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Santini's Legacy: First condominium celebrates 50 years

February 6, 2019
By JESSE MEADOWS (jmeadows@breezenewspapers.com) , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

50 years ago, Leonard Santini introduced a novel idea to Fort Myers Beach: the condominium.

Leonardo Arms Beach Club was first announced in a 1968 News-Press article, which outlined the lack of housing and growing demand on an island where not many were willing to sell their property.

The story reported that one motel in the winter of 1967 had to turn away 3,700 people.

Article Photos

Jean Golemba, president of building one, holds up a custom-made art piece by condo employee Margaret Aliperti to commemorate the 50-year celebration.

JESSE MEADOWS

Real estate developer Jim Newton was quoted at the time that it was time to shift from single-family residences to apartment buildings.

"Leonardo Arms was really a harbinger of what was to come," said Art Malo, resident and unofficial historian.

A visionary, people reportedly laughed at Leonard Santini's big ideas, but that didn't deter him.

He bought up the south end of Estero Island from the Koreshans for $40,000 in 1942, but left the land sitting idle for years.

"There was nothing here but sand dunes, scrub land and snakes and mosquitoes and alligators," said Malo.

Santini's niece, Fran, remembered what it was like.

"We used to drive to the point on the beach, over the sand, because there were no roads past Connecticut for a long time. There were a few homes... I can't think of anything else that was there," she said.

The Privateer was already built, but it was originally rental apartments, not condominiums.

Santini didn't propose the idea for the $4-million-dollar Leonardo Arms until he was 84 years old.

His wife had passed away and he needed something to keep him busy, according to a News-Press report from November 1972.

Today, the condo lifestyle is commonplace for many people on the island, but in 1969, it was met with skepticism.

"The islanders were less-than-happy with the idea," Malo said.

"We were hoping it wasn't going to a be a high-rise. We tried to fight that, to keep everything low," said Fran Santini.

It ended up being three six-story buildings, and many of the units sold quickly.

"The concept came in June 1968...in November we had the legal work done and opened the models. By Christmas, within 31 days, we had sold 34 apartments," his business partner Dick Berguin said in the 1972 report.

Back then, the units sold for $20,000-$40,000 each, with appliances included, and a $50 monthly fee.

Santini was reluctant to give up his house for a condo unit, but according to the first condominium newsletter from 1971, he moved into number 312.

An excerpt from the newsletter read: "Mr. Santini is that very fine gentleman who is responsible for all of us having this opportunity of living at Leonardo Arms. He has been on Estero Island for 40 years and takes his daily walk on the beach. Thank you, Mr. Santini, for providing such a happy place for us to live."

On Saturday, Leonardo Arms owners gathered in the activity room of Building One to celebrate their home and all of its history.

The party was organized by Jean Golemba, president of building one's board.

One day, she was in the activity room, and she looked up on the wall and saw the date written beneath a golden shovel, the same one used to break ground on the building on Feb. 2, 1969.

"That's what gave me the idea for the party," she said.

She assigned seats randomly to the 120 owners who attended, so people from different buildings could get to know each other.

"There are a lot of new owners," Golemba said.

She's owned a unit since 2000.

The condominium is made up of three buildings, each with its own board. There are activities every night, like cocktail hours, card games, and exercise classes, which makes for a lively social scene.

"A lot of people like to rent here because of the activities," she said.

"Friday night cocktail hour started as a fancy dress-up where everyone brought their signature dish and discussed current events at the Leo, especially which condos were for sale," said Cathleen Van Someren.

"That's how we found ours," her husband, Rene, said.

The couple shared some of the owners' favorite memories, one of which was a stretch of muddy inlets that used to separate the condo from Little Estero Island, affectionately called the "mucky-muck."

There was a secret path through it that not many people knew about.

"Those who didn't know the path slipped and screamed," Cathleen remembered, happy to watch the entertainment from her balcony.

But the tidal basins are gone now, as well as the pier behind the condos, where blue crabs baskets used to float.

Rene recounted when the pool used to host "adult swim" events, all the units came with mustard yellow and olive green appliances, and the movie theatre at nearby Santini Plaza cost $1 to get in.

"I've spent a lot of time there, especially when it was first built. I had several friends there. I would recommend it to a lot of people... But the beach was different then, you got to know everyone," said Fran Santini.

Malo, who's lived seasonally at Leonardo Arms for 28 years, said it's been a wonderful place to spend his winters.

"We've certainly been very happy here. It's been a very nice development."

 
 

 

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