Florida Historic Real Estate Titusville Florida Waterfront property overlooking Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral
History written by Roy Laughlin, author and expert on the historical homes of Brevard County.
Historical buildings are rarely today in the same shape as they were in
the first decades after their construction. This is true of the Wager House
in Titusville, now on the market after 20 years of ownership. Before
talking about the current owner’s efforts to preserve this historic
structure on Titusville’s historic residential waterfront, a brief commentary on why the Wager House is so special may be of interest.
When Perry Ellis Wager and his son, Ellis Wager moved from near Troy, New
York and settled in Titusville in the mid 1870s, they lived in a community of less than a hundred residents. Many more people passed through Titusville than stayed in this rough and tumble town of sandy streets, tea colored well water and hordes of mosquitoes. Perry Ellis Wager realized immediately that the flow of travelers through Titusville was a potential livelihood.
He bought several acres of land that were at the south end of the Titus property and build a residential and business compound. The Wager’s first
residence was an octagonal tower about 12 feet in diameter. Perry Ellis Wager had heard of ‘tropical gales’ – tropical cyclones as we call them now, and so he constructed an octagonal building because it was believed to be a wind resistant shape for a structure. He also built a 1,000 foot wharf and a two story ‘exchange store’ adjacent to the wharf. The wharf has not survived into the present era; however the octagon tower is believed to have been incorporated into a home to the south of the Wager House. The third story and hip roof were added in the early 1900s. It is this historic building, first a store and later a residence, which bears witness to the Wager family’s life and contributions to Titusville’s development during its pioneer era.
Contemporary accounts say that the Wagers’ residence, wharf and exchange store were all in operation by 1884 at (what was then) the far south end of Titusville. It was the first Titusville wharf that travelers from the south encountered, and at more than 1,000 feet, it was an obstacle that many sailors would tie up to rather than tack a couple more times to get around so as to dock at the public city pier near Garden Street. An 1884 traveler noted that the Wager Pier was three times longer than the city pier, and extended to water 6 feet deep, capable of docking any vessel on the Indian River in that era.
The Wager House has had more than one role and location in its 130 year existence. It was originally built a bit lower on the river bank and immediately adjacent to the Wharf’s landing. (A former historical marker noted that the house was moved off South Street’s right of way. Presumably access to the Wager Wharf was older than Titusville’s streets. The town was not incorporated until 1888.)
As a store on a wharf in its first two decades, this was a two-story building. The ground floor layout was probably similar to that of today’s building. Describing this building’s role as a store does not completely
describe its actual function in the pioneer era. Boat travel on the Indian River was the primary mode of transportation until well after 1900 for both
passengers and goods. Passengers often spent the night at the wharf waiting for the next boat to Merritt Island or points south. The Wager’s Wharf was a shipping and receiving store for freight destined for homesteads further south on the Indian River and Merritt Island. The Wagers charged a fee for services associated with freight forwarding, and as a ‘guest house’ for passengers in transit. The second floor, which originally had many small rooms may have included store rooms for freight and sleeping quarters for guests waiting for a boat on the Indian River. Wager’s Wharf and this exchange store was a well known and active commercial location in Titusville during its first decades.
This building is more important to contemporary people because it is where Ellis Wager, the son, founded and operated the region’s first newspaper, the “Florida Star.” Founded in 1880 and continuing for thirty-two years, it is the first and most extensive historical record of events of the period occurring from Oak Hill to Lake Worth. As people came and went through Titusville, Ellis Wager listened to the news and published it for everyone in his own era and the contemporary one to read. The Wager family “Florida Star” was published from this building’s first floor office until October 25, 1912. The** paper was then sold to Thomas R. Puckett and moved to Cocoa, thus ending Ellis Wager’s thirty-two years history with the Star. Click here for history of Florida Star
In addition to being a store, the building was used for public gatherings. The Wagers hosted the Fireman’s (Benefit) Ball here in 1888, and the store was also known locally as ‘the opera house’ because it hosted traveling shows. In its era, it may well have been one of the largest buildings in Titusville. The south entry had a fireplace (now removed.) The warmth of a fireplace was the best hospitality that could be offered to travelers after a cool windy day on a sail boat tacking back and forth to reach Titusville from points south.
Three generations of the Wager family have played a role in this building’s current form. In the early 1900s, the Wager family moved the house to its current location and added the third floor. At this time, the building was used primarily as a residence and as a business office for the newspaper’s production.
