Saving historic Green Gables is race against time

One of Melbourne’s original movers and shakers was back in town in early March. Well, sort of.

A business titan, inventor and pioneering Florida resident, William Twining Wells first arrived in Melbourne in 1896 from New Jersey where he was owner of the Wells Rustless Iron Company. A metallurgical engineer, Wells made a fortune from his patent on a method for producing “rustless iron.”

Recognized as one of the most influential and generous men in Melbourne, Wells built his showcase winter home, Green Gables, on a bluff above the Indian River Lagoon. He also maintained a 12-acre beachside pineapple plantation.

In early March, modern-day Melbourne resident John Daly dressed the part of Wells – in a linen vest, bow tie and a straw boater hat – at an open house held on the grounds of the stately two-story Queen Anne-style residence as part of an event intended to raise awareness and funds for the purchase and restoration of the historic property.

One of Melbourne’s oldest houses, Green Gables, which sits off U.S. 1 and Riverview Drive, is threatened by the wrecking ball.

Daly is president of Green Gables at Historic Riverview Village, Inc., a nonprofit group formed in 2010 that is working to raise roughly $800,000 by Dec. 31 to buy this irreplaceable piece of Brevard history and begin restoration.

Prime real estate with a killer view, the property is currently owned by Wells’ descendants, and the family can demolish the home and sell the land if they choose to do so.

The property was named to the prestigious National Registry of Historic Places in July 2016, but so far that recognition has done little to spur fundraising. Only $48,000 has been raised to date, mostly from individuals. The nonprofit has not yet approached corporations or major donors in the region with a presentation to save the property.

The March open house featured an art exhibition, “Green Gables Revisited: A Coloring of Memories,” by Satellite Beach photographer Erika Masterson. She did a photo shoot at the home last fall that featured her daughter Sara dressed in period clothing.

“I’m not a historian, but I can feel this amazing spirit in the house,” Masterson said. “I can imagine what it was like to live here over a century ago. The light that streams through this home sets the perfect mood for these images.”

Indialantic’s Carl and Carol Andren co-founded the nonprofit, along with Daly. In 2015, the group obtained an agreement with the dozen Wells family owners to hold off on demolition or sale until the end of this year while they raise the required money. Years of wear and tear show on its exterior, but the Andrens say stately house could be restored to its 1890s glory.

“For the past couple of years, our nonprofit has fixed city code violations, performed roofing repairs, cleared dense underbrush so you can actually see the home from the road, secured doors and windows, and treated the home for termites,” Carl Andren said.

“Our plan is to refurbish the interior, but leave a vintage look of Wells’ time. There is a lot of history to this family. His wife, Nora, was a niece of industrialist Leland Stanford who brought the Pacific Railroad to California and started Stanford University.”

Wells was a well known inventor and developer of the process of “rustless iron” with furnaces at Little Ferry, N.J., and business offices in New York. He earned patents for a part of a locomotive engine as well as the process of coating iron and steel with rustless oxide in 1888. Beautiful examples of his work can be seen at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., where much of the iron trim utilized this method.

After traveling throughout Florida, Wells chose Melbourne and bought the Strobah riverfront property. He eventually purchased 174 acres within Melbourne, and approximately 2,000 acres in the surrounding areas of Malabar, Palm Bay and the barrier islands.

One of the earliest Queen Anne-style residences in the area, adorned with a hexagonal gazebo porch and tower, Green Gables is one of a dozen remaining buildings from 19th century Melbourne. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places last May.

Known for the green shingle siding on its many gables, the house was built just eight years after the City of was incorporated in 1888. No one has lived in the six-bedroom, two-bath residence since a pair of hurricanes ravaged it in 2004.

Ever the inventor, Wells was quite innovative in the construction of Green Gables. Even though electricity didn’t come to Melbourne until 1913, Wells outfitted the house with knob and tube wiring when it was built in 1896 and had the builders put in an artesian well that powered a hydro-generator that supplied power to the house. It was also the first home in Melbourne to have indoor plumbing and an indoor bathtub.

Wells contributed to the creation of Melbourne’s first school, its auditorium and library, as well as providing the land for Wells Park and many roadways. He died in 1930 at age 75. The Andrens believe their group can create a dynamic center for history and historic preservation that can also host weddings and other special events.

“It’s such an iconic reminder of southern Brevard’s legacy,” said Carol Andren, former president of the South Brevard Historical Society. “You look to the east and it’s where the Ais Indians canoed on the Indian River Lagoon. Where planes flew from the air station during World War II and where our country’s space exploration was born and has grown so spectacularly.”

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