By Dakota Parks for Pensacola Magazine
It seems like every day of the pandemic we are living through a new chapter of history books yet to be written. As the University of West Florida braced for impact amidst the pandemic, shutting down the campus and all in-person programming, Historic Pensacola, operated by the university, became a ghost town of cobwebs and closed doors. No one could imagine those doors on the eight-acre historic campus would remain closed for nearly a year with staff working from home and historic tours cancelled for the inevitable future. While the staff worked remotely, they began to think of ways to adjust and refresh tours and suddenly found more time to research new historical periods to incorporate, including Pensacola in the Roaring Twenties. Modified from its previous four-building tour, the UWF Historic Trust is opening the Lear/ Rocheblave House, built circa 1890, as a stand- alone tour interpreted as the boarding house that once operated within the property in the 1920s.
Sheyna Marcey, director of education and Phillip Mayhair, living history coordinator have been working on this project to interpret the property and open the second floor of the house for the first time ever. The Lear/Rocheblave House is a two-story wood frame, clapboard and vernacular home with ornamental Queen Anne design elements.
As Marcey explained, the logistics of the previous four-property walking tour left the second-floor closed to the public: “This is the only property that has ever changed interpreted time periods. It was previously interpreted as the 1920s boarding house, but then it changed to 1890- 1910 to flow better in the tour. The four-property tour was chronological: you start at the Lavalle House in 1805 Colonial, you go to the Dorr House, which is 1870 Victorian, then you go to the Old Christ Church, built in 1832 and your last stop is the Lear/Rocheblave House.”
The previous tour could last around two hours, and adding the second floor would make the tour even longer. The second floor also isn’t wheelchair accessible; however, Marcey said they are working on some technological solutions to virtually record the tour once the final two rooms upstairs are complete in May.
Marcey and Mayhair worked with the curatorial department to design, stage and exhibit artifacts that meet the historical interpretation and time period out of the Historic Trust’s collection of 400,000+ artifacts. Mayhair researched the 1920s and wrote the tour for the house that includes stories of segregation, booming and busting economy, technological changes, women’s history and the suffragette movement and even entertainment in Pensacola including theatres, jazz music and early cinema.
“We have taken this opportunity with us being closed and working from home to do more research so that when we finally resume our tours, we’ll have updated information. So, the house and artifacts may not change, but we’ll have new stories to tell,” Mayhair explained.
The tour of the house lasts approximately 45-minutes and submerges guests in the 1927 boarding house operated by Emma Snowden, complete with tour guides donning flapper dresses and period-appropriate clothing. Interpreters like Marcey and Mayhair begin to walk guests from room to room of the open-air house with artifacts naturally displayed and not restricted behind ropes or glass. The tour begins in the hallway, moves into the living room, then works through the dining room, kitchen, Emma Snowden’s bedroom and upstairs to a female boarder’s room and will eventually end in the final two rooms currently being worked on.
In the living room, the tour sets the groundwork for the massive changes happening in Pensacola from the population size that doubled from 1910 to 1920, as well as changing demographics and the early history of segregation in the city of Pensacola. Moving into the dining room, the tour focuses on the economic changes between 1920 and 1930 as the lumber, fishing and brickmaking industries decline while the U.S. Navy expands operations on Corey Field and boosts job creation. In the kitchen, guests learn about technological changes to modern utilities like electricity, gas, running water, sewer hookups, refrigeration instead of ice boxes and gas ranges instead of woodburning stoves.
“One of the things that most excites me about the tour is getting to incorporate some women’s history in Pensacola and the influences women had in history throughout Northwest Florida. Both from the small information we know about Emma Snowden who ran the boarding house and from the new bedroom we opened upstairs that is interpreted as a woman boarder involved in the suffragette movement,” Marcey said.
In Emma Snowden’s bedroom, the tour leans into the history of women joining the workforce, which would have included around one in four women in Northwest Florida in the early 1920s. The Lear/Rocheblave House is just one of many boarding houses from the Seville Square area along West Zarragossa Street that was considered a boarding/rental district.
“At this point in time, a lot of the wealthy individuals were moving up to North Hill, a lot of the middle class were moving over to East Hill and the African American population had been pushed out of the downtown area and were living in the Belmont DeVilliers and Tanyard area. So, this area along West Zarragossa was really a rental district for people working in the railroad or port as well as industrial workers and common laborers. We also know that several boarding houses by Fountain Park were run by widows making a living by renting out spare rooms,” Mayhair explained.
Upstairs, the tour tentatively concludes in the boarding room of a female tenant, staged as a suffragette. Here, guests learn about beauty trends, changing social customs and women working toward the right to vote, including the history of the Women’s Suffrage Association that held its first meeting in Pensacola in 1914. The final two rooms on the tour will be completed in May and will focus on an immersive experience of entertainment in the 1920s including the prohibition, speakeasies, the rise of jazz music, theatre and cinema.
While most of Historic Pensacola remains closed due to the inability to social distance in small spaces, the new tour of Lear/Rocheblave House is open to the public on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 11 am and limited to 10 guests. To learn more and book tickets, visit www.historicpensacola.org.