.

Overton recalled that Bense told Haley: “Look, Bill, you can’t come back with a plan that’s going to be $40-$50 million. We’re never going to be able to make that happen. You need to come back with some options.”

The executive director said Haley came back with a plan that can be executed in phases at a cost of about $8 million.

“In the big scheme of things, $8 million is actually doable,” said Overton. “Now, we’re not talking about going out and doing it overnight. This is a three- to five-year plan.”

He said that plan helps people, both locals and tourists, connect to Pensacola’s history.

“It’s really reminding people that there’s history under your feet,” he said about the core themes of the plan. “We’re trying to raise that archeology up, let people know that it’s there and the stories that we have to tell around that. The other overarching part is to keep telling those stories, this wonderful history that we have, by making the buildings and the assets that we manage work harder.”

Several renderings were on display at the unveiling.  One drawing showed the area behind the T.T. Wentworth Museum converted to a grassy plaza with a canopy over an archeological area.

Overton explained, “The canopy is where the commanding officers compound was for both the Spanish and the British forts when they were here. The location is where Andrew Jackson accepted the Spanish turnover of Florida for the United States.”

The other buildings that were part of this fort are all underneath that parking lot behind the museum.  He said, “This ground is very special ground. Nowhere else in America do you have ground with the history of this. All these various cultures came together in this struggle for empire, and it’s almost a shame that we’ve got it covered with a parking lot.”

The plaza makes people aware of  archeology there and showcases some of it. It also ties T. T. Wentworth Museum to the rest of the historic village, once the parking lot is replaced with grass and historic markers and displays.

The UWF Historic Trust owns both sides of Zaragoza Street from Tarragona Street to Adams Street. The plan seeks to give people the feeling that they’ve stepped back in time when they travel that block.

“Our consultant said you don’t necessarily have to close the street, but if we could change the paving surface, studies have shown that traffic naturally reduces there,” said Overton.

The plan also calls for combining the Museum of Industry with the Museum of Commerce.

“I work in them every day, so I understand the differences,” said Overton, “but when you’re telling the story of commerce here in Pensacola and industry in Pensacola, don’t those two stories really go together?”

He added, “Industry and commerce are really about how we live, and if we can do some changes, we’ve got half of the Museum of Commerce for a maintenance shop and storage. If I could clear that out, then we could really tell both of those stories together, in that one building, which would leave the Museum of Industry, across the street where the train is, open for us to relocate the Pensacola Children’s Museum.”

The children’s museum is often overlooked in its current location south of the T.T. Wentworth Museum.

“I had people stop me on the street yesterday, right across from it, asking where is the children’s museum,” he said. “That children’s museum was an opportunity that we had with the merger of the old Historical Society into our program. It’s been very successful, and we really have outgrown that building.”

The University of West Florida has already begun executing the plan, according to the executive director.

“We’ve actually started on a couple projects this week,” he said. The plans for the canopy over the commanding officer’s compound have received conceptual approval from the city’s Architectural Review Board.

“The architects are now finishing those out, and we’re working on starting to get some permits for them. That project is moving forward,” said Overton.  “I really want to show people that we’re serious about this, and we want to start seeing some things happen.”