TCPalm: Vero Beach Centennial: Two dynamic women and their historic victory for McKee Botanical Garden

Article Posted on February 12, 2019

By: Ginny Blossom, Special to TCPalm

The number of dedicated volunteers within the Vero Beach community who contributed to the protection of one of the most noteworthy vestiges of Vero Beach history is countless. Without strong leadership driving the effort, however, the vision to save and restore the remaining acreage of what was once McKee Jungle Gardens would not have been realized.

The history of McKee goes back to 1932 when an 80-acre property along the Indian River Lagoon opened as McKee Jungle Gardens in Vero Beach, becoming one of Florida’s largest tourist attractions. The economic and cultural impacts it had on Indian River County helped put Vero Beach on the map as a must-visit destination for those traveling up and down Florida’s East Coast.

As the interstate roadways changed and visitors were diverted to Interstate 95 from U.S. 1, attendance at McKee Jungle Gardens – 100,000 annual visitors at its height – dwindled to the point that the gardens were forced to close in 1976 just as America celebrated 200 years of independence. Two years later, the property was sold to a condominium developer.

That could have been the end of the story had it not been for the efforts of two dynamic women, a group of passionate Vero Beach community leaders, and an historic effort to save an important piece of Vero Beach history.

Their vision was to purchase and restore the remaining 18-acres of untouched land from the developer who had bought the property so many years earlier. After many hard-fought battles to find the funding to buy and restore the gardens through public means, it became clear that success would come only through private funding.

In 1993, philanthropists and community advocates Suzan Phillips and Susan Schuyler Smith stood together as the leaders of what would become a successful $9 million campaign to purchase and restore McKee to its original grandeur. Forming the McKee Committee under the auspices of the newly-formed Indian River Land Trust, the two got to work.

Phillips was named chairman of the McKee Committee and Smith was named leader of the McKee Campaign Committee. One year later, with the help of the Trust for Public Land, an agreement was signed with the landowner to buy the property and restoration began…

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