By Ron Hayes
DELRAY BEACH — One of the city’s oldest houses has a new home, a new name and a future as bright as its past.
In 1908, when a young man named Horace Hunt arrived from New Jersey to grow tomatoes, beans and pineapples along a canal in the fledgling town called Linton, he bought a five-room house on the Boynton Road.
That canal is called the Intracoastal Waterway these days. Linton is known as Delray Beach and the Boynton Road is U.S. 1. Horace Hunt is long gone. But his old homestead stayed put through a century of growth, until last year. When developers bought the block and planned to demolish the existing structures, the Delray Beach Historical Society offered to take the old Hunt place off their hands.
On Nov. 11, 2007, the house at 124 N.E. Fifth Ave. was moved to 111 N. Swinton Ave., in the Old School Square Historic District.
A 550-square-foot annex has been added to the rear, and the restored Hunt House is now the Ethel Sterling Williams Learning Center.
The cost of transporting and restoring the 1,500-square-foot home was about $600,000, including the annex. The funds arrived largely in the form of grants from the city, county and state, as well as about $100,000 in private donations.
Now the Historical Society has launched a drive to raise $1.2 million to put some learning in the Learning Center. The society’s president and a moving force behind the move, Robert Ganger, would like to see philanthropists and program developers help establish an endowment.
“If this house had been torn down, it’s gone forever,” Ganger said. “But finally adapting it to a use that serves the whole community is, I think, a noble objective.” As workers from Morning Thunder Construction added final touches one morning last month, Ganger roamed the restored rooms, describing his new vision for the old house. The annex — a seamless addition painted the same pale yellow as the house, but built to withstand a Category 5 hurricane — will soon hold the society’s collection.
“Hurricane Katrina damaged an awful lot of historical sites beyond repair in Louisiana and Mississippi,” Ganger said. “So our number one objective was to find a sound place for the collection, most of which is paper.” He tapped a wall. “I sold it to the city as a bunker that’s bulletproof,” he said with a smile.
Step across a narrow hallway and you’re in the original Hunt House, where Ganger envisions a learning center that teaches what the city’s pioneers found here and what they endured, beginning with a section on the local Seminoles who traded fur and venison for pots and pans.
He wants a center that talks about “critters,” perhaps the hardest of hardships the city’s settlers had to endure.
And he wants a section to honor the contributions of women. “
Women really built this city,” Ganger said. “The men worked the farms, but the women civilized the community. In the late 1890s, they formed the Women’s Improvement Association. They built a school, and a so-called town hall. They raised money to build roads. I don’t think people really appreciate what women did to make this a livable place.” Which is one reason the Learning Center is named after one of those women. Horace Hunt left Linton in 1915, returned North and drowned in New York, still a young man, in the 1920s. But Ethel Sterling, 5 years old when she arrived here in 1896, endured. Part of another early pioneer family, and an early member of that same Women’s Improvement Association, she became the Historical Society’s first president in 1964, and remained active there until her death in 1987. “She almost made the whole century,” Ganger said, “and she was one of the most respected people in the community.”
So the sign along North Swinton Avenue will bear her name. But the home’s original owner won’t be forgotten.
“On the fireplace, we’re going to put a tile plaque over the hearth, and it will just say Hunt,” Ganger said. “With maybe some pineapples around it.”
The Hunt House is located at 111 N. Swinton Ave. in the Old School Square Historic District. For information, contact the Delray Beach Historical Society at 243-2577 or visit www.delraybeachhistoricalsociety.org.