Around 1900, Arthur McKee, a wealthy businessman from Cleveland Ohio who made his fortune in steel engineering, began vacationing in Vero Beach. His cousin Charles McKee, an attorney, had formed the Florida East Coast Groves Company with legendary Waldo Sexton. When Charles died, Arthur bought his interest in the company quickly grew to love a 114-acre wooded hammock that the company owned. While using it as a private retreat, Arthur started cutting and planning paths through the jungle so he could share the natural beauty of the Florida landscape with his friends.
In 1925, the McKee-Sexton Land Company was formed to preserve this land and keep it from being turned into groves. McKee sent plant explorers to South America to bring back orchids, bromeliads and other exotic flora. They hired William Lyman Phillips to design the garden blending the botanical treasures into the natural landscape without disturbing the original character of the hammock. McKee Jungle Gardens opened in January of 1932 and was an immediate success.
Waldo had the ideas and McKee had the money. Waldo added at 3000-year-old, cypress stump he found at a friend’s sawmill and iron gates from Henry Flagler’s Whitehall estate. His crowning achievement at the garden was the Hall of Giants with pole and beam construction and cypress board to house a magnificent 38ft mahogany table, the largest in the world. He also built the Spanish kitchen and adorned it with tiles and wrought iron adornments and lanterns. Animal displays were also introduced including key deer, macaws, and monkeys.
The garden was closed during WW2 except for use as a training ground for the US navy. It reopened after the war, added larger animals like Doc the Dancing Bear and campgrounds and became the third most visited attraction in Florida drawing more than 100,000 visitors a year.
The garden shut down in 1976 as super highways and larger attractions developed further inland, and much of the land was sold for development. The site remained vacant for twenty years until the Indian River Land Trust purchased the remaining property in 1995 and its former glory and splendor was restored. It is now a Florida landmark and on January 7, 1998, it was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places under its former name of McKee Jungle Gardens.
(Photo courtesy of McKee Botanical Gardens)