DAVID PAUL DAVIS AND HIS ISLANDS
Photos courtesy of the Burgert Bros.

Read more about D.P. Davis' ancestry and history in Florida in this article by Rodney Kite Powell, where most of the information presented below are direct quotations of.

David Paul Davis was born in Green Cove Springs, Florida on Nov. 19, 1885 and was educated in the public schools of Green Cove Springs and Tampa.   His parents were George R. Davis, b. Jan 1857, Florida, and Gertrude M. Davis, born Sept 1867, Cuba. (Gertrude's father was from Scotland and her mother from New York). George was an engineer on a steamer. David had 2 younger brothers, Charles E. Davis born around 1890 and Milton H. Davis born around 1893.  

David's family moved to Tampa in 1895, where he attended school and held a number of different jobs.  As a boy he carried newspapers for Knight & Wall Co., until 1905 when he went to Central America to work as a real estate salesman. After the canal opened he worked in Georgia and Texas, finally settling in Jacksonville in 1915. That same year, in Jacksonville, he married Marjorie H. Merritt. The young couple moved to Miami in 1920, where Davis began to sell real estate. He became quite adept, developing a number of subdivisions in the Buena Vista section of the city. He made a considerable fortune in Miami, but lost his wife in 1922,  shortly after giving birth to their second child. Davis moved back to Tampa in 1924 and began work on the largest development on Florida's west coast. That development, Davis Islands, made him nationally famous.  He followed up Davis Islands with Davis Shores, a subdivision in St. Augustine that Davis envisioned as being twice the size of Davis Islands. The Florida land boom collapsed before Davis could complete Davis Shores.

 


D. P. Davis, age 40

 

 

 


Davis watching Olympic swimmer Helen Wainwright
sign a contract

Rodney Kite Powell writes: "Florida real estate in the mid-1920s seemed like a sure investment. With very little money down, one could purchase a great deal of land, then turn around and sell it for a profit without ever making a mortgage payment. This type of land speculation drove the land boom, but it was about to run out of gas. In 1926, there were over 850 companies and individuals listed in the Tampa City Directory under its various real estate listings. The land boom was still alive, but economic signposts of 1926 began to suggest a turn in another direction. Tampa native D.P. Davis was a developer who has prospered in the Miami boom. His vision was to convert the mudflats and three small islands near the mouth of the Hillsborough River into an idyllic island community. The Bayshore Boulevard neighbors, however, sought to squelch Davis’ plan by claiming that the city could not legally sell the submerged bottomlands. Among other reasons, they didn’t want their view of the bay obstructed. In the early days of 1924, David P. Davis began the lengthy task of assembling property for his Davis Islands development."
 

"The first step centered on land acquisition and a contract with the city of Tampa that would sell him Little Grassy Island plus its share in Big Grassy Island. Read about the details of the opposition.  He was able to purchase the property for $350,000.  He also needed to receive permission to fill in the surrounding submerged lands. The lawsuit eventually went all the way to the Florida Supreme Court on appeal. The victory for Davis set into motion his ambitious plans: 834 acres, 11 ˝ miles of water frontage with seawalls and 27 miles of winding streets. The streets were to be named for bodies of water in somewhat alphabetical order starting at the north end of the island. Davis planned a resort community with three luxury hotels, a nine-hole golf course, airport and public swimming pool."

 

 

Little Grassy Island and Big Grassy Island, also known as Depot Key, Big Island and Rabbit Island

The islands at that time were mosquito infested mangrove and marsh grass surrounded by mud flats. The original 121 acres were valued at about $1 an acre in the late 1800's when they were purchased from the State by several Tampa land speculators.

At the right edge you can see Seddon Island, which became Harbour Island in 1984.

 


 

 

 

 

The Davis Properties office in 1925, located at 502 N. Franklin Street

When Davis announced details of his plan to build "Florida's Supreme $30,000,000 Development," the response from prospective buyers was overwhelming. Davis used the experience he gained in Miami and applied it well to the new Tampa venture. He opened a sales office in a very prominent downtown location, 502 North Franklin Street. One of the legends of the time relates that Davis chose this site because it previously housed Drawdy's Corner, a store whose windows he wantonly stared into at the candy displys as a boy.

