My recent story on the origins of Punta Gorda Isles and its impact on the local community drew many responses from readers who enjoyed the opportunity to find out more about the place they live in.
Any story about local history based on recollections attracts comments from other old timers who remember things differently. One such comment was from Wayne Goff, who knew without a doubt the structure labeled Burnt Store Golf and Racquet Club in a photo was really the original Isles Yacht Club building.
He should know. He built the golf clubhouse. He also built thousands of Punta PGI and BSI houses and many of its condos during his 14-year tenure as a PGI Inc. director and vice president of construction. Nobody knows more about PGI and BSI homes than he does.
That mislabeled photo turned out to be a fortuitous mistake. One thing missing from the story was information on the houses PGI Inc. built. For space reasons, the focus was on Al Johns and Bud Cole and their success in turning swampland into lots. Goff took over PGI Inc.’s newly formed building division in 1970; who better to talk about the houses thousands of city residents are still living in?
Getting into the construction businessGoff’s time at PGI Inc. was only one segment of an illustrious career in construction that began in the 1960s and is still going today as Goff Construction Inc. and Church Growth and Building Consultants.
His beginnings in his chosen field, however, were humble. To earn college money after graduating from Charlotte High School, he snagged a job for couple of years with the Mackle Brothers General Development Corporation, a huge home builder in Port Charlotte.
He said of his job there, “I was the assistant to the general manager, not the assistant general manager, and I did whatever he told me to do.”
Part of his job included running legal papers back and forth between John Hathaway, the company’s local lawyer, and its major attorney in Miami. That chore leads to an interesting side note pertinent to the early days of PGI Inc.
“I’ll tell you something nobody knows,” he said. “The first name of PGI was Point Charlotte. This (Punta Gorda Point) was a point overlooking Port Charlotte. Port Charlotte was a real hot spot at the time. GDC had model homes in train stations up north, even had one in Grand Central Station.
“People would come in on (U.S.) 17 and get to Punta Gorda and see a big sign pointing to Point Charlotte…They (Johns and Cole) eventually got sued.”
Back in those early days, the name wasn’t the company’s only link to Port Charlotte.
Goff said, “The first sales office was on the Charlotte Harbor side close to the Harbor Inn (but on the west side of U.S. 41), which they owned for a time. Al and Bud used to sleep in the sales office. The whole back of it was glass. Al would take them over to the windows and say, ‘There’s where your house is going to be, right over there.’”
Return to Punta GordaGoff left GDC to attend the University of Florida College of Design, Construction and Planning and after graduation had his pick of good jobs in the construction industry. He chose DuPont, supervised large construction projects in Virginia and Tennessee and loved the responsibility those jobs entailed.
While working in Tennessee, however, he began feeling the draw of home, family and friends back in Florida and applied for a job as construction manager of a big project in Orlando for a company that needs no introduction —Disney.
“I loved the company (DuPont) and the challenge of the work; we wanted to come back because we wanted our kids to come back,” he said.
When he went into the Disney office in Kissimmee to apply, he was handed a thick application packet numbered 1849.
“That meant I was the 1,849th person to apply for the job,” he said. “After 3 hours and getting just a third of the way through it, I turned it in and thanked the lady. Nobody was going to read all those applications. They already had them (primary applicants) picked out, and I knew it wasn’t me.”
Recruited by a masterWhile a CIA operative earlier in his working life, Johns learned skills to induce people to sign on with his side. Johns knew Goff was looking to return to Florida and targeted him to head up the company’s building division.
Johns arranged an “accidental” meeting in 1969 and pitched the job. Goff declined, believing no local construction project could challenge him professionally, and returned to Tennessee.
Goff said, “Later, Al sent me a plane ticket and told me to fly down and see my parents with no obligations. I flew down and sat with him. He simply shared his dream with me.”
That dream clinched the deal for the Charlotte County native. Goff said, “Al told me, ‘We’re swamp peddlers. We know how to sell land, but we need to build a community to sell more.’”
That meant houses, and Goff discovered the day he reported for duty in August 1970 that he was going to be a very busy builder.
Building houses for the bossAl Johns not only wanted a speedier construction process, something Goff was professionally well-equipped to deliver; he wanted quality, which also suited Goff to a T, and he didn’t over manage the process.
Goff said, “The one thing I appreciated about Al, he wasn’t the look-over-your-shoulder type. He set guidelines and wasn’t a micromanager. He didn’t want customer complaints; he wanted quality and didn’t want to lose money.
“I needed to build what they thought they could sell in the price range they wanted to sell in…At the time, it was first-class quality and state of the art, as good as anybody in Florida and the best in Charlotte County. “What I liked was he let me set the standard. I didn’t want my wife and kids and grandkids and family saying I did a poor job. In my life with PGI, I had to make sure the customers were satisfied. “You know what I did. I bought back their houses. Everybody knows it’s the major purchase of their life, and we had to treat them right from day 1.”
Unusual sales programLots in PGI back the 1970s were pre-determined as either land-only sales or both land and home. Lot sales were no problem, but PGI’s own deed restrictions prohibited commercial sales activity in a model home on a residential lot.
New home sales had to be located in a sales office on commercially zoned land, so models were staffed with hospitality people who could only show the houses to customers and then send them to the sales office to talk deal.
Goff said of the models, “We called them idea homes. The sales people in the sales office would turn the clients over to me (building division). I had four customer relations people who sat with the clients and walked them through the model for changes and an interior decorator. My job was to take care of the customer after they signed the contract.”
