Ben Irving at the Carlouel Yacht Club (Clearwater Beach, FL)

In early 1938, Ben Irving took his third (documented) trip through Florida, stopping around the Tampa Bay region on the 16th-19th of January. It’s unclear what his specific business was in Clearwater, but he wrote on the reverse of this postcard (above) that he was on his way across to Tampa, likely around Safety Harbor on route 17.

Shortly after the Great 2020 “Lockdown” began, my partner and I took a drive across to check out Clearwater and seek out a pair of postcard sites from Irving’s collection. We spent half the day there without realizing that Clearwater is basically to Scientologists what Salt Lake is to the Latter-Day Saints. We should have noticed it when we saw the intense glow-up on the Hotel Fort Harrison, which Irving had visited previously in 1936 (and will likely earn its own entry sometime). If you want a harrowing gaze into the Scientologists’ relationship with Clearwater, check out these documents from the Seventies.

Anyway, this entry is about Clearwater Beach, which is a municipality of Clearwater on a long, skinny offshore archipelago across the causeway into the Gulf. It has a more distinct beach-tourism orientation with a major aquarium and, apparently, 100% more Hulk Hogans. On the northern isthmus of the island, right before it tapers off and becomes Caladesi Island State Park, lies the Carlouel Yacht Club, established in 1934.

The Carlouel Yacht Club (Clearwater Beach, FL), June 2020. [SonicGeography.com]

It would be interesting to see an analysis on the discourse of the term “yacht club” during the Depression versus now (whether the emphases on privatization and exclusivity were different at the time), but either way, Clearwater Beach used a photograph of a Cabana scene there to advertise itself in the pre-Disney era. There were enough families in the area by this point two decades past the city’s incorporation who could afford the $100 membership (roughly $1,950 in 2021), and the Cabanas, facing out into the Dunedin Channel (a smart move, given storm surges off the Gulf), were a good image to sell the area to snow-bound Northerners. It must have worked, since the club operated exclusively in the winter months prior to 1954, when I assume Clearwater’s permanent resident population ironed out. An official 1950 count put the population around 15,000; today it is well over 115,000.

On that initial visit to scope out the Yacht Club, for reasons of privacy and COVID, we were not able to talk our way in. However, I met the club’s General Manager Kelley Williams outside, and we exchanged info. A little over a month later, I was able to line up an appointment to wander the grounds with the above postcard. Kelley took great interest in my postcard, and it occurred to her that they had the original reference photograph somewhere. After some searching, she found it on the wall of a small bathroom upstairs from the central Palmer Room. I was dumbfounded:

Kelley was unaware of who framed the image and ascribed the “ca. 1940’s” caption on the plaque or when they did it, but the postmark on Irving’s postcard proved that the photo was taken sometime in the 1930’s. I have no way to prove my suspicion that the photo was completely staged, but that’s still my suspicion, along with how the picture was probably taken shortly after the cabana housing was completed. Why wouldn’t they have wanted to show it off, along with the mile-plus of sandy beach on their doorsteps?

As much as I hate photos of printed photos (especially those with frame glare), I couldn’t find a scanned version. Here’s the original with a special overlay of the postcard:

I also didn’t realize, even as I was searching for the original depicted site to re-photograph it, that the image captured a profoundly physically different era for the club. In the mid-1950’s, around when the club switched to year-round operation, a fire destroyed most of the original structure. From the history page on the Carlouel website:

During the reconstruction, the decor changed from casual to a more formal appearance. Later improvements included enclosing the bay front terrace, adding the Palmer Room, building a sea wall, roque court, swimming pool, tennis courts, and additional cabanas. The short-course Olympic pool was added in 1962.

I guessed that they would stage the photo right inside the club’s entrance, but I did not suspect how the original waterfront was basically extinct. Kelley did not have access to any old maps or other documentation about the reconstruction, and I suspect few, if any, members from that time are still around to recall it. All I could really do was take a guess based on how the main entrance and banquet hall sit on the club’s classic acreage. I am prepared to be told I am way off, but here are two of my guesses:

I’m partial to the latter, since it also worked with the current setup of the cabana housing, which is now formed of connected units, unlike the individual houses seen in the pre-1938 photo. The landscaping is so radically different from the original photo that I also took the horizon into consideration, as well as how much space the beachfront sand originally occupied.

I also looked up the satellite imagery of the Yacht Club (above), which only served to add to my confusion. If the Club has not acquired or last any land since the 1930’s (which is perfectly unlikely), then those Tennis courts are directly on top of what was once the voluminous beach. Interestingly enough, you can see on this satellite image where the public Mandalay Point Road ends and a private drive of mansions with boats (some appear to be yachts) docked across the street.

The Cabana Colony (site) at the Carlouel Yacht Club, Clearwater Beach, FL (1930’s vs. June 2020)

Per usual, cracking a little into the mystery behind a landscape depicted on one of Ben Irving’s postcards has generated a bevy of new questions. Maybe I’ll have to go back there sometime. Maybe someone who was there and then will see this and reach out to me. Either way, it was a privilege to do this. Special thanks to Kelley J. Williams and all the Carlouel members and staff on board that day. Until next time…

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