Rodney Kite Powell writes:  The sales office was awash in plans, schematics and propaganda detailing the future look, feel and functions of Davis Islands.  A forty-foot by twenty-foot three dimensional model of the project, designed and constructed by noted artist Harry Bierce and his staff, filled the center of the office. The model, like most everything else Davis did, was billed as the world's largest.  The Davis Islands development would encompass three separate islands and would be a city within itself, created for the new America booming all around. Built with both the automobile and pedestrian in mind, Davis Islands would have wide, curving streets, and the main thoroughfare, Davis Boulevard, would have roomy sidewalks running along both sides. Landscape design responsibilities were given to Frank Button, a widely respected and nationally recognized landscape architect.


Construction on old Drawdy's Corner, 1924

The Davis Properties, Inc. sales office site was selected at the northwest corner of Franklin and Madison Streets. It had been occupied by the Drawdy Grocery Store for thirty-seven years but, given a good price, Drawdy was pleased to move the grocery store to a new location at Swann and Delaware.  Davis planned to spend nearly ten thousand dollars changing the former grocery store into the finest real estate office in the South complete with large plate glass windows facing Franklin Street.


The Davis land sales office in 1925.  Notice the construction of the Tampa Tribune building behind it, at Twiggs St. between Franklin and Tampa Streets, above the roof.

By November, 1926, this building became the Bel-mar property sales office of the Lloyd Skinner Development Corporation.


 

Above:  Old Drawdy's Corner in Nov. 1926.  Notice the Tampa Tribune building in the background has been completed.  Photo at left shows the Davis land office in the center, with the Tribune building at upper right, 1925.


See a full size photo of the completed Tampa Tribune building in 1925.

 

 

 

 

 

Rodney Kite Powell writes: Everything Davis did in the summer of 1924 led up to his ultimate goal--the opening of land sales on Davis Islands. Davis spent lavishly on elaborate brochures, a fleet of buses and vast improvements, costing an estimated $10,000, to the Franklin Street sales office. With the final design of the islands complete, maps were created showing lot locations.

 
Davis Properties bus, 1924

Davis divided the development into 8 sections, six of which carried a name describing a particular feature or its proximity to nearby landmarks. The Hyde Park Section, at the northern end of the islands nearest to Hyde Park, the Bay Circle Section, just southwest of the Hyde Park Section, named for its waterfront lots and circular street pattern, the South Park Section, at the southern end of Marjorie Park, the Hotel Section, so named for the Davis Arms Hotel, which was never built, the Yacht Club Section, named for the Yacht Club which, too, was not built, and the Country Club Section, including five of the nine holes of the Davis Islands Golf Course and its clubhouse. The southern end of the islands, though platted, did not carry section names. Land sales, Davis decided, would go one section at a time.

 

 

Rodney Kite Powell writes: In order to build his islands, Davis hired the 4 largest dredges available. The dredges soon ran 24 hours a day in order to complete the ambitious project. Davis needed to dredge 89 million cubic feet of sand from the bay. As dredging continued, the lots went on sale. Prospective buyers waited in long lines and the streets near the sales office were jammed with congested traffic. When the doors opened pandemonium ensued. Within the first 3 hours, all of the initial lots offered (306) were sold. The Tampa Tribune said that Mr. Davis “was literally showered with checks.” The $1,683,582 in sales was a world’s record for the sale of lots in a new subdivision.


 

Davis created a carnival-like atmosphere around his land sales, sponsoring boat races around the Islands and along Bayshore Boulevard, airplane exhibitions with stunt flyers, sports celebrities such as Olympic swimmer Helen Wainwright, who swam around Davis Islands, plus tennis tournaments and golf lessons from tour professionals Bobby Cruickshank and Johnny Farrell.  The fervor created by the first land sale carried into the next, when lots in the Bay Circle Section went on the market on October 13, 1924. This scenario repeated itself each time lots came on the open market. As in Miami, Davis made sure to mention that many lots were purchased by home folks who knew a good investment when they saw it. Realizing the need to not flood that lucrative market, Davis spaced out the sales from days to weeks apart, allowing the property values to increase each time.  Resales between individual buyers contributed to the frenzy of Florida's land boom, and the action surrounding Davis Islands proved no exception. Davis understood the importance of resales, both in how they maintained interest in his property and how they enhanced his own bottom line. He could raise the price on his own lots and, in theory, could also participate in the resale market himself. After October 15, 1925, resales were the only method of acquiring land on Davis Islands.

