With the 4th of July weekend upon us, it’s safe to say that no one was more associated with patriotic holidays on Marco Island than the late Herb Savage. The prominent Deltona architect designed the original Marco Beach Hotel (now the JW Marriott), the original Yacht Club and the original Country Club—along with 22 different model homes for the Deltona Corporation starting in the mid-60s. On a March afternoon in 2016, when Savage was 97, we sat down and reflected about his life and times on Marco Island. Savage passed away just days before his 100th birthday on January 1st, 2019.
Savage was born in Miami in the year 1919. As a young architect, his office was across the street from the Deltona Corporation and the Mackle Brothers, the developers of modern Marco Island. One day, Deltona’s Lead Architect Jim Vensel contacted Savage. Among other things, Vensel is known for naming all of the streets on Marco Island.
“He called me one day and asked if I’d come over,” Savage recalled. “He wanted to talk to me. They were developing Port Charlotte. He said, ‘We’re developing a shopping center there. We wondered if you would like to design it for us.’”
Vensel called again months later. This time with a new proposition.
“He said, ‘Herb, I’d like to talk to ya.’ He said to me, ‘Did you ever think about joining a group like ours? Because the Mackles are doing sixteen or seventeen communities in Florida and we’ve got quite a load on us being architects for them.’”
At the time, Savage had a building he had created in Miami, on the way to Coral Gables. He was partners in the building with another architect. After consulting with his wife Emily, he decided to turn the building over to his partner and accept the position with the Mackle Brothers.
“So, I went with the Mackles,” Savage said. “For 20 years I was so involved with all that.”
When he says, “all that,” Savage is referring to the modern development of Marco Island.
“I hate to think of it that I’m about the only one left from that group,” Savage mused while sitting behind his desk in 2016, nattily attired in a crisp dress shirt, suspenders and a tie. “Neil Bahr, the Mackles, Jimmy Vensel and all of them. I sent Virginia Mackle (Frank Mackle, Jr.’s widow) a birthday card recently. We opened the Marco Beach Hotel on her birthday. I remember it so well.”
That memory dates back to December 18, 1971, when the Marco Beach Hotel and Villas was opened. Frank Mackle, Jr., the President of Deltona Corporation, dedicated the hotel to his wife. The luxury hotel was considered the pinnacle of achievement for the Mackle Brothers and Deltona Corporation. Imagine the faith Mackle must have had in Savage to entrust the design of his crown jewel to him.
Savage considers his design of the Marco Beach Hotel one of his two proudest achievements. In fact, most of his proudest professional achievements came as Deltona’s number two architect, behind his close friend Vensel.
“My proudest achievements all happen to be Mackle influenced,” stated Savage. Interestingly, he mentioned one accomplishment before mentioning the famous hotel.
“That home I designed for the Mackles,” Savage recalled. “When the Mackles retired and pulled away from the company, I designed a home for them on the island. They wanted somewhere to live because they didn’t have the hotel anymore. Virginia said, ‘We still have a property of our own on the golf course on Marco Island.’ So, I designed that house for them. About a year later, I saw them and she said, ‘Herbert, I can’t believe you designed that to exactly what we wanted.’ I said, ‘Virginia, I’ve known you for 20 years. I know what you like and what you don’t like.’ It was amazing. That, to me, was a tremendous compliment. Those experiences I had with the Mackles were great.
“The other thing is that hotel there,” Savage said, motioning to a photograph on his office wall of the original Marco Beach Hotel and Villas. “Nowadays, they’re jamming in that building onto the property,” Savage remarked, referring to the changes being made to his original design. “It really upsets me, but it doesn’t matter. Everything else is getting full, too. That hotel was the greatest.”
A unique design element of the Marco Beach Hotel was its grand entrance. Savage credits Frank Mackle, Jr. for his inspiration.
“The main level was the second level, the second floor,” Savage said of the entrance to the Marco Beach Hotel. “When I designed that initially, I had the lobby on the ground floor. Frank Mackle said, ‘I’d rather have that elevated to the point that when a family arrives at the hotel, they drive up to the entrance level, that’s the second floor, and that’s the lobby of the hotel. And momma and the children can go over there and look down at the pool and the garden and the beach. Daddy’s back there having to pay for it all,” Savage said with a big laugh.
“That’s the reason why the lobby floor was elevated to the second level. Under the main level was like a basement. The elevation, Frank Mackle’s vision, I always thought that was fabulous. I’m so glad he had that vision. I raised the floor because Frank Mackle was so impressed to have the family going over and looking at things. Those were probably the two greatest things that I’ve experienced, the Mackle’s home and the Marco Beach Hotel. Everything I have enjoyed doing, I’ve had fun doing it.”
Savage first visited Marco Island as a youngster on a fishing trip with his father, a great outdoorsman. They came across the coast on the Tamiami Trail in 1931. The Trail was just 3 years old then.
