Jack Dillon chipped paint off the exterior wall of an old fishing cottage along the Imperial River. Using his fingernail, Dillon revealed several layers of a silvery coating, exposing hand-crafted cypress that's nearly 100 years old.
Like rings on a tree trunk, each underlying coat of paint spoke to the cabin's age.
Fascinated by the wood's ability to stand up to Florida's harsh summer humidity and tropical storms, as well as the craftsmanship that went into the woodwork, Dillon smiled when he talked about refurbishing one of Bonita's most historic landmarks: the Liles Hotel and six of the original "tin-can" tourist cottages.
"It's beautiful tongue-and-groove wood, and the cypress is in really good shape," said Dillon, a Centex Construction project manager charged with revamping what will eventually become a pedestrian-friendly village at the center of Old Bonita on the south shore of the Imperial. "It just needs to be sanded."
Plans for the riverfront project include vast landscaping, benches and picnic areas, a row of cottages that may be used for arts and crafts displays as well as a brick paver paths winding through the property. The idea is to create a community campus that will draw more people to downtown Bonita for a weekend day with the family or a simple stroll through the old neighborhood.
In order to realize that goal, Dillon and others will need to revamp the land and buildings as well as create an inviting aura for both visitors and residents.
The board Dillon exposed is one of thousands he and other workers have inspected past few months. Dillon's job typically revolves around commercial projects like retail centers and office complexes. He's done plenty of those, but the Cape Coral history buff would rather work on a refurbishing project like this. To him, it's like restoring Grandpa's old '57 Chevy.
"This is like entertainment to me," Dillon said. "I come in here and enjoy seeing how they did things back then. With the cottages, it's a board-by-board procedure. You pull it off, look at it and save it. You pull it off, look at it and save it. You pull it off, look at it and throw it in the trash."
The cottages were built during the 1940s, a time when winter tourists first started coming to Bonita Springs. They were dubbed "tin-can" tourists by locals because most of their camping goods were stored in metal coffee cans that often made clanging noises when they unpacked for the winter.
Most of the cabins were painted silver to reflect heat. Some locals even thought the shiny color kept bugs like mosquitoes and termites at bay.
They were one-room, studio type abodes with small, add-on kitchens. Bathrooms, during that time, were still called outhouses and weren't attached to the tin-roofed cabins, although toilets were later added to the cabins to make them more inhabitable.
A fireplace was standard, as was a small set of stairs that often acted as front porch for fishermen cleaning the day's catch. A lone lightbulb was mounted to the front gable above the door as the sole source of night light.
Stripping down the cottages and re-creating the original construction theme is a painstaking effort that requires about 50 percent more work than building a structure from scratch, Dillon said.
With a new project, builders can just level the land, build a foundation, add some walls and utilities, put on a roof and have the structure painted and detailed. That's no easy job in itself, but taking a structure that's nearly 80 years old, removing additions and making the building as historically accurate as possible is much more demanding.
Dillon and his crew carefully scrutinized every single board, window pain, joist, rafter and beam. They even had a discussion about how to remove nails from the hardened pine floors before sanding them down and refinishing the wood.
The Liles Hotel dates back to 1927, when Bonita Springs pioneer J.W. Liles opened one of the area's first winter accommodations. Liles lost the hotel during the Depression and the hotel passed through several families. Several families operated the hotel, with mobile homes and cottages also serving as residences. City officials bought the property for $1 million nearly five years ago.
Centex took over the job last year and expects the project to be completed by March of 2006.
Dillon said the hotel will be about 85 percent historically correct when work is done early next year. Additions like an elevator and other disabled access facilities are being constructed to bring the building into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Hurricane shutters are already on the hotel, and a sprinkler system will be installed to protect the hotel against fire.
Other than those modifications, a hotel that's stood on the banks of the Imperial River for nearly eight decades will look very similar to the original.
The inside walls have already been stripped of drywall and other sidings added over the decades. Large, naturally-hardened pine framing and the original floors are about all that remains of the hotel's innards.
Cinder blocks used for the exterior wall were hand formed, still marked with grooves from where the masons actually shoved the blocks out of a mold.
An architectural fanatic, Dillon is intent on preserving the building's antique feel.
"You look up at that roof frame and it's 90 years old and as good as new," he said while touring the second story. "I get scared when I think about how many boards we've inspected. But how can you put a cost on historic integrity."
City officials haven't put a cost on that integrity. Instead of leveling the structure or selling the land to a developer, the council voted to keep the Liles hotel and a handful of the quaint cottages several years ago. The restoration project is budgeted for $1.23 million.
"We were most interested in saving the Liles Hotel and refurbishing it because it represents a very important time in Bonita Springs," said assistant city manager Barbara Barnes-Buchanan, a city official working closely with Dillon. "It was one of the first vacation spots for winter fishermen, and the cottages were where a lot of them stayed."
The extra work on restoring homes is a familiar pain for Bonita resident Chris Busk. A landscape architect who's restored six homes in south Lee County, Busk was glad to see the city take a preservation approach to the Liles Hotel.
"You have to check and see what the foundation is like," Busk said of restoration work. "It's the most important part: to see what's underneath."
Busk has had to deal with termite and water damage, finding replacement windows and other parts as well as sometimes sawing buildings into several sections before relocating them.
"The challenging part is what you don't see. Everything can look fine on the outside but areas with beautiful varnish may have water damage underneath," he said. "And the termites will eat right through to the varnish. You can't see it, but you can put your finger right through it."
The appeal of keeping historic remnants in the community has caused Busk to take on several Bonita projects, including a restored home that now functions as his office along Pennsylvania Avenue as well as one under construction that will probably end up as someone's house when finished.
"Here, you just don't have a lot of historic structures. It's peppered in Bonita," Busk said. "I like preserving them, and it gives you a feeling of permanence. Everything is so transitory here. It's challenging, but when you get done you always gravitate towards that building. It gives you a good feeling to know it's still there."