While Davis promised the city an expensive permanent bridge to the development, he needed a quick and cheap temporary bridge just to get men, machines, mules and materials to the site. The temporary bridge opened November 8, 1924, thirty-five days after land sales began for Davis Islands. The following day, the Morning Tribune featured a photograph of Davis' business partner, A. Y. Milam, with two-year-old David P. Davis, Jr. in his arms, the first people to drive onto Davis Islands. Within days after completion of the temporary bridge, photographers and sightseers joined the construction crews on the ever-growing property.

View from the south showing unfinished dredge fill

 

 

 

Rodney Kite Powell writes:  After his wife's 1922 death, Davis began to indulge in the excesses that marked the Jazz Age. Defying prohibition, a Davis hallmark, was a core tenet of the era. He also began seeing a woman named Lucille Zehring, one of movie producer Mack Sennett's Bathing Beauties.  Another product of the free-wheeling Twenties, Zehring would play a very pivotal role in Davis's future.

 

Mack Sennett Bathing Beauties, 1922

 

 

D. P. Davis and his much publicized marriage to Elizabeth Nelson

Rodney Kite Powell writes: Blessed in early 1925 with success, cash and an extraordinary ego, Davis cast his determination in a more personal direction. One of the enduring stories regarding Davis at this time centers on what seemed an absurd assertion, that he would marry the next Queen of Gasparilla, who had yet to be named. Davis once again, the legend goes, showed he could accomplish anything he truly desired, marrying twenty-two-year-old Elizabeth Nelson, Queen Gasparilla XVII, on October, 10, 1925. Davis, who would soon turn 40, allegedly made this claim over a glass of champagne early in 1925.  The naming of the court of Gasparilla is a secret, but it is decided in advance of the Coronation Ball. Davis had a number of connections within the Krewe, and it is quite likely that he knew Nelson would be elected queen.

On October 10, 1925, Davis and Nelson were wed at the “Presbyterian manse” in Clearwater (possibly Peace Memorial Presbyterian Church on Fort Harrison Avenue and Pierce Street). The only people to attend the hastily planned wedding were Nelson’s sister, Mrs. C. G. Rorebeck and Ray Schindler, one of Davis’ business associates.

Later, Davis and Nelson divorced and remarried in the span of eight weeks. Rumor and innuendo flew as to the reasons why the couple's relationship was particularly stormy.

 


1925 Gasparilla King and Queen, Curtis Sparkman & Elizabeth Nelson

 


1925 construction

Rodney Kite Powell writes:  The year 1926 began with news of slow real estate sales, a condition which did not worry Davis or most other Florida developers. But as the year progressed, so did Davis’ problems. Instead of receiving an expected four million dollars in second payments on Davis Islands property, only $30,000 in mortgages payments arrived. Both Davis Islands and Davis Shores (his St. Augustine development) had sold out by this time, and re-sales were moving slowly. Davis had a serious cash flow problem. Davis was not alone in his fall from realty grace.

 

 

The entire Florida real estate market began a steady decline in 1926 and outside observers were quick to point that out. The New York Times reported a “lull” in the Florida market in February. By July, the Nation claimed that the real estate business in Florida had collapsed. “The world's greatest poker game, played with building lots instead of chips, is over. And the players are now ... paying up.” Davis Shores in St. Augustine continued to draw away Davis’ available resources, resulting in slower construction on Davis Islands. An overall shortage of building materials made matters worse.

 

W.R. Kenan Jr. and
D.P. Davis, St. Augustine, Florida

 

 

1925 advertisement for Davis Shores
Click to enlarge, then zoom in with browser

 

 

Rodney Kite Powell writes:  Davis had little choice but to sell his Tampa investment. The failure of a project on the scale of Davis Islands spelled potential catastrophe for Tampa, both in terms of pride and prosperity. A considerable number of important people bought into the islands and now the situation looked bleak. Peter O. Knight, who served as a vice president of Exchange National Bank and at the time was president of Tampa Electric Company, had an intense interest in keeping Davis Islands afloat. Despite stories to the contrary, the dredging project was far from completion, roads awaited paving and large improvements such as the pool and the promised bridge still lay years in the future.

