Way back in 1901 a rather eccentric British fellow named Owen Albright found his way to St. Pete. He had settled a bit farther north when he originally emigrated to Florida, operating a nursery in Lake County. However, a freeze wiped out his business, and perhaps since the Sanford – St. Pete Railway ran right through the county maybe he just decided “why not?” and hopped aboard. It is hard to say, but either way he decided to bring his love of flowers, plants, and architectural interest to the more freeze averse Sunshine City.
Lover of Beauty & Whimsy
I must say that I feel a special connection to Mr. Albright. A lover of plants, flowers, and architectural beauty myself, I have a large garden and affinity for whimsy. And like Mr. Albright, I am in no hurry to get things done. In that same vein, Albright started on the fence shortly after his arrival in St. Pete at his house located at 140 1st St. North. He started small; just wanting to create a little something of interest along his property line.
Albright had the novel idea to start covering his fence posts with plaster and setting sea shells that he had collected into the plaster. He worked on it here and there, just a hobby, as he also went about his other business of botany.
So a few years passed, and Albright found that he had become something of a local novelty. People wanted to see the whimsical shell fence. Tourists started popping by to check it out. Further to this the town of St. Pete, always looking for a way to promote itself, started to mention the fence in promotional materials during the rather slow first decade of the 1900s. The city even created a few postcards showing the fence that were used to boost the city.
People Might Pay to See This!
Finally and literally 14 or so years after he started the little project Albright realized that he had something of a novelty on his hands, and that just maybe it could become… you know… a roadside attraction here in the great state of Florida. And it did! One of the first! Anyway, with the opportunity to turn his long-neglected attraction into cold, hard cash, he decided to expand the fence rather dramatically and incorporate his love for botany into the design. It was 1914 (the years passed quickly it seems) and Albright hired a work crew to expand the concrete foundation and structure dramatically, while Albright set the shells himself. He also had two modestly sized roofed grottos built in the interior of the property. He planted an extensive garden inside the fence, turning the property into a sort of fantasyland of flowers and beachy oddness. He incorporated vines and other plants into the fence by keeping some of the interiors of the fence filled only with dirt that were then used for planting.
The Best Photos!
I’d note that the shell fence has been a special point of interest of mine for some time. I’ve wanted to write about it, but wanted to feature a great photo of the structure, and all I could find was postcards. However, I recently stumbled upon a clear shot of the fence in a collection of early St. Pete photos by Francis Wagner, and I was blown away. I was able to further enhance it using AI…. and… Ta Da!
Using Wagner’s great photo, I have been able to pull out slices of detail that I think were otherwise lost to time. You can see how it was done and the details of the fence in painstaking detail. I doubt many people since 1920 have seen the fence like this. The underlayment / foundation of the structure, according to Albright, was old cans he collected from the ice factory used in the manufacturing process of the ice. They were filled with concrete (or dirt for using them to grow from). They were then covered with plaster into which the shells were set.
The shell fence was a popular oddity for locals and tourists alike for the next several years, but the hurricane of 1921 damaged the structure severely. Looking at the photos, I don’t think it was, um, “Up to code” for hurricane preparedness if you know what I mean. Adding to that, Albright had passed the year previous in 1920, so perhaps there was just no one with passion to rebuild the fence and gardens.
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