On a secluded clearing at the end of a chained off dirt road in Ponce Inlet sits one of the oldest and best-preserved historical buildings on the Halifax River, one of the oldest surviving buildings in Volusia County and a vital link to the history of the town and its functioning Ponce de Leon Lighthouse.
The newly named Historical Pacetti Hotel Museum, built in 1881, is undergoing a multi-million dollar restoration and rehabilitation project led by the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse Preservation Association. Purchased in 2019 from the Greenacres Foundation, the building and property were something the association had been trying to acquire for more than two decades.
“We’re really exited about the project,” said Mike Bennett, director of operations for the association. “The historical site is directly tied into the lighthouse, so, for us. it was incredibly relevant with regard to what our mission is. In terms of historical importance, regional history made it important, and the historical integrity the building holds made it extremely necessary to purchase.”
Also, Mr. Bennett said he felt the association had a moral and ethical obligation to buy the property, which is still awaiting its designation as a place on the national historical registry. “It would have fallen into private hands, and, without a historical designation, it very easily could have been torn down and someone’s mega mansion put here,” he said.
With a history as rich and colorful as the Pacetti hotel, it’s no wonder the project is so cherished. Originally the home was built by Bartolo and Martha Pacetti, descendants of Minorcan indentured servants Anita Ponce and Antonio Pacetti.
Along with about 1,500 workers imported from southern Europe by colonist and plantation owner Dr. Andrew Turnbull, the earliest Pacettis agreed to serve out a seven-year service contract to work on the plantation in exchange for land grants.
More than half of the servants died from the brutal treatment, grueling work and diseases like malaria and yellow fever before their indentures were completed. Those who did survive were denied their freedom after their seven years. Marching to St. Augustine to protest to the British governor, the servants were finally released and many settled in the area. Pacetti was eventually given a 70-acre land grant in Ponce de Leon Inlet.
The property was passed down to offspring. When Bartolo and Martha Pacetti built their home on the property in 1881, they used it as a boarding house and fishing destination. They knew the waters and hired guides, who also helped visiting anglers navigate them. One guest who frequented the lodge was artist William Aiken Walker, who painted wildlife landscapes, fish catches and portraits in exchange for his stays.
The Pacettis later made an addition to the hotel after receiving $400 from the U.S. government, who bought 10 acres of their land to use for the Mosquito Inlet Lighthouse Station, now known as the Ponce de Leon Lighthouse. From that point, the intertwining of the hotel and the lighthouse began, Mr. Bennett said.
Martha Pacetti died in 1920, and the home was later bought by heiress Elizabeth Gamble (Proctor & Gamble). She later passed it down to her relatives, Louis and Louise Nippert, a wealthy couple who owned the Cincinnati Reds baseball team. Louise invited the team to visit, and they did often when they took breaks from training. She also had racers like Fireball Roberts and the Flying Dutchman visit through her friendship with the France family.
The building has construction from three different periods. It has eight bedrooms, all with stunning views of the waterway and the grounds; two staircases; original yellow pine flooring (restored) and old growth cypress beams; an elevated construction and original tall windows typical of Florida Cracker architecture. It’s original Victorian face was removed and a porch was later enclosed to create an additional room.
The stunning property is directly on the water facing Disappearing Island, surrounded by lush landscaping and picturesque oaks that have been blown by the wind into interesting shapes. Woodpeckers scale the oaks. Remnants of a seawall the Pacettis built with palmetto logs can still be seen at low tide.
There is still much work to be done before the building is ready for the public, Mr. Bennett said. It may take up to four years before completion. Once in operation, the association plans to use it as a museum and as a possible venue.
Mr. Bennett said the Covid-19 pandemic really hit the project hard, so the association really needs the public's help. “We’re operating about 60% of our normal annual revenue, and we’re completely self-funded. The lighthouse itself and the association do not receive public support at the local, state or federal level. Everything we do is generated in house,” he added.
Anyone who would like to donate to the project, visit https://www.lighthouselocker.org/historic-pacetti-hotel-museum-donations/?ctk=a3bf1fee-70f0-4764-aa55-dd619d657dc2.