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The Onslaught of Two Hurricanes Shuts Down the
 70-year-old Driftwood Resort in Vero Beach
 Indefinitely
By Jean-Paul Renaud, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Sep. 30, 2004 - VERO BEACH, Fla. -- Legend has it Waldo Emerson Sexton would fire any carpenter who used a level. He hated things to be straight.

Legend also says the eccentric pioneer had no use for blueprints.

His idea of building was shouting instructions on the spot to his workers.

So his masterpiece, the Driftwood Resort on Orchid Island, has slanted floors, odd knick-knacks and stained-glass windows. Sexton made the first two buildings, now among the oldest in Vero Beach, entirely out of driftwood, hence the name.

But the onslaught of two major hurricanes has shut down the 70-year-old resort indefinitely. Residents fear Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne may have blown away pieces of their history. Neighboring businesses say their success depends on the Driftwood, located at the core of the island's commercial district.

"It's going to hurt," said Elaine Sleeman, who owns a wall décor shop across from the resort. "It's going to be a real struggle."

The Driftwood, which was expanded since Sexton's time, has time-share units as well as hotel rooms and a restaurant. Three weeks ago, Frances blasted the resort. One building had parts of its roof torn off. Workers never found it.

Another building lost many of its side railings. The famed driftwood flew into neighboring hotels. But still, some structures survived untouched.

Then Jeanne swept through and took care of the rest.

Heavy wooden benches were dragged hundreds of feet away. Support beams were ripped from their buildings and tossed across the 10-acre site. Winds tore ceilings from walls, leaving long rifts that snake around entire rooms. The stench of mold now permeates every room.

"Some rooms you can't even walk into without gagging from the smell," said Fred Zappala, the resort's chief maintenance engineer.

Between both storms, resort officials said the damage could be more than $5 million.

"We're all shell-shocked at this point," said Jeanne Radlet, the resort's manager. "To have everything fall apart on us is rather devastating."

Workers are clearing the debris, and Radlet said she doesn't know when the rebuilding will start. But she said it could be a year before all sections of the resort are operational.

"It has to be put back exactly the way it was before," Zappala said.

Resort managers say they want to stay true to Sexton's vision.

Sexton grew up in Buzzard's Glory, Indiana, where his family had a successful dairy farm. He moved to Vero Beach in 1913, where he established the Vero Beach Realty Co. and began selling mosquito-plagued swampland to northern entrepreneurs.

In 1934, Sexton began building the Driftwood. Architects were asked to sift through piles of materials Sexton had collected and find the most aesthetically pleasing ones. When they were done forming a pile of pieces that stylistically fit together, Sexton picked the other pile.

The end result is a litany of oddities that one architect dubbed "Waldotecture." Dozens of bells surround the buildings, some taken from Henry Flagler's Key West Railroad. Ceramic tiles are embedded into wooden walls. A buoy is planted in the center courtyard.

"It's an open air museum," said John Dean, an architect who has documented the Driftwood artifacts. "The buildings themselves have great historic roots for the community."

Sexton continued to build around the property, expanding it into a 100-room complex. The two original buildings were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1994, but the plaque that documents that achievement went missing after Jeanne.

"We think someone stole it," Radlet said. "But we'll find it the minute someone puts it on eBay."

The resort has hired Boca Raton-based Antol Restoration to return some normalcy to these abnormal buildings. They've already begun scouring the property for their wood. They've also found a seller in Fort Lauderdale to supply them with more driftwood.

"It's going to be rough, but we're going to put it back together the way it was," said John Saffel, who works for the restoration company.

Without any original blueprints, Saffel's company has a long road ahead. He said they'll have to rely on pictures of the period to restore the original buildings.

"Something like this is a nice challenge for us," he said.

But until it completely reopens, business owners say the lack of a steady stream of tourists will be devastating.

"I don't see how businesses can hope to recover without the Driftwood," said Michael McLaughlin, who sold two businesses in front of the Driftwood a year ago. "It's an economic center in Vero Beach. It brings all the tourists for all their shopping."

Still, it could've been worse. A seawall was built in 1995, which resort officials credit as the building's savior. They said without it, the Driftwood would've just drifted away.

A promise spray-painted on a piece of plywood reassures those who routinely stop and take pictures of the devastation. "Waldo still lives. We will reopen."

-----To see more of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel -- including its homes, jobs, cars and other classified listings -- or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.sun-sentinel.com.

(c) 2004, South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. For information on republishing this content, contact us at (800) 661-2511 (U.S.), (213) 237-4914 (worldwide), fax (213) 237-6515, or e-mail reprints@krtinfo.com.

 
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