As a residence in the early 1900s, the building had three entrance porches on the east, south and west side of the house. It also had two bay windows on either sides of the porch on each side that included an entrance. It was a large and imposing residence occupied by an established and influential family.
Members of the Wager family owned the home until the 1950s. Then it was sold to the Alex and Carol Chamberlain family who raised a large family in it through the space race era. Later, Glenn Patch owned it. Patch’s ownership is notable. His plans to restore it and enjoy it as a residence never came to fruition when opportunities to buy and restore a home in
another state beckoned. Mr. Patch, some will remember, founded Shutterbug Ads after the Apollo Program ended. That was the first of several very profitable hobbyist magazines that now include Shutterbug Magazine and Computer Shopper. Isn’t it more than coincidental that two successful publishers are associated with this house?
The Wager House: Heritage with a Contemporary Edge
After the Apollo Program, the south end of Titusville languished for a couple of decades. Neither this home’s size nor its riverfront location helped it to escape neglect. The current owners bought this house in poor condition, recognizing more its potential than the appeal of its dilapidated charms. They spent 7 years on the actual remodeling completing both structural repairs and interior modifications. The result is a residence clearly displaying the best as a heritage structure while now possessing plenty of the desired contemporary residential conveniences and style elements
When the current owners purchased the property, the interior was gutted to the floors, studs and siding. That gave them substantial freedom to redesign the interior. They noted that downstairs, the home had no interior load supporting wall. Perhaps as a store, the ground floor was primarily open space. The first step was to replace the pilings supporting the
floors, leveling the structure in the process, and to build a load supporting wall on the first floor.
The load supporting wall, running east-west, divides the ground floor roughly into quadrants and brought the structure into compliance with current building codes. The southeast corner, space once used as the newspaper office, remains as it was, and the southwest corner is still a large living room. The fireplace in the south entry is no longer present. But there is now a closet in the foyer that corresponds to an identical closet directly above it on the second floor that the current owners specifically designed to accommodate the installation of an elevator system.
If this building had a kitchen in 1880, it was likely a separate building connected by a dogtrot (an elevated walkway between the two buildings.) In the contemporary structure, the kitchen was completely rebuilt in the northwest corner of the ground floor. One of the owners is a cabinet maker who used his craft to build the new kitchen furniture. That includes 2 inch thick red Dakota granite countertops. The granite was salvaged from the old Orlando City Hall building 1950 – 1990 before it was blown up during the filming of the somewhat well-known movie “Lethal Weapon II.” On the ground floor in particular and elsewhere, beaded board and trim wood originally part of the house has been reused in the remodeling. The heart pine flooring, part of the original structure, is now exposed in all rooms, occasionally accented with area carpets.
The second floor now has three bedrooms and two bathrooms. The master suite on the east side of the second floor gives an extensive view of the Indian River. It opens to a second floor deck on the roof of the east porch. The master bathroom is large and includes a jetted tub, large stall shower, double sinks, plus toilet and bidet. It was common a century ago to
have an open upper floor to use as the social area of a house. Often a piano was included to provide music and the open floor area was for dancing. So the third floor of the Wager House is open and helped insulate the lower floors and make them more comfortable.
The current owners have made two significant changes that will leave their mark on this historical home. First, they added the wrap around porch to the east, south and west sides, and this includes the upper deck on the east side of the house, one that may always have been present in some form since the 1880s. Entrances on these three sides of the house had a flat porch roof with ornamental railing. This extensive new porch gives the house an inviting and hospitable appearance even greater than the original individual porches provided “back in the day.” The second change is the attachment of the garage on the northwest corner of the house. The contemporary garage is an enlarged version of a much smaller garage. The current owners also added a large bay window to the kitchen. The bay holds the sink and the large window, (much larger than the bay windows originally in the house on the other walls) floods the kitchen with soft daylight.
In restoring this house the owners had a significant challenge making choices between keeping the house ‘as it is’ in deference to heritage considerations, and the reasonable desire to upgrade and enjoy technology and security modernizations that have become part of homes in the last 130 years. Their efforts have produced a house maintaining the essential
character of a historic old home. The modern additions give the place the impression of age, without focusing only on the parts that say ‘old’ and nothing more. They retained the structural features and added modern accents and updated ‘infrastructure’ that will ensure soundness, security and comfort through this home’s second century.
The Wager House: Historical Landmark of Brevard’s Pioneer Era