“When I was 12, Rudy Erickson, a friend of my dad, and my dad decided they wanted to go fishing on the west coast. His son and I went with them. We came over to Marco Island, we went down to Caxambas Pass. The Tamiami Trail was brand new—the Collier family built that. It was that era. I caught a fish down here. I was told it was a catfish,” he said with a laugh. “A little fish. But, oh that experience.
“When we were going home back to Miami, Rudy was driving our car. Dad was in the front seat napping. All of a sudden, the car stopped. My dad woke up and he saw a man being charged by a snake. Whether it was moccasin or whatever it was, my dad had a pistol with him always in his car. He grabbed that pistol and he went out there and pow, he shot that snake. It was really something.
“I don’t remember anything about it except that we went fishing that day. But I do know that his son, my dad and I all had a real good time. My dad always went fishing in different places—on Key Biscayne, Biscayne Bay. We’d go out in a boat. My sister and myself, my dad and my mother would go out in the bay. He’d stop at one of those islands where they had a lot of those Australian Pines. We’d climb up those Australian Pines. They were great trees for children to climb on.”
Savage marveled at the natural wonders of Marco Island for the balance of his life.
“The whole life of Marco Island is such a natural area,” Savage said with pride. “It was quite impressive to me that a few years ago, Marco Island was the number one desired place to go in the country—and number four in the world, based on TripAdvisor. I couldn’t imagine that. Because Marco isn’t that big of an area; but the popularity is phenomenal.
“The Mackles, when we started building on Marco Island, Neil Bahr was our executive Vice President and was in charge of advertising and so forth. They advertised about Marco in Europe, as well as the United States. I say the beaches, the Gulf of Mexico and the location of Marco Island was the biggest attraction and the tropical atmosphere of Florida. I think about that.”
Some of Savage’s earliest assignments included designing model homes for Marco Island, based on the Mackle philosophy.
“When we opened, they had twenty-two models,” Savage recalled. “Twelve models over there by the present Yacht Club and ten models were near the police station. The twelve models near the Yacht Club were actually waterfront models. The ones by the police station were inland—not quite as elaborate as the ones on the water. They were all one-story buildings. They were pretty much the same theme. They all had a garage.”
Of course, there is one overriding element that defines a Mackle-built home on Marco Island. Frank Mackle insisted this element was carried out consistently throughout the product line.
“He had the same philosophy about all of our model homes,” Savage said. “No matter how small, he says, ‘I don’t want them to see the kitchen when they come in the front door. I want them to see through the living room, to the pool and lanai, the garden or the waterway. Not the kitchen.’ No matter how small the house was, our houses didn’t have the kitchen available through the front door. A Mackle home followed the theme that Frank told me about when you went through the front door—they had domestic help, for instance, in their homes. They didn’t want to see the kitchen for that reason. They wanted to be in the living area where people could enjoy their fellowship and the pool and so forth. That was the theme of all of our houses. I think that’s pretty much what I call a Mackle home.”
Savage held the Mackle brothers in high esteem. He appreciated their vision and how they cared about people.
“The Mackles were wonderful people,” Savage beamed. “They gave every church and synagogue their building site free. It was available to everyone. That’s what I loved about the Mackles. They were good people. Frank Mackle told me in the beginning about the model homes. He said, ‘I want homes for young couples, working couples, retirees and then anyone else who would like to have a home.’ He was interested in any young, working couple having an opportunity to have a home here on Marco Island. That’s the kind of people they were.”
It was Savage who came up with the theme for Marco Island—and he sold it to the Mackles. He saw the island as another Hawaii.
“When we started out in the beginning, I recommended to them the Polynesian theme. I was born in Miami; and the Mackles developed Key Biscayne in Miami. I said the palm trees and the atmosphere, it’s just like Hawaii. When I said that to the Mackle Brothers, they said, ‘Alright. How about you and Emily go to Hawaii and take some pictures and make a study of it?’
“I did that. And we were there a couple of weeks. And Emily was very upset with me because I wouldn’t take one day and sit on the beach,” he laughed. “I took pictures of a lot of things over there. Pretty much typical of what we have in Miami or here in the foliage area—the trees. When I got back to Miami, Robert Mackle—the middle brother—he said, ‘Herbert! Why didn’t you take color film with you?’ All I took was black and white. It didn’t show the beauty of the color. I wasn’t thinking that way in those days.”
During the early development days on the island—the mid-60s—air conditioning was not commonplace in homes. So Savage, whose grandfather and father were contractors in Miami, gave a lot of consideration to methods of diminishing the effects of the hot summer months on the island.