Knight convinced the Boston engineering firm of Stone & Webster, owners of Tampa Electric, to purchase Davis Islands. Stone & Webster formed the Davis Islands Investment Company, which in turn purchased Davis Islands on August 2, 1926. Davis received forty-nine percent of the stock in the new company, which he immediately used as collateral on a $250,000 loan so work could continue on Davis Shores. This amount proved far too small to plug the gaping holes in Davis’ St. Augustine financing – Davis Shores was simply too expensive.

 

 

Peter O. Knight

 

 

An early view of Adalia Avenue from the Mirasol Hotel

   

 

 

 

Construction at Davis Blvd. and Aegean
   

 

 

This 1926 view of Davis Islands shows Tampa Municipal Hospital in the foreground; now Tampa General.

 

   

 

 

The original wood bridge from Hyde Park to Davis Islands, 1926
   

 

1926 view of the Palace of Florence Hotel / Apartments

   

 

 



The RMS Majestic, flagship of the White Star line from 1922 to 1934

Davis was left with few options. In October of 1926, then 40 years old, and known for his love of adventure and the 1920s high life, he booked passage on the luxury liner “Majestic” of the White Star Line, “to explore the possibility of a development along the French Riviera.” On the trip with him was his lawyer, Leroy Delaney, his ten-year-old-son George, his mistress Lucille Zehring  and his friend detective Ray Schindler.  D. P. Davis did not complete the voyage to France, he fell overboard in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

In the early morning hours of October 12, 1926, an officer of the Majestic awakened ten-year-old George Davis with disturbing news. At about the same time, the ship’s wireless operator tapped out a message destined for Arthur Yeager Milam, Vice President of D. P. Davis Properties, and the developer of St. Augustine’s Davis Shores: “Dave lost overboard early this morning.  Ship circled over an hour. Everything possible done. No hope.”  D.P. Davis was never found.

See:  Witness Stories and Theories on the Death of D. P. Davis by Rodney Kite Powell

Davis Islands Development after D.P. Davis by Rodney Kite Powell

 

A 2005 St. Pete Times article titled ”The Davis Puzzle”, states that Rodney Kite-Powell, curator of the Tampa Bay History Center and utmost authority on D. P. Davis, was recently contacted by a California descendant of Davis, seeking to learn about her ancestry. In her communications with Kite-Powell, she revealed that Davis’ sons, whose whereabouts had since become unknown, had settled in California and have many family photos of their parents and family. The eldest, George, just 11 when his father died, is now 88. Davis' youngest son, D.P. Davis Jr., who was 5 when his father died, is 83. George remembered plenty. He was aboard the Majestic when his father went overboard. He had been asleep and recalled being roused and told that the ship's captain had been unable to find his father. When the ship finally docked in France, George said his father's mistress, a B-movie star, took him sightseeing around Paris. The pair's destinations included the Moulin Rouge.
George also had a picture of his younger brother in his mother's arms, dressed as if ready to go about town. That photograph disputed a long-held theory that Marjorie Davis died during childbirth. (Marjorie Park, donated to the city by D.P.Davis, was named for her.)

 

Still, the biggest mystery surrounding D.P. Davis remains unsolved. Even George did not know if his father had been pushed from a porthole on the Majestic, had leaped to his death or had fallen victim to a wild adventure gone fatally awry. Given his father's love of adventure - the family had pictures of Davis swinging at a golf ball atop Glacier Point at Yosemite National Park - his death could have been accidental, the outcome of another outrageous prank, George Davis said. Or, as many historians believe, D.P. Davis might have succumbed to professional pressures and committed suicide. After he successfully developed Davis Islands, projects in St. Augustine proved to be money-losing ventures.

D. P. Davis' home at 116 W. Davis Blvd, photographed in 1952

D.P. Davis & His Islands   |   Davis' Opposition   |  Davis' Death & Lucille Zehring   |   Davis Islands Development After D.P. Davis    |     Tampapix Home


Sources:

In Search of David Paul Davis by Rodney Kite Powell, Curator of Tampa Bay History Center

The Marriage of D.P. Davis and Elizabeth Nelson, by Rodney Kite-Powell

Continuing Story of D. P. Davis – Davis Loses His Islands by Rodney Kite-Powell

The Davis Brothers, from an interview with the sons of D.P. Davis by Rodney Kite-Powell

The Davis Puzzle, By SHERRI DAY Published April 1, 2005

Historic City Memories Part 3  & Part 4 by Geoff Dobson

Jeanne Wolfe's website