Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday July 25th 2017

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The Battle over the Benson House

By Duwayne Escobedo

It looks like any other brick home with brown trim, steel bars on the windows and a carport.

But to many, it is special. This is where Ella Louise and Mark X. Benson made their home. One of the first families to settle in Gulf Breeze in 1935. They managed the Gulf Breeze Cottages. The couple became prominent and active citizens in the community at the residence located on Live Oak and Pfeiffer Streets.

Mark Benson became the first Postmaster in 1939 and named the post office — Gulf Breeze. His wife, “Elouise,” took over when he served in World War II.

The Bensons bought property on U.S. Highway 98 and built up the so-called Benson Complex, which included a gas station, grocery store, hardware store and dress shop in what became the center of business. It now is home to Dunkin’ Donuts, an AT&T store, and Mattress Firm. They are a short walk from the Benson Home located behind the Chevron gas station and across the street from Taco Bell.

Late in her life Ella Louise, known as the waterfront town’s “founding mother,” managed the business tenants in the complex. She died Oct. 9, 2006, at age 92, while her husband, Mark, died March 27, 1994, when he was 86.

Today, the Gulf Breeze Area Historical Society is in a major bare-knuckle fight over whether to honor Ella Louise’s wishes in her will for the historical society to use their house as the Mark X. and E. Louise Benson Museum and for Christian activities. The argument has gotten so heated that the 30-member organization has ballooned to about 120 members in the past month.

Betty Sprague, Gulf Breeze Area Historical Society president, represents those who want to vacate the will, tear down the Benson House, and sell the property. She said the house is simply unsuitable for a museum with one bedroom, one bathroom, and three electrical systems.

Her husband Gordon is a past president and has overseen the Benson House, which has been abandoned for 10 years. The historical society has plans to work with the city to build a room or facility to display Gulf Breeze artifacts, historical documents, and other items.

The property that is about a half-acre is valued at about $350,000 to $400,000. The historic society sold the property for $275,000 twice, but both offers fell through.

“The house is not historical,” Sprague said. “It’s a mess. It has mold and mildew and rats. We don’t want to keep it.”

The city deemed the Benson House unsafe and sealed it. The historic society posted “No Trespassing” signs on the front gate, main entrance, and carport. The society, which held its board election Tuesday, May 16 at its annual meeting, plans to make a final decision on the fate of the Benson House on May 27.

Barbara Udit, Gulf Breeze Area Historical Society secretary, has led the charge to honor Benson’s will and save the house. She said the Benson Home might be one of the original cottages from the early 1900s when Pensacola residents would cross Pensacola Bay by boat to stay there and camp. Her father, John Schlif, was the second mayor of Gulf Breeze after the family moved there in 1958.

“They were one of the founding families of Gulf Breeze,” Udit said. “We can turn it into something positive for children. We hope to break through this and save the house. We’ve seen a tremendous change in the community.”

Benson not only gave her home and all its furnishings and personal property to the Gulf Breeze Area Historical Society but also donated $30,000.

Benson is reported to have wanted her buildings to be saved as examples of early Gulf Breeze architecture, culture, and history, which she believed would be educational.

Before her death, she typed her will and wrote: “Reasonable charges for the admission of the public to the museum may be assessed for the continued maintenance, repair and improvements deemed necessary to the establishment and continuance of the museum.”

If the historic society sells the Benson House, it won’t be the first time her wishes went unheeded. The Benson complex was left to the Gulf Breeze United Methodist Church, which the Bensons helped establish along with the St. Paul United Methodist Church in Midway.

The Gulf Breeze church went to court to vacate her will. It ended up selling the property for $1.65 million in August 2007, which caused a lot of bad blood in the small Pensacola bedroom community.

Clayton Coker, the owner of the Antiquarian Traders, rented space in the old Benson complex for about 15 years for his unique store. He remembers Benson as being “sweet,” a person who would “help anyone” but “strong willed.”

Coker, whose business is now in another building behind the complex, is staying tight-lipped about the historical society controversy over the Benson House.

But the business owner admitted, “It does seem to be in a bit of an obscure place. The historic society can do something better in a better location. I hope something good comes from it. I’d like to see something that honors their names at that location or a better location.”