“We didn’t have air conditioning—or if we did, it was a different style of air conditioning,” he explained. “The source of the heaters was oil and we had storage tanks. That’s one of the things that I do remember specifically, that most homes did not have air conditioning. That was in 1965 when we opened it. It was just the beginning you might say, of thinking about air conditioning. My dad, in Miami, was a general contractor. My grandfather built some large homes in the Bayshore area of Miami. Everything I had thought about was what my dad said. The tropical breezes come from the southeast in Miami. So, all of our bedrooms were on the southeast area of the home and the garage was on the northwest corner of the home. And that was kind of a theme we had here, except when you have a model home, you can’t very well change the plan when they pick out a model. You can’t change that because of the exposure, north, south, east or west, you know. But that was a philosophy that people followed in those early on days before air conditioning.
“Houses were painted white. Everything was about reflecting heat in those days. I see some houses now; how dark they are. Not too many of them. Then you see some that are maybe too light. It’s really quite a study to make. It’s like what clothes you wear.”
The Mackles started developing Key Biscayne in the summer of 1950. It was their entry into city-building. Today, there are not many Mackle-built homes left on Key Biscayne, the island that has been home to such luminaries as former President Nixon and his confidante Bebe Rebozo, Cher and Brad Pitt. The remaining homes are simply known as “Mackles” among the locals.
Marco Island is certainly experiencing a similar evolution as our “Mackles” are being demolished in favor of what realtors like to call “starter castles.” However, there are still a good number of Mackle-built homes on Marco.
“Yes, quite a few,” Savage confirmed. “Of course, you see now so many that are building up big two–story houses. You’re taking away seeing the little houses. I drive along some of these roads and I’ll say, ’That’s a Mackle house,’” he said with an amused chuckle. “You can really make a study of something like that. Sometimes I think it’s hardly even worth mentioning. I do know that the Mackles were very, very conscious of the theme of architecture.
“It’s just like the Mackles wouldn’t encourage—generally—out of area builders. They developed the island; they were doing the building. Eventually, Michigan Homes got in. So, the Mackles accepted them. We wouldn’t allow red tile or brown tile roofs. They had to be wood shakes or white tile. We didn’t have a lot of air conditioning in those days. I’d say, ‘The white tile reflects heat.’ So everything had to be white tile or wood shakes—the wood shakes being a Hawaiian theme. Eventually, there were too many complaints by real estate people that people up north, when they came to buy here, they wanted the red tile, they wanted the brown tile.
“So, they finally gave up on that. What bothers me is we had deed restrictions. They had to follow our deed restrictions as far as how a house could be built. But when Congress passed the law that said we couldn’t finish all of our work, and the Mackles had to pull out and sell everything, we turned our deed restrictions over to the civic association. They didn’t have quite the same attitude that the Mackles had. Everything was changing.”
Deltona’s development of Marco Island came to a screeching halt when they were denied permits by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the summer of 1976. The effect on the Deltona Corporation was devastating.
Eventually, all of the Mackle Brothers were gone from the island, and only Savage remained.
“They were younger than I am,” Savage noted. “I was older than all three of them. Elliott Mackle was the oldest one.”
Savage never really retired. Although he downplays his productivity as he continued to show up in his office inside the building he designed, right next door to the South Collier 7-Eleven.
“I keep saying to myself, the one reason I’m still here is that we have a lot of laughter. I was told one time that you have to have eighteen laughs a day. I think laughter is a great thing in life. It releases endorphins in your system. So many people, they don’t keep going after 65. I think that’s one of the reasons why people die at 72. I look at the obituaries every day and I see what age the people die at. Very few people are in their 90s or even late 80s. I sometimes say to myself, ‘It’s too bad that I’m not younger so I could get involved in more things.’ I used to go to the city council meetings all the time. Right now I belong to the reserve officers association; I go to their monthly meetings. I belong to VFW; we have a monthly meeting. The American Institute of Architects, every month I go to their meeting. This morning was our breakfast meeting at IHOP in Naples. Yesterday was my Rotary Club meeting. People are just amazed that I keep active in those organizations. I guess I don’t know what causes me to do that.”
It was probably his decades of service to the island that made Savage such a beloved figure. A former Army Colonel, Savage stayed active with the VFW. He was famous for singing “God Bless America” on the island during patriotic holidays, at schools and even at local restaurants.
As his wife Emily—who is still going strong at 91—says, “He hit the floor running in the morning. Positive, positive. He would never accept negativity. He’d turn it around to create something positive of it. He was always direct, honest, moral and just wanted to be your friend. He was just always a real gentleman. They used to say a gentleman’s gentleman. Everything was done on a handshake. And he would stand by it. His dad and his granddad were the same way. They did business with a handshake. And Deltona did also.”
So many islanders miss the ebullient Savage. One can’t help by wonder how his dear Emily is handling the loss of her beloved husband of 68 years as she navigates her way through her 90s.
“I’ll tell you what,” Emily Savage said, “I have been so blessed by everybody. All of my friends. All of my family. I just can’t be sad. He’s in a better place.”