House of Refuge model for proposed lifeguard station

Vero Beach lifeguards want to build a centrally located tower and command center that will allow them to see more of the city’s shoreline and, at the same time, provide us with a glimpse of our history.

The Vero Beach Lifeguard Association’s plan is to build an oceanfront headquarters at Humiston Park, where the facade of an L-shaped, 600-square-foot structure would resemble the Bethel Creek House of Refuge, a life-saving station that opened in 1876 at the site of what is now Jaycee Park.

The Bethel Creek facility was the first of several similar stations built approximately 20 miles – a day’s walk – apart along Florida’s then-desolate Atlantic coast in the late 1800s, when House of Refuge keepers would offer safe havens for shipwreck victims, providing survivors with food, shelter and first-aid.

“The tower and command center is something we need, especially with our beaches getting busier and busier every year,” VBLA President Erik Toomsoo said. “So, we figured: Why not combine functional significance with historical significance?

“If we’re going to build something, we might as well make it something people will find interesting and appealing.”

Especially people with money who may want to support the plan.

Though the exact numbers aren’t yet available – the VBLA was still talking with its architect, engineer and builder last week – Toomsoo estimated the cost of project would be $250,000.

And he’s hoping some local business or barrier-island benefactor will write the check.

“That’s what we’d like to happen,” Toomsoo said, adding that, once he has the final cost projections, he’ll put together a presentation and begin seeking the necessary donor or donors. “To have your name on a building in the heart of the beach? It’s really not that much money.

“Besides, we’re a 501(c)(3) organization, so the donations would be tax deductible.”

The VBLA applied to the county for $75,000 in Tourist Development Council funds, but the request was rejected. The lifeguards also reached out to the corporate world, applying for a Lowe’s Community Partners Grant of $100,000.

“The city cares about safe beaches,” Toomsoo said, “but it doesn’t have the money to do it.”

Vero Beach City Manager Jim O’Connor said the VBLA project would be a “really great addition,” but the city has no plans to contribute any funds to it.

The VBLA has been discussing the possibility of building a lifeguard tower and command center at Humiston since 2012, but it wasn’t until this past October that the concept gained enough traction – and cooperation from local design and building professionals offering pro-bono services – to move forward.

According to the VBLA website, the Humiston Lifeguard Tower and Command Center would feature an observation tower that juts out over the sand to provide lifeguards with an elevated, panoramic view of the beach from Riomar to Sexton Plaza.

It also would include a small administrative office, locker facilities for lifeguards and an open room that would be used for training and meetings.

In addition, the building would provide lifeguards with “enhanced shelter” from the elements and “sometimes dangerous encounters” with the public.

“It would greatly expand our field of vision, which is important with our beaches getting busier every year and more and more people going into the water outside the lifeguard-protected areas,” Toomsoo said. “We’ve already set attendance records this year, and we’re probably going to have a record month for June.

“Having this type of facility also would reduce distractions from the public, improve our command and control during emergencies and reduce our emergency response times,” he added. “In pretty much every way, it would help us do our jobs better.”

As for the House of Refuge aspect, Toomsoo said the concept goes beyond the planned structure’s look and feel, both of which he believes would fit well with the existing beachside architecture.

It’s a connection to Vero Beach’s past, to Florida history, to a time in America that predates the United States Coast Guard, which evolved from the U.S. Life Saving Service, which supervised the houses of refuge.

Did you know:

nIn 1894, the Bethel Creek House of Refuge played a vital role in saving the lives of 24 sailors stranded on the ill-fated Breckenshire, a steamship that ran aground on a reef 450 yards offshore of what is now our Central Beach?

nOr that it helped protect our shores during World Wars II, when the Coast Guard built a 40-foot-high observation tower to watch for submarines?

nOr that, in 1950, the federal government returned the House of Refuge property to Vero Beach for $200, so it could be used as a beachfront park that would become what is now Jaycee Park?

“It would be nice if we could build the new command center at Jaycee, because that was the site of the original House of Refuge, but it wouldn’t be as functional there,” Toomsoo said. “We need a more central location to cover as much of the beach as possible, which is why Humiston works best.”

Toomsoo said architect Tom Hoos has viewed photographs of the Bethel Creek House of Refuge and has been instructed to make the building look as authentic as possible.

“In the 1800s, the House of Refuge here helped people in distress, and that’s what we do now,” Toomsoo said. “The only difference is that, back then, the people in distress were in vessels. Now, usually, they’re not. But there’s definitely a connection.”

So, if Toomsoo and the VBLA can find someone to write the check, the Humiston Lifeguard Tower and Command Center will be more than a much-needed asset that helps make our beaches safer.

It will be a welcomed reminder of our history.

Along with Hoos Architecture, engineering firm Mills Short & Associates, builder Farrow Construction and coastal construction consultant Coastal Technology are working with Toomsoo at no cost to develop the dual-use project.

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