Johns had no trouble adopting sales techniques to these restrictions. He put potential home buyers up in the company-owned Harbor Inn in Charlotte Harbor and Howard Johnson on the Punta Gorda waterfront. He boated them to the sales office next to the Isles Yacht Club, plying them with the spectacular water views on the way there and orange juice after arrival. It was hard to say no.
Innovative designsThough a high percentage of homes in the Isles are based on models, they were not cookie-cutter tract houses, as a drive around the Isles today will make apparent.
There are at least two reasons for the nontract-home look of the older houses, beginning with the sheer number of models customers had to choose from over the years. The company at various locations built six different clusters of model/idea homes, four of them by Goff, each with five or six different houses. The other reason—the number of elevations available in each model.
Goff said, “The customer could build from scratch, but it was cheaper from the models. We always customized the exterior so they didn’t look alike.”
Some streets in the oldest part of PGI around Bal Harbor and West Marion are awash in the popular Bimini model, though many of the current owners likely don’t even realize they have the same house plan.
The Harbor model, illustrated in the company’s annual reports, came in Spanish, Mediterranean, English, alpine and contemporary American versions, their shared lineage not the least bit evident.
Goff said he was always pressing Johns, whose eye was on the bottom line, to go bigger and better with the house designs. Ahead-of-their-time open floor plans were offered, and Johns even gave Goff permission to shoot for the moon after seeing the drawing power of a small Japanese-style attraction house, called the House of Glass, the company built on West Marion near the sales office. Still standing today, it was innovative but not a game changer.
“I always wanted to go bigger and better and not sell down to the competition,” Goff said. “Let’s raise the bar. The Japanese house had become an attraction, and I told Al one day, ‘What if we build a bigger and better attraction.” What if we build something like that and sell it later to get our money back?’”
The new attraction house, which came to be known as the House of the Waterfall, was intended to show buyers that PGI Inc. wasn’t a builder of stereotyped prepackaged homes but a creator of idea homes.
It was built on Columbian Drive on two lots. Goff originally wanted to make it round, but round wouldn’t work on the oddly shaped lots of the Isles. He settled for a radial design, about one-quarter of a circle.
It was named for the 13-foot waterfall above the pool. It contained many innovations like a swim-up bar, arches, bubble windows, recessed niches, a dearth of square walls and open free-flowing spaces. It became, to say the least, a hit with homebuyers, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors.
Goff said, “It became the most visited house in America after it was built. It won the “Florida Builder” (magazine) house of the year award in 1977. People lined up to look at it.”
The house still stands on Columbian, and there are no others like it, thanks to Goff’s insistence that it was an attraction, a work of art, not a model to be copied. ”
The Goff legacyGoff’s legacy is visible throughout the Isles. By his guestimate, he built around 3,000 homes and condominiums here, most of them still standing. For those interested in the early PGI houses, the locations of the idea/model homes are a good place to start. The first group on Donna Court and the second on Norma Court were built prior to his arrival with the company.
His models, in order of construction, can be found on the east side of Bal Harbor south of Appian Drive, around Aqui Esta and Guadelupe Drive, and on Columbian Drive near Bal Harbor.
His last group of models, for BSI, were an oddity. The sales office, north of Madrid on U.S. 41, was built in three 12-foot sections and later moved and re-used in Prairie Creek and Burnt Store Marina. The models were just as mobile.
He said, “The BSI models were at the corner of Madrid and (U.S.) 41 toward the highway from where the Publix is on a commercial lot. I built them so they could be moved later. People are living in them now and probably don’t even know it.”
He cited some PGI streets – Sabal, Tropicana, Hibiscus, Medici, Via Cintia, Matarese, Montia and Via Dolce Vita – as locations where he built a large number of homes. Major PGI condominium complexes like Jamaica Way, Banyan Point, Colony Point, Gateway Point, and Islander Point are also on his resume.
Interesting tidbitsGoff has many unusual stories to tell about the Isles, one of the most interesting about the aforementioned clubhouse at the Burnt Store Golf and Racquet Club. Although he built the club’s first real clubhouse, it actually had a predecessor—the houseboat in which the free orange juice was served behind the sales office next to the Isles Yacht Club.
The club’s first nine holes were built before BSI’s first road, which went into the course off Burnt Store Road near Alligator Creek.
The houseboat was later moved to Colony Point and, after the addition of a second story, moved to Deep Creek, where the company built a large observation tower near it so buyers could see the lots there.
After the IslesGoff left PGI Inc. in 1984 as the company began a downward spiral caused by debt service on too much raw land and more stringent environmental restrictions. He reactivated his company and focused on condos and commercial construction such as businesses, banks and medical centers, as well as churches. After Hurricane Katrina, he had a big operation in the Bay St. Louis area of Mississippi, with five crews working for three years repairing condos and hotels.
With commercial construction slowed by the latest recession, he’s currently doing less building but has increased his consulting effort, especially for churches. He’s donated his own time and expertise to many of the churches and nonprofits he’s built.
Hanging in his office is a framed letter of thanks from the Visual Arts Center along with an honorific $10 bill as payment for his services. That’s why one of the VAC galleries is named the Goff Gallery.
He has no regrets about coming home and spending the bulk of his career with PGI Inc. or his role in building the Isles.
He speculates that without the construction of the Isles, the city would look much different today, saying, “I think we would have splinters of small developments that would match the Port Charlotte look.”
Goff still takes a lot of pride in the houses he built here. He recounted, “After I left PGI, I did a lot of wind-mitigation inspections. When I would walk into one of my houses, I’d say, ‘I don’t need to go into the attic; I know how it’s built.’”